All classes at Plattsburgh State needed to make some adjustments after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the official switch to distance learning for all SUNY campuses March 11 to reduce the spread of coronavirus. For some PSU lecturers, this not only required new methods of instruction, but also other ways of communication to foster support, guidance and courage to survive the rest of the semester.
SEEING IT COMING
Some professors at PSU had a feeling the switch was inevitable. Wanda Haby, supply-chain management and international business lecturer, teaches four sections of business ethics and professionalism within the PSU business department. While one section was already taught online, the other three — with an average of about 40 students per class — ultimately became online classes due to the switch. Haby said two weeks before the PSU administration announced the switch, she had an open discussion with her students about what could happen.
“I told them the best thing they can do is prepare,” Haby said. “Call your families, tell them to start preparing so you can have less stress. Figure out how you’re going to get back home, and don’t wait until we get the message.”
Within the management, information systems and analytics department at PSU, Cristian Balan teaches two sections of business applications and information systems, as well as two sections of cybersecurity. The business application and information systems course serves as an introduction to MIS, where students learn the basics of Microsoft Excel and Access. While Balan said he didn’t have any personal issues moving his classes online, he anticipated the situation escalating.
“I understand some other faculty members might have their challenges, but I had all my stuff online to begin with,” Balan said “I just kind of had to mold it, so I didn’t have to struggle with that. What I had to struggle with was just seeing one-by-one my students kind of fall off the radar. Was I ready for [that]? No, but I think I saw it coming.”
The week before spring break, Balan said he hosted all his classes on Zoom as a trial-run.
“I wanted to prepare my students while they were still on campus, so we could start talking about a back-up plan,” Balan said.
HELPING STUDENTS ADJUST
Some students don’t do well with online classes, and their professors acknowledge those struggles. Balan said he does everything he can to be virtually there for his students, moderating his emails, offering help with assignments and using Zoom class time to ask them how they’re doing.
“It’s a difficult time for some students,” Balan said. “They’re used to calling the professor over and looking at what they’re doing and helping them out. But forming that community is more important. If I have to spend half of the class just [talking to students], I’m OK with that.”
Despite the distance, Balan also believes the emergency has brought him closer to his students.
“It gets me to understand the kinds of challenges that they’re encountering,” Balan said. “When you see students in class, you just assume everyone is doing OK. That’s not necessarily true right now.”
For Haby, while all of the information she uses for her classes was already on Moodle as well, she posted additional discussion forums on the page for students to ask questions about the course and share their personal feelings. Haby believes her students appreciate the opportunity to interact during this time.
“Most of them say things like, ‘This really sucks,’ ‘I miss my friends,’ ‘I miss being in college,’ ‘This doesn’t feel like college,’” Haby said. “I think the biggest impact is the face-to-face interaction. The students sign up for those classes because they want to interact with their peers and the interactive activities we do in class.”
In addition to those forums, Haby said on the last day of face-to-face instruction, she took a panoramic photo of each of her classes and posted them on Moodle.
“That way, the students can see each other, remember where they sat, look at the picture and remember what that environment was like,” Haby said.
Maureen Squires, department chair for the Master of Science for Teachers Graduate Program, is also an associate professor in the education department, teaching two sections of introduction to special education and one section of an inclusion and collaboration course. While she also used Moodle for her classes prior to the switch, Squires said she’s reduced some assignments and extended due dates because she acknowledges most of her students have other struggles to deal with.
“I teach mostly graduate students, and in our programs, we have a lot of nontraditional students,” Squires said. “These are students in their 30s, 40s or even 50s, who are coming back to school to earn their certification to teach, and in the meantime, they’re working full-time and have families. Or, if they’re not working full-time, they’re full-time stay-at-home parents with spouses, children and homes, plus taking courses.”
For Squires, working full-time to teach courses online and complete chair responsibilities is difficult with a toddler at home, because her daycare closed due to the pandemic. Squires said she understands the difficulties her students may have during this time because they could be similar to her own.
“My situation helps me understand my students better,” Squires said. “So I get it. I’m living their frustrations and their stress too. It’s a lot to try to juggle everything. I think that’s helped me be very empathetic. I usually have high expectations, but right now, it’s [more about] what do we need to do to prepare you and meet the basics once you’re out in the field.”
LEARNING SOMETHING NEW
Some professors’ views on online classes have changed as a result of the pandemic. Assistant Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship Richard Gottschall teaches three different courses: principles of marketing, branding and new product development and entrepreneurial communication.
In addition to implementing more collaborative programs like Capsim, a business simulation and assessment software, to his courses, Gottschall said he’s learned to lower some expectations of his students and consider scaling back the complexity of certain topics in the curriculum to ease student stress during this time.
“I think [my] students are being really patient and understanding,” Gottschall said. “I think they’re going through a tough time, but they also realize that I’m changing the course and bringing in different elements. I looked it up online, and there’s all this advice on how to take an online course. There isn’t any advice about how to take five online courses [and] to be a completely online learner. As I redesigned and rethought about my courses, I was trying to imagine how difficult that must be.”
One thing Haby said she learned about online learning after the switch was the importance of verbal instruction. She’s incorporated audio files of herself into her Moodle assignments to help her students understand the material better.
“I don’t think I realized how much the students enjoyed or wanted to hear from me verbally how to do an assignment and all the ins and outs,” Haby said. “I have a certain percentage of students who will always ask me questions, even though I’ve explained it thoroughly in class, and the instructions are on Moodle. Having that extra component helps other kinds of learners, so I’m going to use that in all of my classes going forward.”
Even though times are tough now, Balan said he’ll continue to focus on implementing stronger communication and collaboration requirements into his courses in the future, adding that those are essential skills for life during and after college.
“I talk to students a lot about not being missing in action,” Balan said. “You have to collaborate and cooperate and not wait for the time when you have a national emergency for you to get this far [in life] and say, ‘We’re all in this together.’”
Email Emma Vallelunga at firstname.lastname@example.org