During a normal semester, Ithaca College occupational therapy students in “Advanced Pediatric Evidence Based Practice” would take part in the Food and Fun group. Kimberly Wilkinson, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, said it was a highlight of the course to see her students work with children with disabilities and their families.
However, with remote classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilkinson knew that this fundamental part of the course would have to change.
“We knew, even if we brought students back in person, … we couldn’t bring families in,” she said. “That wasn’t going to be safe for the families and for the kids.”
Wilkinson said the summer helped her and Jill Van Leuken, lecturer in the Department of Occupational Therapy, develop a plan for the course to ensure that students would benefit while remaining safe. The solution was that the first half of the lecture would have occupational therapy alumni speak to the current students, and the second half would allow students to use a telehealth coaching method in which students could give assessments to families through Zoom.
Like Wilkinson, some professors at the college have said they feel more prepared to teach their remote classes compared to last spring when they were only given two weeks to adjust their courses.
Last spring, classes made a quick switch to remote instruction because of the pandemic. The college created a reopening plan for Fall 2020 that involved starting classes remotely in September while students moved back to campus for an Oct. 5 in-person start. At the July 7 Faculty Council meeting, La Jerne Cornish, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said that professors were preparing to teach classes virtually in case remote instruction became necessary. President Shirley M. Collado then announced Aug. 18 that the college would hold remote classes for the semester.
The abrupt transition to online learning in Spring 2020 gave faculty minimal time to restructure their classes. Collado announced March 11 that the college was extending spring break for a second and holding classes online until April 3. Then, six days later, she announced that the college would be online for the rest of the semester. This led to some students feeling dissatisfied with the education they were receiving.
“Hey @Ithaca College online classes suck and this is not what I signed up for,” user @KatieHusselbee_ tweeted March 27. “Give me my tuition back and try again next semester, please & thanks. Sincerely, a student that can’t handle online classes at home.”
User @angelinalwt commented on one of the college’s tweets, asking for the college to reimburse students.
“Is there any chance we will get any money back,” the tweet said. “I know the school needs it but this is not the same as being in class learning. All of my classes are hands on. My professors have suggested to retake credits but I don’t want to just keep repeating.”
To assist faculty members at the college who may not have as much experience with online teaching, the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) held a summer institute called “Flexible by Design.” Approximately 260 professors took part in the program. There were 708 faculty members at the college, according to the 2019–20 Facts in Brief, meaning that less than half of the faculty took part in the program.
The five-week-long institute was taught through Sakai and allowed faculty members to learn how to better prepare themselves for teaching in all learning modalities, including in person, hybrid and online. These sessions took place before the college announced remote instruction for the fall.
The CFE created the institute based on struggles professors experienced when classes went remote in the spring. The topics included sustaining values through disruptions, aligning course elements to target learning outcomes, engaging learners, building learning communities and pulling a flexible course together. There were synchronous meetings on Mondays and Fridays, with asynchronous activities on the days in between.
Since the start of the semester, 100 more professors have logged onto the Sakai website to use the resources, like tutorials and recordings from synchronous sessions, said Amie Germain, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy.
“When we are in department meetings and/or whole school meetings, someone will say, ‘Oh, I learned about this in the summer institute,’ and then will find a piece of the summer institute and give it to everybody,” Germain said. “It’s a living resource people are continually using.”
Ellie Fulmer, associate professor in the Department of Education and member of the CFE, said she was satisfied with the number of faculty members who participated in the workshops.
“We do stuff in our departments, maybe in our schools of [Humanities and Sciences] and
[Health Sciences and Human Performance], but never have we done something cross-school,” Fulmer said. “Such a large group of professors came together not just to panic like we did in the spring and figure out how to get online but rather fundamentally from the ground up to rethink our teaching.”
Gordon Rowland, director of the CFE, said professors are free to retool their courses in whatever way they think is best for accomplishing their goals. He said that by teaching on Sakai, professors saw what students would experience, an experience that was valuable for faculty members.
“In the institute, we sought to share options, demonstrate tools and promote flexibility and inclusion,” Rowland said via email. “In particular, we engaged faculty as learners themselves in synchronous sessions and with asynchronous activities in the learning management system (Sakai).”
Wilkinson said that shifting her hands-on classes in the spring was hectic, but, over the summer, she took part in some of the asynchronous seminars and went to use them again when the semester started. She said she also watched an outside video on how to be more innovative with Zoom, a tool that helped her come up with better ways to organize small groups responding to discussion questions.
Sean Linfors, assistant professor in the Department of Music Education, said he took part in the institute and thought it was helpful.
“It wasn’t like there were answers out there that they just weren’t giving us,” Linfors said. “It was that everybody was looking for answers at the same time.”
Nick Kowalczyk, associate professor in the Department of Writing, said that he signed up for the institute but did not find it useful.
“I signed up and watched a couple of the first sessions,” Kowalczyk said via email. “I can’t say those helped all that much, but, then again, I quit watching them.”
A 2019 study by Jered Borup and Anna Emenova, associate professors in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, examines the effects of professional development courses on educators’ abilities to provide effective online education.
