College Professors Make A Mad Dash Online As Classes Go Virtual | WBEZ
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College Professors Make A Mad Dash Online As Classes Go Virtual

Professor Daniel Stanford has spent the past 14 years at DePaul University creating trainings and resources for faculty members, including a whole section about teaching remotely. When the university joined schools across the country this week in announcing it was shifting all classes online due to the new coronavirus, he and his colleagues were ready to help.

“I just did a webinar last night with around 40 faculty who wanted to learn the basics of video conferences,” Stanford said Friday. “Right now we’re just constantly creating new, little mini trainings or quick resources based on the questions we’re getting.”

Most universities in Illinois are extending spring break so faculty have more time to shift their courses online. All this week, Stanford and his team have held webinars so faculty are ready to continue their semesters from a distance.

A majority of colleges already use online learning systems for email, discussion boards or to upload assignments. But grading and assignments online are different than instruction. Stanford said many faculty are asking how to translate discussions that normally happen in the classroom into something that’s engaging online. Many faculty said they’re worried about the quality of courses suffering online.

The transition is especially tough for professors who still use a paper syllabus and rely on classroom discussions for grading.

“There’s some learning curve,” said Janet Smith, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There’s faculty who are trying to learn really quickly in the last few days how to use these tools.”

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is shifting about 5,000 courses online. Faculty can choose a variety of teaching styles from assigning extra written assignments to setting up live video conferences.

“Some faculty will continue to teach in the classroom but the classroom will be empty [and] … there will be video camera recording the lecture that we'll put online,” said Kevin Pitts, vice provost at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One popular video conference program is called Zoom. Faculty said it’s easy to use and is the best way to replicate the in-person classroom experience. But it requires all students get on a computer at the same time. Some faculty members are concerned about low-income students who don’t have access to a computer or internet at home.

“My college was polling students quickly like, ‘Who needs a laptop?’ and [students] were like, ‘What about internet?’” she said. They realized they didn’t know who didn’t have an internet connection.

All University of Illinois campuses will remain open so students can access the library and computer labs. But that could require traveling on public transit to get to campus and further expose students to the virus. Pitts at the University of Illinois said administrators are still figuring out how to handle that for different students.

“We’re looking at ways to ensure [students who can’t access the internet] can get material and it’s not required for them to do real time live video content,” Pitts said. “We know [access] will be uneven at the very best.”

Plus, there are some classes that are much more difficult to teach online, like science labs or performing arts classes. Faculty and administrators say they might utilize video to share dance or studio art assignments. In a science lab, professors might share data from previously completed experiments that students can analyze even if they did not conduct the experiment themselves.

Stanford at DePaul says at the end of the day, professors shouldn’t be too hard on themselves as they grapple with this tough transition:

“This is hopefully an opportunity to not let perfect be the enemy of good, to let everyone view this as a learning opportunity and be honest with students that we’re all learning,” he said.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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