Faculty members share changes and challenges with transition to online instruction



Anneliese Esparza, A&E Editor

After the coronavirus pandemic prompted the university to transition to online instruction, faculty were forced to radically retool their course structures and quickly come up with creative solutions to adapt to current circumstances.

To ease faculty members’ transition to online learning, the university offered resources for technological support. “Our initial reaction was, we need to offer some training, for instructors who may have little to no exposure in teaching in an online environment. So we put together a series of workshops,” said Nicholas Duarte, the director of Technology Support Services.

“We saw a lot of interest from faculty. They were coming to us and finding out, ‘what can we do to get help?’” said Duarte.

Unlike some faculty, sociology lecturer Chris Hardnack has had a lot of experience teaching online classes. Hardnack said that students have to be more “self-disciplined and motivated” to succeed in online classes.

“When something is posted on Cougar Courses, they need to have the discipline to actually click it. It’s kind of a wide acknowledgment that that doesn’t always happen,” said Hardnack.

Denise Baker, an adjunct professor in the Biology Department, said that the lack of face-to-face interaction is challenging. “I can’t read the body language of my students, I can’t figure out if they’re understanding things or not,” she said.

Baker’s lab classes are proving to be particularly difficult to teach online. “All of a sudden, I’m teaching a class that you have to have special equipment, you have to have a microscope, things like that, and I’m trying to translate that into an online experience for the student,” she said. “And it’s less than ideal. I feel like it’s sad.”

Baker’s class BIOL 367 is very popular because students are able to be independent in their lab work. “There are students that waited three or four years to take this class…almost my entire roster is seniors, because only seniors can enter it because it’s that popular,” she said.

“To have it shut down just when we get to the part where you get to do the fun stuff, that was very disappointing. I’ve had probably 10 or 15 students who have expressed that to me,” said Baker.

Another class that may not be as inherently suited to online instruction is GEO 102, Oral Communication. “GEO is meant to be face-to-face, no doubt about it …public speaking is the one class you really don’t want to have to do this,” said Mike Sperla, a communications lecturer who has taught for 19 years.

However, Sperla said that online teaching is going better than he had expected. He is using Zoom, and students will still be able to give their speeches. His students will even be able to use screen-sharing to show their visual aids while presenting.

Another professor using Zoom is Karen Schaffman, who is the Program Director of Dance Studies. “I’m worried about some students. I think some students are very, very isolated, and so it’s important for us to show up on Zoom together,” she said.

Still, Schaffman said that online instruction has been “very, very challenging” given the lack of in-person interaction. “The beauty and the urgency of dance in the world is really highlighted by knowing…that we have to be in the room together,” said Schaffman.

Schaffman said that a great loss was the cancellation of the annual Spring Dance Concert, where students would have gotten to perform in front of the campus community. Now they have to make videos. “Again, I’ll use the word ‘survive’. How do we survive under these conditions right now? How do we stay creative?” she said.

Hardnack brought up the personal challenges that instructors are now facing, such as lack of childcare and pandemic-related stress. “Look, there’s no way I would have thought teaching the units that I have and also homeschooling my child with no childcare while my wife, who’s a health worker, is at work, would be a good idea,” he said, adding that his recorded lectures have featured cameos from his 5-year-old son.

“That kind of situation makes it hard for us to design a quality course, and then with everything going on, we’re kind of checking the news on our phones just as much and are just as distracted as anyone else is,” said Hardnack.

Despite such personal challenges, Hardnack said that faculty members are still focusing on what’s in their students’ best interest. “Students should know that all the professors are on their side. We want them to do well, and we’re not trying to be an obstacle or disciplinarian in some way…we don’t want to change people’s lives more than it already will,” he said.

Schaffman encouraged students to remain adaptable. “Dance and art are about improvisation. Improvisation is a skill. So understand that we’re all improvising right now…that we’re all trying to find ways to structure our lives,” she said.