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Transforming the Classroom in Response to the Covid-19 Emergency

 

Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning
A National Symposium
November 19-20, 2020
Virtual National Symposium 2020

 

Jeff Gaab, Farmingdale State College
Richard Vogel, Farmingdale State College

Abstract

Similar to other colleges and universities across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Farmingdale State College (FSC) to close its campus and turn all of its course offerings to some type of distance or online learning in March of 2020. Professors and support staff had two weeks in which to convert courses designed to be taught in the traditional classroom or lab to a different format and provide students a way to finish out their spring semester classes. Both the Distance Learning (DL) and Information Technology (IT) offices and staff on campus ramped up training, which enabled faculty unfamiliar with the learning management system (Blackboard) and various communications platforms (Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Blackboard Ultra Collaborate). Overall, the college was successful in providing its students with meaningful classroom experiences for the spring semester. Training and support structures instituted by both DL and IT departments also paved the way for the college to continue to offer courses in multiple distance and traditional modalities for the 2020-21 academic year.

Introduction

On March 12, 2020, Farmingdale State College shut down all face-to-face classes. Faculty members were asked to transition their courses to an online or remote environment. With the exception of two days in which they were given limited access to their offices to pick up any items that they might need to finish teaching their classes through the semester, no faculty were allowed to return to campus for the rest of the spring semester. Over a two-week period, campus information technology (IT) and distance learning (DL) staff ramped up training and instructional support to assist faculty members to teach in an altered mode of instruction, and departments were asked to submit their spring semester instructional modality teaching plans to the provost’s office.

In this study, we examine two cases. The first case is the history, politics, and geography (HPG) department with approximately 100 course sections offered during the spring semester. As the crisis intensified in early March 2020, teaching faculty were informed of the possibility that all teaching might have to be conducted online after spring break and were requested to submit a brief written plan to their department chairs and deans detailing how they would transition to online or remote learning in the event it became necessary. Within a few days of the campus shutdown, the State University of New York (SUNY) chancellor ordered all instruction at SUNY campuses to be continued remotely. Out of roughly 100 sections offered in HPG, 58 sections (57.4%), which were either hybrid or traditional face-to-face offerings, were converted to online or remote delivery to meet the new challenges. The transition affected 87 percent of all HPG teaching faculty.

The second case that we examine is the School of Business, with 6 departments and over 165 full- and part-time faculty members teaching and over 486 course sections. As was the case with the HPG department, the vast number of sections offered in the spring were converted into remote synchronous courses in which the instructor met the class online during the regularly scheduled course time using one of three college-licensed tools: Blackboard Collaborate, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams. These tools did not necessarily meet every faculty members’ needs, and some faculty members used other meeting platforms such as Zoom or Webex, which were not supported by either campus IT or DL. Early anecdotal information suggests that there were a significant number of students, up to 15 percent in some classes, that did not return to class following the transition to some type of distance mode of instruction.

With the prospect of a continuation of the pandemic for an indeterminate period, a study examining the academic response seems timely. This presentation focuses upon three areas: 1) the various ways in which faculty from departments in the School of Business and School of Arts and Sciences responded to the emergency and transitioned; 2) what impact this may have on the college going forward; and 3) the implications for introducing new teaching modalities in the future.

Case study: The history, politics, and geography department

The history, politics, and geography department (and the campus as a whole) immediately responded in three phases. In phase one, we determined the number of sections that needed to be converted to online delivery. In phase two, we tallied how many faculty members needed training to deliver course content remotely, and which faculty were already qualified in distance learning. Then, in phase three, we found out whether students were capable of online learning: did students (and faculty) have the technology, software, or other technical assistance needed to complete their courses online?

