Political science major Reynie Cho already had a fully loaded schedule when the spring semester began.
The UNLV junior enrolled in six classes in hopes of making progress toward her degree and an English minor, and she’s been balancing that demanding load this semester with her employment at a private tutoring academy.
When the coronavirus pandemic caused nonessential businesses statewide to close temporarily, not only did Cho’s UNLV courses move online, but her tutoring work did as well.
“It was a little different and it was a little challenging. I would get something at midnight or I’d get something at 7 a.m. for work, so I’m very fortunate that everybody is working with me,” she said.
Cho’s dedication and support from professors have provided her with an opportunity to continue learning despite an unpredictable set of circumstances. In the midst of a global episode, members of the campus community like Cho and her instructors are rising to meet the challenge of the online shift.
For educators like Van Whaley, the need to move classes online as quickly as possible brought about a lengthy list of questions.
As lab coordinator for two kinesiology courses, he's responsible for the anatomy and physiology lab education of more than 900 students. He’d already ordered more than 200 sheep eyes and brains for those students to dissect. The new dissecting equipment was just sitting in the labs.
How could he provide all of those students with an online lab experience that could prepare them for their future health care careers? Would they learn well if they couldn’t see the physical anatomy up close?
“We can recreate the knowledge online and we can recreate the information in a way that’s repeatable,” he said. “But there’s really nothing like the experience.”
Having himself completed online classes since the 1990s, he wanted to ensure the content was interactive.
To do so, he took advantage of a new virtual lab program that was released earlier than anticipated by its publisher. He added modules on vaccine manufacturing and hand-washing to students’ coursework in a nod to the current climate. The instructors of the other lab sessions instead became online tutors for the students. The shift required that Whaley adjust the syllabi and exclude some content, but the student response to the new format has been positive so far.
“It’s really cool how interactive these virtual labs are,” he said. “Students are loving the way the information is presented. It’s very engaging. It also easy. It’s very user friendly. You don’t have to be a computer expert to work through the modules.”
Such consideration of technical expertise has become vital, as has a consideration of potential barriers like insufficient access to Internet and students’ familial and work obligations.
Crafting courses to meet individual needs
Students who are no longer on campus may not have easy access to course materials, even if those items are all online. Political science professor Martha Phelps is ensuring her students are aware of her willingness to be flexible to those considerations.
Phelps said she’s tailoring her online courses to the level and requirements of each course she teaches and to the students who are taking them.
"I looked at how the course was already running, so I thought about what is going to be good for the student to provide both continuity and educational quality," she said. "It's important to pitch the class to the level of the student."
Doing so has required her to expend extra effort. Not only is she working to be as engaging as possible, she’s recording lectures and engaging UNLV’s technology staff to ensure recordings and other course materials make it online in a timely fashion. She’s editing lecture videos to ensure all of the content is correct and expressed well. She’s worked to embed quizzes into her recorded lectures and learned about how to properly light a room for a lecture video.
"I'm preparing by thinking about them. What would I want out of a class that I didn't agree to take online?" she said.
Like Whaley, she’s also integrating lessons from the pandemic into her courses, asking students in her course on the state to discuss how federalism has been impacted by cornonavirus and how that affects cities they’ve chosen to research.
Cicely Bunker, a sophomore majoring in hospitality and French, described the transition in Phelps’ introductory political science course as an approachable shift. She said Phelps' interactive videos have helped her to pay attention and participate in coursework.
With her courses overall, she experienced some technological bumps early on, but those have resolved since the first week.
She’s noticed some courses now require her to schedule her time more rigidly. “I am learning more, but I think it’s more willingness to immerse myself in the coursework,” she said. “My schooling matters a lot, so I’m taking this opportunity to dive in.”
In her first semester at UNLV after time living abroad, she’s said the university staff and her professors have collaborated to make the transition easier.
“It’s nice that UNLV had the infrastructure to continue learning,” she said. “I got lucky that I have professors who are doing things in such a way that I’m able to complete things and succeed.”
The end goal for Phelps has been to ensure her students meet their learning objectives and are able to do so successfully despite the impact of the pandemic, economic woes, and other factors.
Conquering new frontiers
UNLV’s longest-serving professor, Felicia Campbell offers a similar message.
The English professor joined the university in 1962 and teaches courses as disparate as exploring the depths of science fiction to analyzing Asian literature and film. Campbell admits it hasn’t been simple. In her years at UNLV, she’s never seen anything like this.
“I'm just learning. Most of us who have not been online teachers are learning, but I think it's going to work,” she said. “I think our projects are going to work out really well.”
But she misses the interactions that come with the traditional campus environment. Typically, her courses meet one day a week for two hours and 45 minutes, during which engaged students participate in discussions and ask questions.
“I love student contact. One of the reasons I've done this so long is that I love to be in the classroom,” she said. “They really like getting together in a room and having the discussion and the give and take.”
Since the online move, she’s been responding to messages, offering assignments and movies to watch through Canvas, and preparing to host videoconferencing sessions for the students’ course projects.
As the university has mobilized its online education and information technology offices to aid instructors and students in the shift, Campbell, who is teaching courses on Asian literature and East-West film and literature, has elicited that help to do her best for the students.
“They have given us the tools,” she said. “And I can't speak highly enough of the people in tech who have been helping me.”
Phelps agreed, praising the university’s technical support staff as a key in helping her to help her students.
“The most important thing this semester is that we get through it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I think that's impressive that UNLV cares. We care about our students and we want them to succeed.”