Faculty, not just students, are learning too

By Tiffany Moore
Transcript Correspondent

During these uncertain times when everyone is staying apart from one another because of COVID-19, Ohio Wesleyan’s faculty and staff may be closer than they’ve ever been.

After OWU President Rock Jones last month canceled in-person classes in favor of remote teaching for the rest of the semester, the Information Services department and other staff had less than two weeks to train faculty to readjust, using digital tools like Blackboard, Zoom and other applications.

Many faculty found themselves entering unfamiliar territory, but they’ve been getting plenty of help. OWU set upworkshops on March 16 and 17, organized by Dale Brugh, associate provost for institutional effectiveness, Lynda Hall, associate dean for academic performance, Brian Rellinger, associate provost for academic support and others.

Ashley Biser, usually holding classes as an associate professor of politics and government, is now also leading online training for professors learning how to teach remotely.

As a way to keep track of faculty needs, the provost’s office created a survey. Biser said she’s been working with the provost to keep faculty and students informed. She primarily works behind the scenes anticipating problems and finding solutions.

Biser said while her work was not difficult, it was still a lot to teach.  Some professors teach online summer courses and have been a great resource for others who are less familiar with the technology, she said.

“In general, faculty had to learn a tremendous amount about new tools in an extremely short period of time,” Biser said. “The hardest part is that we miss our students.  Faculty teach at a small liberal arts college like OWU because they care about students and want to interact with them.”

Another challenge Biser faced was understanding what some faculty needed to get comfortable with remote teaching.

“Some needed assistance thinking about how to adapt their pedagogical goals to remote instruction,” she said. “Others needed more technical help in terms of how to work Blackboard Collaborate and other online tools.”

For some, teaching these tools is familiar territory.

David Soliday, an instructional technologist in OWU’s Information Services office, said that is his job under normal times.

“I really didn’t have to do much because I’ve been training faculty on how to use Blackboard for years,” Soliday said.

One area of concern has been the UC160 course in which first-year students plot their four-year connections path. But the instructor’s Facebook group was expanded to all faculty members so they can assist one another with any problems, and Soliday was added to the group to answer additional questions, he said.

Initially, Soliday said he fielded many questions, but those began to slow down once classes started.

“The hardest part is that we miss our students.  Faculty teach at a small liberal arts college like OWU because they care about students and want to interact with them.” – Ashley Biser, associate professor of politics and government

Keeping stress as low as possible is another important factor, said Joseph Peterson, OWU’s systems technician.

Everyone is trying to collaborate during the switch to remote-learning, although a few professors have been a little frustrated at times, he said.

“Everybody has really been pitching in trying not to overwhelm us and we’re not trying to throw too much at them at one time,” Peterson said.

During a normal semester, Peterson said he works with hardware on campus requiring manual labor.

“With COVID-19, we’re trying to stay off-campus as much as we can. It’s a strange thing to have somebody whose job primarily consists of physically going to do things,” Peterson said.

He has been using Google Remote Desktop, which allows him to remotely enter a professor’s computer, with their permission, and fix any issues.

One of his more recent challenges was to help a staff member working from home set up her Virtual Private Network.

“We had to try three different ways to do it,” Peterson said, “She didn’t even have Wi-Fi at her home until a week and a half ago, so we were walking her through all that stuff.”

In a typical work day now, Peterson said he takes turns with co-worker Jason Cox managing the help desk phone. They use a program called Zendesk, which creates tickets for any request made from faculty, staff, even students.

“My typical day is catching up on emails and all the work tickets that we have,” Peterson said.

“For the most part, our staff and faculty have been very understanding how short-staffed our department has been and we recognize how stressful this is to them.”

Learning to teach remotely isn’t the only stress.

Last week, Biser sent an email to faculty to create a contingency plan in case they or someone in their family fell ill and they could not teach.

Some reacted with sadness and frustration, but others got it, Biser said.

“Faculty, too, are juggling a lot, including responsibilities to their families and the increased workload and strangeness of teaching remotely,” Biser said. “Our whole OWU community is grappling with this question of how to care for each other during difficult times.”