The approach taken at Farmingdale State College corresponds to the actions that other colleges and universities adopted, but we did not know that at the time. In phase one, all courses that met in person, both the traditional face-to-face and hybrid courses, had to now be converted to an all-online delivery format. In HPG, 102 sections needed to be adjusted. While most Farmingdale instructors had some experience with online course management, not all were capable of delivering all aspects of content online. For the spring semester at least, Farmingdale had to adopt a series of stop-gap measures to ensure seamless remote course delivery, while also guaranteeing students could successfully complete the semester without interruption (Burke, 2020). In the middle of the pandemic, Bloomberg News reported that “70% of America’s 1.5 million faculty members” had never taught classes online before COVID-19 (Ismail, 2020).

When all state operated campuses transitioned to remote instruction, we entered phase two, discovering that in our single department fifty-four instructors needed some form of training or accommodation to convert their classes to remote delivery. Our distance learning department began training sessions on the Blackboard learning platform almost around the clock to train as many teaching faculty as possible with a basic knowledge of the system for posting course information and communication with students. The information technology staff began canvassing faculty and students to determine their technology needs. Our campus was not unique: on campuses across the United States, distance learning offices depended heavily on campus IT departments to adopt course delivery software and, in some cases, purchase “packaged software platforms” to facilitate instruction while preparing both faculty and students for online instruction (Ismail, 2020). Fortunately, the following week (16 – 22 March) was spring break, affording more time for faculty, staff, and students to prepare the transition.

In phase three, the college had to ensure that students were ready and prepared for the transition to online learning. Some students did not have computers at home, others had no wireless access. At Farmingdale, the IT department distributed both Chromebooks and Laptops (MACS and PCs) for students and faculty in need of the technology. For example, for fall, the college distributed 152 Laptops and 56 Chromebooks. Farmingdale State College added more hot-spots for wireless access both indoors and outdoors across campus. The campus added outdoor green zones that included wireless internet access in the parking lots and open plazas surrounding campus. Farmingdale also added indoor green zones that included wireless internet access in most indoor areas where access was not already available, such as lecture halls, student lounges, and dorm areas. The college also implemented other solutions, such as VDI, or virtual desktop infrastructure. This allowed students and faculty to access remotely programs and software previously only available on campus.

The transition to remote instruction required tremendous work from students, faculty and staff. Sometimes, learning all of the different delivery platforms (Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, Google Meet, and Google Classroom) intimidated both students and faculty. For the fall semester, Farmingdale required all faculty and students to use one form of remote delivery platform, Blackboard Learn. Both faculty and students were thrust into “uncharted territory” in a very short time (Ebrahimji, 2020). Farmingdale State College campus and the history, politics, and geography department were able to continue instruction through the pandemic emergency with minimal student disruption.

Case study: The School of Business

In the School of Business, some instructors were not familiar with the college’s learning management system (LMS) Blackboard, or even if they were, used it only occasionally. Faculty members were asked to develop a plan to deliver their classes in some type of distance format. For the least technologically sophisticated faculty members this may have been as simple as conducting class almost exclusively by email, with the instructor sending assignments and written class lectures, and students submitting completed assignments by email. Instructors who were already using the LMS as part of their face-to-face courses, however, may have ramped up their usage to include a greater range of the LMS’s capabilities.

The distance learning department, working in close collaboration with the provost’s office, offered introductory training sessions for Blackboard to bring faculty members, especially those unfamiliar with the LMS, up to a minimum level of competence. These sessions included instruction on logging into the LMS, uploading documents and course materials, setting up exams and assignment drop boxes, and using various Blackboard tools such as Collaborate. Following the spring semester, and during the planning period for fall, the campus moved to require all faculty to use Blackboard for all of their classes (whether remote or held on-campus), and all faculty who were teaching had to undergo a 90-minute introductory Blackboard training class. This was done to ensure that there would be some type of uniformity to the interaction with students as far as the communication of grades, course communications, and the distribution of course materials such as the syllabus, lecture notes, and the collection of class assignments.

