At the beginning of the spring semester, no one at SC&I could have anticipated this pandemic. Faculty members and part-time lecturers planned the semester as they always have: intending to teach, mentor, and communicate with their students in person. However, COVID-19 upended their plans in completely unexpected and new ways, and this has meant instructors have needed to make exceptional changes to adapt.
The switch to remote learning has meant the faculty have needed to learn new ways to use technology to teach with online tools such as Zoom, Webex, and Blackboard Collaborate. In addition, the fear and anxiety the students are feeling, and the illness and grief many are experiencing because of COVID-19, have lead the faculty to develop new ways to support and mentor their students during this frightening time.
SC&I spoke with its faculty about how they have adjusted their teaching and communications to adapt to this new virtual world.
The paradox of the enforced social distancing created by the pandemic is that it has created the need, and opportunity, for my students and I to have closer contacts and connections. In some ways this is not paradoxical -- throughout the country families are Zooming with distant friends and relations they have not seen in person for a long time. But for me the shift also has to do with how I often teach: most of my classes were online already and were asynchronous. That format allowed students from as far as Paris and Abu Dhabi to work with me and classmates from Maine to the state of Washington. Since we never met at the same time, students could post thoughts, share ideas, and turn in work throughout each week.
The pandemic made me and my students feel a need for greater connection. In my International Youth Literature class a guest teacher in Evanston, Illinois held a Zoom session almost every student could make (and was recorded for those who couldn't). For the first time we all saw one another's faces as Dr. Yokota took Japanese children's books off of her own shelves, translating text and sharing art for nearly two hours. Inspired by that class I invited my Reading and Literacy for Children class to meet in a Zoom session, and half of the class came. I learned about their struggles, and was so moved as they told me about their roles in "trauma libraries" -- libraries that must now serve every kind of need, digitally. Some of my students are dealing with illness -- their own, and in their immediate families. Some have been furloughed or lost their jobs. It is a really hard time. But we are all finding that reading together, meeting together -- whether in our asynchronous discussions or Zoom gatherings -- is sustaining. That's the best outcome of a terrible moment.
I teach two courses this semester: a large lecture course (Introduction to Communication and Information, enrolling approximately 200 students), and an upper division course (Nonverbal Communication, with 35 students, mostly graduating seniors). In response to the pandemic, both courses were moved to remote, primarily asynchronous, instruction.
My classes have always relied on discussion, hands-on activities, and active student participation, and it has been quite a challenge to create opportunities for student engagement in an asynchronous class. To that end, I have been holding virtual office hours along with the TAs, having ‘live’ Q-A discussion sessions, and creating instructional and assessment materials that encourage students to keep up with the course and to apply what they are learning to the current situation. Luckily, my daughter (who is a Rutgers student) agreed to play the role of a student in my introductory course, and we have been recording the lectures together in what, I hope, is a more engaging conversational format that simulates a live class.
Beyond delivering instruction, all of us (the faculty) have been involved in supporting the many students in our classes who have been seriously impacted by the pandemic and have been struggling with remote instruction. Often students email, come to office hours, and to live discussions to seek help for and share their anxieties about the situation and their futures or just to say hello.
I teach a large lecture class with over 300 students and a small seminar course of juniors and seniors. For me, the most challenging thing has been the obstacles to consistently communicate with students on a weekly basis, now that we don't meet in face-to-face lectures. First, the push was to move all coursework online. It was very difficult to learn new systems for recording and posting lectures, establishing discussion threads, and rearranging course assessments. Then, the effort was to ensure that students understood what was expected of them in the new learning environment.
Throughout the time of remote learning I and my TAs have reached out to students to ensure that they have the support they need and to get their feedback in terms of how things are going with the course material. We've learned that many of our students are dealing with a lot -- some are stressed by the lack of consistent WiFi, some have family members who have become sick or died from COVID-19, and many are disoriented by the new way they have to learn the material.