Students challenged in new at-home class environments

Caitlin Jefferson and Connor Severino
Transcript correspondents

As Ohio Wesleyan students wrestle with the new paradigm of remote learning after classes were canceled, some are doing well while others struggle with the tasks, getting work done on time and even remembering assignments.

More than 1,300 OWU students were ordered home last month to prevent infection from the highly contagious, rapidly spreading worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty and students alike scrambled to reconfigure and readjust to teaching and learning remotely.

It’s a work in progress.

Cole Hatcher, director of OWU’s Media and Community Relations, said the adjustments seem to be going well, for the most part. One of the most difficult tasks was working out logistics for international students.  About 50 students remain on campus, the administration has said.

“We just want to make sure everyone feels included and comfortable amidst everything going on,” Hatcher said. To help faculty, students and staff, OWU’s Office of Information Services on Thursday posted instructions on OWU Daily to download free Adobe products.

Still, while some work-at-home students do feel comfortable, others aren’t feeling it yet.

Freshman Eliza Richardson has been finding it difficult to focus on schoolwork while being home in Lakewood, Ohio during these uncertain times.

“It is hard to stay on top of my work and make my own schedule,” Richardson said. “I get distracted at home and I do not have as much structure here as I do at school.”

Two of Richardson’s four classes are live video sessions and the other two are pre-recorded, which makes it difficult for her to stay on task, she said.

“My biggest challenge has been getting all my work done on time and not forgetting an assignment, which happened with my chemistry homework,” Richardson said.

Richardson said she has stayed positive by painting, exercising, playing games and staying off of her phone as much as possible. She said she has also been enjoying this extra time with her family.

Sophomore Molly Mazabras, at home in New Canaan, Connecticut, mingles with family daily now too, another new paradigm for OWU students who would normally be on campus now. She said she puts the family on notice when she has school work to get after.

Her brothers start school early in the morning, so Mazabras said she tells her family when she has class or schoolwork so they don’t disturb her.

“I have my own room to do my work and my three younger brothers have their own spaces too,” Mazabras said. “My biggest challenge has been just learning material, especially for my stats class because I have to teach myself, which is really hard.”

She said her professors have been good at communicating, which has helped her stay on track in her classes.

“Keeping myself busy with schoolwork, spending lots of time with family and just knowing that eventually this will end have been some ways that I have tried to stay positive,” Mazabras said. “I don’t think remote learning has been too bad so far.”

Senior Peter Mihok, of New Town, Connecticut, said studying in the home work space has been a struggle along with dealing with a younger sibling.

“For me it is not the material I have to focus on, rather the issue is the space I have at home  which is inadequate to study the complex courses OWU offers,” Mihok said. “I never had good results studying in my room. My younger brother is 13, so he’s kind of a distraction as he’s bouncing off the walls.”

“It will be good to look back and see how students are able to change in rapid circumstances and adapt to sudden life alterations,” – Martha Wilson, part-time journalism instructor

Senior Alysa Grindlinger, home in Falmouth, Maine, said one thing she is not doing is sleeping in.

“I spend the time I would normally be in class studying or completing homework. I do this on weekends, as well,” she said.

On the other hand, Grindlinger does find time to talk to family and friends on FaceTime or Skype and playing board games with her parents. She said she’s also enrolled in a 30-day yoga challenge on her favorite YouTube Channel.

“I’m taking my dog on long walks to get out of the house, while maintaining social distancing,” she said. “I’m learning new recipes so that I am cooking in the time I would otherwise spend snacking.”

As for the remote learning part, she said she is having mixed results with professors from her classes, including having to wade through multi-page emails at times.

“Some teachers have a knack for this kind of teaching, others clearly do not,” she said. “Some professors seem to be having difficulty parting with the format of traditional classes and exams. As such, assignments or exams might seem unnecessarily overcomplicated from a student’s point of view.”

Faculty are learning too and doing what they can to alleviate student challenges and readjust course requirements, like Kyle McDaniel, an assistant communication professor.

“From a faculty perspective, I have made several attempts to ensure that students have enough time to complete assignments,” McDaniel said.

Eventually the whole state of affairs for OWU students caused by the virus will be interesting from an historical perspective, said Martha Wilson, a part-time journalism instructor.

“It will be good to look back and see how students are able to change in rapid circumstances and adapt to sudden life alterations,” Wilson said.