Every week last semester, Jennifer Stueckle and her class of immunology students gathered just before noon for "Coronavirus Wednesday," a weekly informal discussion on the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My immunology kids had literally the best class I’ve ever taught,” said Stueckle, a WVU biology professor. “We had a case study unfold in front of us. It was brilliant.”
While Stueckle and her students had a once-in-a-generation semester, her class was an outlier as many students and faculty at WVU struggled with the shift to emergency remote learning in March.
With varying amounts of online education experience, professors only had a couple of weeks to transition courses online. While keeping up with their classes, many students moved back home, took on additional family responsibilities and suffered unexpected financial hardships.
Overshadowing every virtual biology lab or online economics lecture was the coronavirus sweeping the world and disrupting every facet of society. However, together, students and faculty made it through the messy semester and breathed a sigh of relief after finals.
In May, faculty knew fall classes were quickly approaching and would include some level of remote instruction. The spring semester’s emergency remote learning had soured some students to the entire concept of online education. Faculty had four months, not two weeks, to plan how they would show students the broad possibilities of online learning.
Stueckle is the course director for two dozen biology labs. In the spring, she adapted the existing curriculum into prerecorded video lessons.
“It worked, it was fine,” Stueckle said. “But they didn’t really get any manipulations or that ability to make mistakes and screw up experiments which is really important in labs.”
Her classes this semester will look very different as students will use a virtual lab platform in conjunction with short video lessons to take measurements on a patient at a doctor’s office, grow glowing bacteria, and extract DNA from a strawberry.
Stueckle started using this virtual lab platform for a summer biology course and said she’s gotten good feedback. Students appreciate that they’re responsible for only their own work, not the work of a group, and that there’s more one-on-one instruction time. She said she thinks students will be surprised by how much they can learn in a virtual lab environment.
“Like as you’re in a normal laboratory, you have to sit, you have to think, you have to do precise measurements, you have to plan ahead,” Stueckle said. “It’s the exact same thing on this computer, you can’t skip, you can’t just exit something.”
The WVU Teaching and Learning Commons has been instrumental in helping faculty prepare for the fall semester. The TLC has supported faculty in a number of ways, including the 8-module Fall Hybrid-Teaching Institute over the summer, several smaller institutes in the weeks leading up to the fall semester and individualized help from instructional designers.
“We’ve had really good tools from Teaching and Learning Commons,” said engineering professor Todd Hamrick. “They have just been absolutely outstanding...a herculean effort,”
Hamrick has some previous experience teaching online and said there are many benefits to online education, but it can be hard to get students engaged. He attended the Fall Hybrid Teaching Institute and will be using a variety of short videos, small groups and discussion boards in his classes.
Professor William Beasley, coordinator for the Instructional Design and Technology Program, a master’s degree program focused on designing online courses, said a good online course leads students to engage with the content, their instructor and their fellow students.
He said that while improvising online classes was necessary for faculty in March, students should see an improvement in fall online classes.
“This online instruction should be significantly different from emergency remote delivery,” Beasley said. “If [students] will give it a fair shot, I think the odds are good they will have a more positive experience.”
Beasley said students with good time management skills and a willingness to engage are more successful and play a major role in the success of a class, remote or in-person.
Kristina Hash, social work professor, said she focused on showing empathy and helping students stay engaged in the spring semester. The fundamentals of her teaching haven’t changed, the format is just different.
“Good teaching is good teaching,” Hash said. “If the content is good...it doesn’t matter much how it’s delivered.”
She said she thinks the fall semester will go smoother because faculty and students will know how to navigate online tools, but it will still be important to keep up morale in the fall.
“We know we have to be remote and that kind of stuff,” Hash said. “But we’ve all reached this point of fatigue where we want everything to be back to normal again.”
Stueckle said she was initially hesitant at the challenge to move 26 biology labs online. However, after she dug into the virtual tools and videos, including a Minnesotan that taught cellular respiration by growing beets in a chamber powered by a stationary bicycle, she was excited for what online course delivery could become.
“In the future, if we need to accommodate students or we need to expand our programs, we could offer in-person labs and online labs and they would be equivalent,” Stueckle said. “It was kind of a forced thing I wasn’t planning on doing, but I am pleased with how it turned out.”