These days, it is not unusual for Peter Hanink’s course lectures to be interrupted by his children asking him a question or the sound of them playing not far from the dining room table where he set up his virtual classroom.
Where before his students didn’t really get a glimpse of his world outside of class, life and teaching are decidedly different these days for the assistant professor of sociology and criminology in the wake of COVID-19 (coronavirus).
“Some of my students asked for a tour the of house. So, I took them out back and showed them my chickens,” said the Long Beach resident. “They got a kick out of that. I have showed them my unfolded laundry, and they got a kick out of that. They see toys everywhere.”
In response to the state’s order to shelter in place, Cal Poly Pomona joined other CSU campuses in moving all classes and exams to virtual modes of instruction effective March 18. A temporary pause of all in-person instruction was put into effect for the preceding five days to give faculty an opportunity to prepare for the change.
For Hanink, the change was not too difficult because he has taught online before. He already had Blackboard set up to share materials and assignments with students, he said.
He teaches three classes in a row Monday and Wednesday afternoons, using Zoom differently for each. He does most of the talking and uses PowerPoint presentation for his large lecture class of 70. For his medium-sized class of 48 he uses Zoom breakout rooms so students can do break into groups to discuss the readings and answer assigned questions. The hardest transition has been for his small class of 20 to 25 students because students typically lead the discussions in that course.
The key to making it work is for students and faculty to be patient and understanding with one another, he said, adding that he records his live sessions and posts them to Blackboard for students who might miss class.
“It’s not really realistic for us to be able to say to students that everybody must show up to a particular time or place in the same way that they do in a regular classroom,” he said. “Their Wi-Fi might not be good, or they might be moving home. A lot of students have children, or they have younger brothers and sisters that they might be responsible for. I think we have had to be more flexible right now.”
For Jessie Vallejo, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and director of the mariachi ensembles, flexibility has been key.
Vallejo has been teaching mostly performance-based classes this semester, something that is trickier when musicians can’t get together to play. One of her teaching methods is asking students to record video music journals with audio that they can then send to her so she can provide feedback on what they need to work on.
The change to virtual instruction offers her students a chance to focus on their practice methods and technique she said.
“It’s a good time for them to slow down and start practicing and let them adjust to whatever they’re dealing with at home,” she said. “Everything feels uncertain, so we want to leave space for them to do good work with everything that is on their plate.”
Getting Faculty Ready
Back in early March, the call to switch to virtual instruction hadn’t been made yet, but it was clear that the university would move in that direction, said Victoria Bhavsar, director of the Faculty Center for Professional Development and the eLearning team.
Her team just happened to host a full-day professional development event for faculty on March 6, right before the change went into effect. Even before that event, it was clear there would be a switch to virtual, remote instruction. While preparing for the event, the team put together a teaching continuity site in 48 hours to help make the transition as smooth as possible. MediaVision shot videos on how to use Zoom and a similar video app called Kaltura, and the team conducted face-to-face workshops with faculty on March 9.
In addition the ongoing trainings, the Faculty Center team sends daily emails to faculty and staff filled with tips, pedagogy and contact information.
“I have the best team in the CSU,” Bhavsar said. “We already had a lot of resources that we had gathered together for our digital course design academy. Our course design academy wasn’t meant for a pandemic, but it has been useful.”
Most of the faculty seem to be making the transition without major issues so far, she said, adding that the focus is now ensuring that virtual/remote teaching and learning is sustainable and equitable, helping all students to succeed even in this extraordinary situation.
Paul Nissenson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has a lot of experience with developing online content. He taught a massive open online course that was affiliated with Cal Poly Pomona in 2014-15, frequently records his in-class lectures and makes them available to students, has experimented with a flipped classroom teaching style, played a lead role in developing his department’s video tutorial library (ME Online), and recently started a podcast on the engineering student experience.
So when virtual learning seemed to be the direction the university was heading, Nissenson volunteered to put together and lead a crash course on virtual instruction for his fellow engineering faculty.
Nissenson said he just happened to be in the right place at the right time with some tools he knew other professors might be able to use. One thing he tries to stress with faculty is that they should be humble and ask the students for their feedback — How would the students rate the learning experience in this virtual environment?
“People are coming into these trainings with widely different levels of experience,” he said. “Some know 90 percent of what they need and only require a little help, and others have never used Blackboard before. With all of the effort the students have put into the semester, I don’t want that effort to go to waste.”