In March 2020, an overwhelming wave of uncertainty struck the UNLV campus. Students and faculty rushed mid-semester to adapt to radically new challenges and learning environments as a result of coronavirus.
The focus became getting through the final weeks of the semester of newly remote learning. But as summer and then fall came, survival gave way to adaption. Now, a full year later, the UNLV community has discovered useful lessons and new ways to flourish, no matter how teaching is delivered.
Van Whaley, a professor-in-residence in kinesiology, jokes that 2020 was the year his students went from pupils in a classroom to avatars on a video conferencing screen.
He leads both the lab sections and lecture courses for the more than 1,800 enrollees in kinesiology 223 and 224 in the spring. Pre-pandemic, the courses involved a lot of hands-on activities to teach human anatomy and physiology. The virtual environment demanded he adopt new techniques to ensure students understand the material.
“I have worked harder in the last academic year than I have at any point in my career,” Whaley said.
Early in the pandemic, he capitalized on current events to develop interactive lessons on proper handwashing and how vaccines are made. Since then, he’s also gotten students involved in content reviews through online game and quiz application, Kahoot.
“I sure have connected with a lot more students than I thought I would in this online environment,” Whaley said. “I really think that this is an opportunity to make our curriculum current, to make our curriculum important. Every one of our students is dealing with COVID in one way or another.”
Relating to students while continuing to hold them accountable to the standards of a research institution like UNLV is a delicate balance. Political science professor Martha Phelps has worked to master that balance over the past year. It’s been difficult, though, as the one-year anniversary of the shift to remote has come and gone.
“Every day I can get through this. I can produce high-quality classes. I can interact with my students,” she said. “But the everyday grind is actual.”
Phelps has realized she has an ability to take in multiple streams of information during a class taught remotely — from student chats, her notes, and video discussions — at the same time. She’s able to quickly process that information and offer a cohesive and immediate response to her students.
“I didn’t know I had that skill,” she said. “It has been absolutely critical at getting through remote learning.”
A year ago, Phelps focused on repackaging her existing content to transition her in-person courses to a new virtual environment. Now, she evaluates how she can keep her more than 300 students engaged through video content, breakout groups, interactive quizzes, and frequent communication. But she's also gained a sense of their boundaries and the demands on their time.
“How do we keep online learning interesting and productive, but also how do we keep the students, not just surviving, but thriving?” Phelps asked. To answer that, she turned to data that remote teaching offers.
Tapping into resources
Both Whaley and Phelps track video views and other statistical data to understand how students engage with the content. When Phelps realized her students were watching class videos in 15-minute increments, she adjusted her method for crafting those videos. The time limits made her focus on the most critical information.
“It took me a while to understand the difference between making short videos and making high-quality content in chunks that they will listen to,” she said.
Resources for learning how best to engage students have been readily available through the Office of Online Education, which helps educators adopt best teaching practices with useful and applicable technology.
Before the pandemic, the office serviced a “coalition of the willing” — educators who decided that they or their students could benefit from expert advice on the technology, said Elizabeth R. Barrie, director of the Office of Online Education. This year, the office’s user base rapidly expanded.
“During the pandemic, instructors who never imagined teaching online were compelled to pivot for health and safety reasons,” Barrie said. “So over the past year, we’ve been able to help a broader range of instructors.”
That help has taken a number of forms, including guides on learning and teaching as well as several workshops for students and educators on topics like optimizing remote teaching and summer course development. More than 1,000 participants have taken advantage of the workshops.
Awaiting a return
Reynie Cho, a senior UNLV student majoring in political science and minoring in English, hasn’t been deterred in her academic pursuits by the pandemic, but it has certainly complicated things.
Cho is still taking 18 credits this semester while working as a tutor for primary and secondary school students. The support of her family has steadied her during the uncertainty, but like her peers and professors, she’s had to adapt, scouring during course enrollment for class times that fit into her busy schedule.
And the typical interaction with professors and peers Cho receives in an in-person course is a gap virtual education simply hasn’t fulfilled over the past year.
“I enjoy the in-class experience, and I get to actually meet the teachers and hear their passion in person,” she said.
Professors who hold videoconferencing sessions, like Phelps, can now physically see into the lives of their students, some of whom have lost jobs or family members as well as their main form of social contact. Other professors themselves have been affected by the same issues.
Phelps said the university’s support infrastructure, including its resources for students in distress, has been a lifeline during the past year of virtual learning.
“Watching the students’ valid and difficult struggles has been exceptionally challenging,” she said.
Cho said there’s been a sense of unity among the campus community amid those challenges.
“It’s not easy. I understand that our professors don’t have it easy either,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
That understanding has led to bright spots amid the uncertainty and heartbreak of the past year.
In Cho’s case, remote classes have led some of her professors to offer more guidance on test materials and provide recorded class lectures.
“I’ve actually always known this about myself, but I’m a person of repetition, especially long-term repetition,” she said. “With distance learning, I’ve found that being able to go back and listen to recorded lectures actually helps.”
Phelps was surprised that technology actually helped her get to know students faster. While she’s videoconferencing, student names are clearly displayed under their faces, so she has learned who’s who within one to two sessions.
“I understand that one of the most powerful things we can do as an educator is to learn our students’ names,” Phelps said.
Both she and Whaley plan to hold on to select aspects of remote learning when they return to in-person learning this fall.
Whaley believes the online environment might be a perfect fit for large kinesiology lectures moving forward if labs can be shifted back to in-person learning.
Ultimately, it’s student performance and learning that matters most. “It’s just important to remember our students want success,” he said, “and our job — our duty — is to reach out to them and help them get where they’re going.”