As faculty, I do my best to remain consistent in my expectations while also flexible in meeting students where they are. For example, my lectures are not synchronous, and my deadlines are not hard and fast. But with so many students, it can be a challenge to know exactly what every student needs. My hope is that students know that we are doing our best, and we trust that students are doing their best, too.
Most of my teaching has been turned upside down. The hardest course for me to to teach now is Television Reporting. When we’re on campus, the class uses cameras and most of the time students use the school’s computers for editing. Prior to the pandemic, I was able to meet with the class twice a week to discuss how their projects are progressing and instruct them in person on ways to interview people. I was able to quiz, consult, and advise students on the best ways to approach subjects and how to develop them.
Now that we’re teaching completely online, for one, my students don’t have access to the equipment. They can’t complete the projects in the same way. I knew that going into this, so I changed a few of the assignments. Second, I feel part of the process of trying to learn how to be a journalist is for students to have interaction with people who have done it before and can help them develop the best approaches to their articles. What I have found is that the students in these classes are not as in touch with what is going on in terms of what they are covering and what they should be covering in terms of their story lines.
One of the biggest problems that we, as educators, are facing is not knowing what level of technology our students have. Being at Rutgers levels the playing field technologically, especially at SC&I. SC&I is well known at campus for having one of the best technology support systems at the university. However what I’m discovering is that some students don’t get in touch with me for two or three days because other people in their homes are using their technology or broadband system. This also applies to faculty and staff.
The solidity of being on campus helps keep everyone grounded and in touch. What I have done to make up for that loss is have my classes meet synchronously at least once a week. Students are not required to come, but it gives them some sort of footing at the university and it gives me a chance to check up on them. I’ve had a number of cases where students are having a lot of problems with not being on campus and not knowing what’s going on. There is a lot of fear out there and this provides them an outlet for discussion. I see student faces light up when they see their classmates after a week. We all miss that interaction.
I am also a Director of Undergraduate studies in addition to teaching, so I also do a lot of advising. I let my students know that anytime they want to talk to me, I will set aside time. It is currently week five of remote learning and I don’t think I’ve had fewer than 75-100 Zoom calls with students individually.
Our seniors seem more distressed than ever that graduation and senior week have been cancelled, and they are worried about applying for jobs. More and more people are filing for unemployment, businesses are closing, and there are hiring freezes. I keep telling all the seniors two words: tenacity and patience. Be tenacious and keep applying. Have patience in knowing that hiring managers are not going to get back to you for a while because no one is in the office.
The SC&I technology staff has been amazing. We would not have been able to transition as easily from face-to-face instruction to online without them. It's not just what Assistant Dean for Information Technology Jon Oliver and his staff have accomplished, but also what Assistant Dean for Instructional Support and Assessment Sharon Stoerger, Instructional Design and Technology Specialist Veronica Armour, and Instructional Design and Technology Specialist Erica Lucci have done in terms of helping faculty transition their courses.
The faculty members and staff at SC&I are continuing to teach and interact with our students at the highest level to ensure they get the education they so richly deserve.
Part-Time Lecturer, "Writing For Media" and Grammy Award-winning Producer
The classroom will always be our chapel of learning; to paraphrase Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, there's nothing like the real thing. But the students seemed to realize, almost intuitively, the magnitude of this moment, that the health crisis was cataclysmic and that we could lean on each other through distance learning.
Initially, everyone seemed so isolated, uncertain, fearful, vulnerable. They were feeling just like me. But we've become more accepting -- of ourselves, of the situation. Some of the students have parents who are essential workers, and they've written and shared about the stresses and the dangers their loved one are experiencing. It's humbling to hear for those of us who are sheltered and safe. So we're blessed to have each other.
The process has been perfectly imperfect. But I've begun to appreciate each student in a new way. As strange and challenging and heartbreaking and unfathomable as this crisis has been, this semester may also be my most gratifying and satisfying yet.
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