Professors go extra mile to teach remotely, even as they prepare for the worst

Alex Emerson and Katie Cantrell
Transcript Correspondents

As professors and students struggle to adapt to the sudden change of remote teaching due to COVID-19, another acknowledgement of uncertain times arose as Ohio Wesleyan asked faculty to develop a contingency plan if they become unable to teach.

In a Friday email, Ashley Biser, an associate professor of politics and government who is advising faculty on teaching remotely, asked colleagues to plan for the worst and to ask a trusted colleague to be ready to step in if needed.

“I am writing to ask you to help us plan for the possibility that some of us may be unable to teach for a while,” she wrote. “While I know that you will all do your best to continue supporting your students, your health and that of your families comes first.”

OWU President Rock Jones, during spring break, ordered students to stay home or return home and for faculty to prepare for remote teaching for the remainder of the semester because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Professors had about ten days to decide what changes to make to their syllabi and how they wanted to teach electronically. It may have been a bumpy ride for some, but Jones expressed his gratitude in an email that he sent to employees and emeriti at the end of last week.

“Week One of remote learning and working is nearly in the books, and I couldn’t be prouder of how quickly everyone has mobilized to reimage our work and to create meaningful experiences for our students,” Jones wrote.

Because of this uncharted territory, professors are trying out a variety of remote teaching methods to see what works.

The process was hectic but faculty received a lot of help, said Martha Wilson, a part-time journalism instructor who teaches editing and design.

“It’s not like they waited to tell us, we all started scrambling at once, but I thought that our department got the help we needed through this process,” she said.

During this shift in teaching, professors are also testing a variety of methods to contact  the class and check in to see how they are doing.

Robert Gitter, an economics professor, contacted students via email and texted a handful of them to get an idea of the kind of access they had to class materials. Many told him they have access to the internet, but other challenges exist.

“One student told me she was going to work on a paper over break and she was going to be able to do this because she had four younger siblings, but they were all in school so she was going to have the house to herself,” Gitter said. “But she lives in Ohio so she can’t go to the library and her brothers and sisters will all be home from school so she might have to do daycare, so that’s going to be a problem.”

David Caplan, an English professor, opted to use Google Hangouts, an instant messenger that works like FaceTime.

“There will be a lot of trial and error. Everyone is seeing which platform works best for them and how to deal with the inevitable issues that arise,” Caplan said.

Others are trying different tools.

Brianna Mack, an assistant professor of politics and government, said she posts videos of her lectures on her YouTube channel and assigns work on Blackboard.

Keith Mann, a geology-geography professor, is conducting his online class on Google Classroom, giving out a few assignments a week.

Kristina Bogdanov, an associate professor of fine arts, uses Blackboard Ultra and Google Drive in her courses and said she will rely heavily on these applications during the transition to remote learning.

“Classes like these are going to require a little more creativity and investment on my part,” Bogdanov said.

The students need to get their footing just as much as the professors during the COVID-19 outbreak, so some professors said they are being more flexible.

Wilson said that she will be more forgiving with due dates during this semester, but her grading will stay more or less the same. Caplan, like Gitter, acknowledged that students might have challenges at home that would not exist in the classroom.

“Professors understand that many of their students face new learning and living challenges. For instance, students might not have access to their textbooks and might need to take care of younger siblings,” Caplan said.

Now with classes relying so much on digital teaching through the internet, it’s reasonable to thinksome less tech-savvy professors would struggle with these changes. Wilson said she doesn’t believe that is the case because of their years of experience teaching.

“We’re professionals. I went from working on a typewriter to using a computer. I think that teachers know how to adapt,” Wilson said. “Adaptability is an important skill. And just because I’m not over your shoulder teaching you doesn’t mean we can’t achieve a one-on-one process.”

Faculty are helping one another, too, Gitter said

“It might be the help desk, it might be a colleague, but it’s good to have somebody when you try and do it on your own and they are able to walk you through it,” Gitter said. “I’ve seen various things, you know with a great blizzard or before my time when the university shut down for student riots in the 1970s. People came back 10-to-20 years later and said ‘Remember that semester?’ So, we’re going to get through this.”