Teaching during pandemic is hard, but they remain hopeful, profs say

Posted October 7, 2020

Professors at UW-River Falls had to make many adjustments to their classes in order to prepare for fall semester.

In a typical semester, the majority of classes are offered in a face-to-face format. This fall, due to the coronavirus pandemic, all faculty were making decisions to either go completely online, have a hybrid class, or to remain face to face while meeting new guidelines about social distancing and mask wearing.

UWRF did have a shelter-in-place order in place for two weeks in September, forcing almost all courses temporarily online, but classes resumed in various formats in October.

Horticulture Professor David Zlesak started the semester teaching his classes in a variety of formats. Just in case the university has to move all online, Zlesak said he began recording videos of the 140 different plants his woody landscapes class would need to be able to identify by the end of the semester. He said if nothing else it will be a good study tool to offer his students.

“It is more time and effort because as I think about each class and all the different experiences that are critical for a class, I want to preserve as much as possible to preserve that value,” Zlesak said. “During a normal year I’d be focused on elaborating more or getting more examples, now I’m just trying to recreate the core curriculum in a different format.”

Greta Gaard is a professor of English. She said her summer was dedicated to getting her four classes for this fall up to speed and all online.

“In one of those classes I am one week ahead of my students in online design. The other one I think I’ve designed up to week five,” said Gaard.

Gaard utilized TED Talks and is constantly searching for content to keep the courses fresh for her students. She is also doing day-to-day maintenance on each class.

“Right now I’m online about 13 hours every day,” said Gaard.

According to Gaard, one of the features of online course design is understanding social and emotional learning.

“There’s no learning without emotional connections and so what I need to do in my classes is recreate the kind of connections that we have in a live class, which is small group work and discussions,” said Gaard.

Gaard utilized class blogging, reading group discussions and peer review sessions to engage students. She has them take a photo or record their sessions so she is able to check in with students.

Samuel Alvarado is an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry. This fall he is teaching in a hybrid format.

Alvarado started preparing in March for this fall semester. He said, “I was sitting down at my kitchen table narrating over PowerPoint slides from the start of July on. That’s very early for me, I haven’t done that since I started (teaching).”

Kathy Welch, a visiting assistant professor with the Stage and Screen Arts Department, said she has had a particularly difficult time this semester. She is teaching a dance appreciation class, theater history, and an acting class. For the acting class, Welch said, “You need to use your facial expressions as well as your voice and I can’t see their faces very well and they can’t see mine very well.”

A large part of Welch’s summer was spent learning new online techniques and reaching out to other theater educators to collaborate on ideas. She said she is prepared to transition to all online, though it will be very time consuming.

Welch said that during the first few weeks, the class met in a larger-than-normal room. This helped teach students to project their voices, with another obstacle being speaking through a mask.

Leanne Van Allen, director of the graduate program for the College of Business and Economics (CBE), is co-teaching an online class this fall with Communication Specialist Rebecca Prendergast and Professor of Economics Logan Kelly.

The three faculty agreed the first weeks have gone well, though Kelly noted it is not a replacement for being in the same room. Kelly said the amount of planning and time commitment that went into this class was about four times greater than a normal semester.

“There’s a little bit of flying by the seat of your pants that you can get away with, especially if you’re like me and have been teaching for 20 years, when it’s face to face,” Kelly said. “When you start talking about putting it online, all of a sudden you have to craft on the order of writing a new textbook.”

Van Allen said a large number of the students in their course are freshman or transfer students. She said that for many students, finishing out their high school experience online was not ideal.

“Now they’re transitioning into a college environment after not loving finishing their high school education, so we want them to love this and get them in touch with departments across campus so they can feel that connection,” said Van Allen.

Kelly said he and many instructors use a calendar app to allow students to easily set up a meeting on Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform. Though there are new ways to connect emerging in the online format, Kelly said, “It feels very much like you’ve got one hand tied behind your back sometimes. I feel disconnected, and that’s my biggest concern. I don’t know if the students feel it as much as I do, but I know I do.”

Prendergast said that these experiences can be utilized to benefit students down the road, since they will now be familiar with video conference tools of all kinds.

“It’s not the semester we imagined, but I think that it is an opportunity to look at what we can pull from it and the good things that do come from it, and how resilient our students are,” said Prendergast.

Faculty are moving forward with various formats of classes despite uncertainties. According to Zlesak, “Education (and) teaching is my passion, and helping support students is my goal. I have a lot of patience and I’m willing to ride this out. I’m not giving up.”