“Trying to make lemonade out of lemons”: UMD professors prepare to move classes online

Classes at this university started taking place online on March 30, many through Zoom. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

For a year, University of Maryland kinesiology professor Shannon Jette worked to redesign a class on the history of sports in the U.S., getting a pilot version of the class up and running in time for the spring semester.

Despite months of preparation, she still anticipated hitting some bumps in the road; that’s to be expected when teaching a course for the first time, she said.

But toward the end of February, she got her first hint that things might get more complicated when the public health school asked its faculty to draw up teaching plans in case classes needed to be moved online in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Oh, no, that’s not going to happen,” Jette remembered thinking.

But it did. Earlier this month, this university announced classes would be held online until at least April 10, later amending the timeline to stretch for the rest of the spring semester. In the meantime, Jette and other faculty say they’ve been racing to adapt their courses for an online environment before classes resume Monday.

Stephen Roth, an associate dean for the public health school, said he’s been impressed by the speed at which the campus has responded to the outbreak.

The university made the Zoom video conferencing program available sooner than expected, Roth said, and compiled resources to help faculty in the transition process. Two websites — “keepteaching.umd.edu” and “keepworking.umd.edu” — list a variety of “low-tech” and “high-tech” tips for moving course components online and working remotely.

[Read more: Coronavirus updates: The Diamondback’s ongoing coverage]

And despite the difficulties, some faculty say they’ve been adapting.

Nam Sun Wang, a professor in the engineering school, wrote in an email that Monday will be his first time teaching in a “virtual classroom.” However, he listed a number of steps he said he’s taken to ensure that his class will run smoothly, including hosting office hours on Zoom.

Wang indicated his class — which involves team projects where students design chemical processing equipment — will be able to use this software for many things that were previously done in person, such as team presentations.

“I am keeping my [fingers] crossed,” Wang wrote.

Another faculty member, Jo Zimmerman, has faced the challenge of adapting courses for the internet that aren’t exactly suited for an online environment. She’s the director of physical activity at the public health school, which has had to create online courses for activities such as karate, bowling and swimming.

“Swimming online. Really? That’s been sort of a running joke,” Zimmerman said.

That conundrum has demanded creative solutions, radical changes and a little flexibility as to what constitutes a swimming course.

Zimmerman said the course’s transition will mean a little less focus on the physical and a bit more on the theoretical. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that without a swimming pool, students can’t exactly be expected to swim.

Instead, Zimmerman said the actual ‘swimming’ part of the class would be substituted with videos featuring proper swimming technique or analysis of historical events, such as the Olympics. Professors will adapt the cardio part of the class for students to be able to work out even if they lack proper equipment at home. A similar change will apply to other physical education courses, such as golf or bowling.

“We’re committed to being able to keep people active,” she said. “We want them to get the physical benefits, we want them to have the mental benefits. We need some stress reduction right now.”

[Read more: UMD made the semester pass-fail. The SGA wants the only options to be A and A minus.]

As the semester rolls along, Roth said faculty expectations of students must evolve alongside their classes. Some students have multiple roommates sharing the same space and the same internet. Others have children running around. Access to technology also varies throughout the student body.

“You’ve got students who are trying to learn in this uncomfortable, challenging space,” he said. “The idea that they are going to be able to successfully complete all of their coursework and learn at the same level that they would have before spring break is a misconception.”

And faculty are facing many of the same challenges their students are — they possess varying levels of tech-savviness, and have their own circumstances to work around.

For the last two weeks, Jette has gotten up hours before her child does to prepare lecture materials ahead of class on Monday and learn how to use presentation software like Panapto. She didn’t really take a spring break, she said. Instead, it’s been a lot of missed sleep and a lot of coffee while figuring out how to teach fully online for the first time.

Many of her colleagues have also been burning the candle on both ends, she said — an intense pattern of work that, at least for her, isn’t sustainable.

“I think this pressure, a lot of it comes from me wanting to not let the students down,” she said. “We really pride ourselves in what we do.”

Apart from efforts to understand unfamiliar software and adjust lesson plans, several faculty members expressed disappointment that they won’t get to interact with students in person for the rest of the semester.

Sandra Quinn, a professor and chair of the family science department, said her relationships with students — graduate students in particular — sometimes become career-long friendships. She is still in touch with students she had 20 years ago, following along as they’ve had babies and developed professionally.

One graduate student Quinn advises recently defended her dissertation remotely, over Zoom. It went fine, Quinn said, but normally there’d be more.

“We would have had hugs, we would have had photos, we would have had tears, we would have had her family there,” she said. “That was missing.”

Zimmerman’s office is located near the offices of several academic advisers. There’s often a “baseline level of chaos” in her part of the hallway, she said, with students gathered, buzzing with questions about their career and academic trajectories.

“Energy,” Zimmerman said. For the rest of spring, that, too, will be missing.

“We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons, man,” she said.

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