While the majority of instructors, over 90 percent, in the School of Business opted to use the LMS and the tools embedded in that system as one of their primary vehicles for instruction, some instructors used alternate methods, including YouTube and email, textbook publisher-based systems, and Skype. Within some individual departments, there soon emerged what may be termed online/remote specialists, or in the larger departments working groups of faculty that offered advice and assistance to other faculty members on using some of the various tools in Blackboard, LinkedIn Learning, YouTube, and other online resources. School chair meetings and department meetings that had typically been held once every two to four weeks increased in frequency and were held using virtual meeting technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and others. In addition, some vendors of virtual meeting tools made them temporarily available for use without cost, and some faculty members and departments took advantage of that to try them out.

Going remote kept students on track (at least the students that chose to continue) towards degree completion. The sudden shift to distance education represented a complete change in the way in which most students and faculty had chosen to take or deliver their college classes. The provost’s office instituted a pass-fail option for students to soften the blow that would potentially arise from the rapidity in which courses moved from the traditional classroom to a distance format. Although it was not a blanket pass-fail option, as some courses were excluded (based upon individual department decisions), and it only lasted until the end of the spring semester, it provided students with some flexibility and a safety net that would prevent the switch in teaching modalities from impacting their individual GPA or progression towards degree completion.

The transition to online/remote teaching: Farmingdale is not alone

A survey conducted by AACSB (2020), the leading business accrediting body, of member institutions during the spring of 2020, found that 94 percent of respondents had moved at least 75 percent of their instruction online during the spring of 2020. Additionally, they reported that 80 percent of responding institutions had moved all instruction online. More broadly, the spring saw almost all colleges and universities in the US rapidly switch to some type of remote learning.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2020), 60 percent of faculty respondents (935 total) from a national survey found that that their online courses were worse than their regular classroom-taught courses. In addition, 37 percent of respondents felt that they had encountered significant technical obstacles delivering their courses during the spring semester.

Lessons learned

The pandemic’s impact is ongoing. At most about one third of Farmingdale students (approximately 3300) are meeting for class on campus, primarily for courses in engineering technology, science labs, and health science related clinical and laboratory experiences. Most courses being offered for the time being are either online asynchronous or some form of remote synchronous class. DL maintains a full schedule of training options to assist faculty members, and the college has adopted a system to match faculty with faculty mentors—faculty members who are highly skilled with the LMS and can serve as a resource for assistance.

The college now requires that all instructors use the LMS (Blackboard) for all courses regardless of the teaching modality (traditional classroom, online, or remote synchronous). While the college is planning on a return to normal operations in the fall of 2021, departments and instructors are being asked to have a backup modality/plan should the need arise to return to pandemic style off-campus teaching only. The main difference now is that all faculty members have the requisite skills, as well as access to greater support, to utilize the LMS and teach effectively in one or more types of online format.


 

References

AACSB Business Education Intelligence. (2020, April 10). B-schools together in the pandemic – Differently. AACSB International. https://aacsb.edu/blog/2020/april/b-schools-in-the-pandemic-differently

Burke, Laila. (2020, March 9). Colleges move classes online as coronavirus infects more. Inside Higher Ed.https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/09/colleges-move-classes-online-coronavirus-infects-more

Chronicle of Higher Education. (2020, August 21). Did the scramble to remote learning work? The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac 2020-21.

Ebrahimji, Alisha. (2020, March 24). Students navigate uncharted territory as pandemic forces education online. CNN Online.https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/16/us/online-school-coronavirus-trnd/index.html

Friedman, Jordan. (2020, May 4). Tackle challenges of online classes due to Covid-19. U.S. News and World Reports.https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-to-overcome-challenges-of-online-classes-due-to-coronavirus

Hechinger, John and Janet Lorin. (2020, March 19). Coronavirus forces $600 billion higher education industry online. Bloomberg Businessweek. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-19/colleges-are-going-online-because-of-the-coronavirus

Ismail, Kaya. (2020, April 15). How universities are handling the shift to distance learning. CMS Wire.  https://www.cmswire.com/digital-experience/how-universities-are-handling-the-shift-to-distance-learning/