The study found that after taking professional development courses, many faculty members felt more confident to teach and develop online courses. The study also found that because faculty members are taking the courses online, they can understand what students experience when taking online classes and become more empathetic to their struggles.
Steven Skopik, professor and interim chair in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies, said that it was challenging to quickly shift to online classes without familiarity with Sakai and Zoom.
“Before this happened, you could use Sakai in a more cursory way or hybrid way where it wasn’t your main source of coordinating the class,” Skopik said. “But very quickly, you as a faculty member had to develop a pretty thorough knowledge of that and then of course the whole Zoom thing, which continues to give surprises.”
Skopik said that he has more confidence this semester than last spring when he and his colleagues had to scramble to get their classes online. He said the summer gave more time for him to assess what did not work in the spring semester. One of the things he said that he experienced during the spring semester was a “Zoom bombing” in which uninvited visitors enter a Zoom room. He said that talking with other faculty members during the CFE program helped him learn what others had their settings on in order to avoid this in the fall.
Stephen Mosher, professor in the Department of Communication Studies, said that he had a difficult time teaching remotely in the spring but has adjusted better than he expected this semester. Mosher said that he took part in one or two of the live sessions and has viewed the recordings and tutorials again during the semester. However, he said that he notices some frustration from his students this semester with being online.
“I hope to ease this by taking a ‘less is more’ approach to student expectations and assignments,” Mosher said via email.
Engagement with students is another concern for faculty members. Matt Clauhs, assistant professor in the Department of Music Education and member of the CFE, is the lead designer of the module focused on building community. He said his module worked with professors to see what resources are available to them to help to regain a sense of community for the fall semester.
“We looked at some technology tools that just help people build relationships, things like Flipgrid and other online tools that allow for some face-to-face interaction through video responses and conversations that feel a little bit more personal,” Clauhs said.
Linfors said that teaching courses over the summer helped him prepare for the fall semester. Linfors also took the summer to learn new software programs to help him and his students share the tracks they recorded and edit those parts as a group.
“It’s almost cathartic,” Linfors said. “I mean, it’s wonderful to hear ourselves, feeling like we’re together. We’re not there. But to be able to get that sense is a glimpse of what could be. So it’s nice to be able to work that way.”
Mosher said his classes are discussion based and negatively impacted by Zoom.
“Zoom is not at all an effective modality when compared to being in the classroom,” Mosher said via email. “One suggestion from students that is to take the regularly scheduled class time and meet in smaller numbers, while the rest of the class is doing group work. In my mind, this seems like an approach to try.”
A survey by College Pulse and the Charles Koch Foundation found that 46% of college students believe that their professors transitioned to remote learning effectively, and 54% believe that their professors did not handle the transition well. The survey also found that 78% of students think that online classes are a less effective way to learn compared to in-person classes.
Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures — an investment firm focused on innovation in higher education — and senior contributor for Forbes, said he thinks that by using a technique called active learning, educators can make their virtual classes worthwhile. This involves assigning learning materials outside classes, assessing if students understood the material at the beginning of class, finding out which parts students did not understand and focusing class time on ensuring that students comprehend the material.
“Colleges and universities are much more focused on ‘How do we get back to what we were doing?’ rather than ‘How do we reconceive what we were doing to achieve a better outcome, which is more learning?’” Craig said. “This hasn’t been a priority. What has been a priority is hundred-page manuals and plexiglass and figuring out how to approximate what we did before, but in the environment we’re in, what we did before isn’t possible, so it would’ve called for a lot more creativity.”
Sophomore Alexa Spinnato, a television-radio major, said that she felt like she did not gain anything in her spring semester television-radio classes once the college transitioned to remote learning. She said that although her professor tried his best, her class was not able to finish their projects and she was not able to continue getting the hands-on experience she previously had on campus. Based on her experience in the spring semester, Spinnato said she had seriously considered taking a leave of absence for Fall 2020.
Spinnato said her professors for this semester seemed optimistic about their classes, but she does not believe that energy will continue throughout the entirety of the fall.
“My professors are already accounting for things not going to plan,” she said. “I have a feeling as time moves on, some projects will be dropped. Others will be pushed aside because there’s not enough time, especially online.”
Junior Dean Freeman said that he thinks his professors adjusted to online classes relatively well during the spring but that he felt less engaged than he was with his in-person classes.
“If there’s a class that I already know that I’m not engaged in, primarily because I have to do it for a credit, for my diploma, I’m not as engaged, and even the adjustments to online learning have not exactly persuaded me to be more engaged than I was before,” Freeman said.
Sophomore Meredith Robbins said she feels like her workload has gotten heavier with the transition to online classes. She also said that she feels like it is more difficult to engage in her classes when in her home and that she has noticed other students not paying attention in her Zoom classes.
“I feel like there’s always something on my plate,” she said. “I feel like I’m in this constant state of worrying that I haven’t done everything. I’m always worried that I forgot something.”
Staff Writer Nijha Young, Assistant News Editor Caitlin Holtzman and News Editor Alexis Manore contributed reporting.