Rutgers began holding classes online two weeks ago due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, requiring faculty members to quickly adapt their syllabi to fit a digital format.
Associate Professor in the Division of Nursing Science Dr. Karen D’Alonzo said she felt prepared to make the switch because the University notified professors in advance.
“We were getting emails toward the beginning of February that we should think about gearing our courses up to become online,” D’Alonzo said. “I think most people were more than ready for it because they made the announcement over a week before spring break and they canceled the classes a couple days in advance, so it gave the faculty lots of time to figure out what it wanted to do.”
D’Alonzo said the nursing school connected with educational programs at Rutgers that helped faculty members find different options to transition their classes online. Under the leadership of Dean Lei Lei, Rutgers Business School saw the same kind of support, said Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in the Department of Finance Lisa S. Kaplowitz.
“We had countless webinars on the various platforms that were recommended. There is a discussion group on Blackboard where faculty post tips and best practices,” she said. “We also leveraged each other within our departments and the Business School. I introduced polling to one professor and another helped me understand how to use groups. It was teamwork at its best!”
Both D’Alonzo and Kaplowitz said that while their classes are normally face to face, much of the work was already run through learning management systems like Canvas or Blackboard prior to the switch.
“All of our courses were already on Canvas, so all of the course materials were in Canvas. I’ve done that stuff for a long time because it makes things easier for people to access,” D’Alonzo said.
Both professors said the change does come with some adjustments. Kaplowitz said she had to remove a group presentation assignment and D’Alonzo had to cut back on readings to give her nursing doctoral students more space.
“There was some potential for problems for online education with doctoral students because they’re older and a lot of them have families,” D'Alonzo said. “One of the things with doctoral students is that they also almost all work. So many of them have been pulled in to work in the hospitals to take part in some of these COVID-19 activities. They’re just being pulled in a lot of different directions.”
Art students across the country encounter similar challenges with online learning, said Marc Handelman, the interim chair of Art and Design at Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“As one can imagine, so much of what takes place in an art education is very hands-on and requires very specific access to certain materials and facilities. While some courses have been easier to transition to a remote format, others such as ceramics or working with metals are nearly impossible to translate,” he said.
Handelman said due to the switch, there is amazing new work and instruction that is happening within the department. The faculty and students have come together to show creativity, resilience and empathy, he said.
Virtual learning requires support from both students and teachers. D’Alonzo said that students, in some ways, may be more technology savvy than the faculty and said it is important to remain patient. Kaplowitz said the same for her students.
“Aside from a couple early tech challenges, week one went very well. We did synchronous classes and we (students and professor) all loved seeing everyone’s face,” Kaplowitz said. “I don’t take attendance but was amazed that almost 100 percent of the students showed up (even for the 8:30 a.m. class). They asked questions, participated and were engaged. On day one of virtual learning, I set expectations with my students and encouraged all of us to be patient, with ourselves and with each other.”
Kaplowitz said going through material has been slower and it is harder to gauge her class’s overall understanding.
“I tend to have a fairly casual classroom and encourage the students to interrupt me with questions or to slow down. I have asked them to do the same online and it seems to be working,” she said.
Kaplowitz said student performance will be greatly impacted by the professor’s attitude.
“The students are our customers. If they believe that we have their best interests at heart, as most of us faculty members do, they will be more engaged and want to learn,” she said. “I think it is important to show compassion as this is a scary time for all of us.”
D’Alonzo said this situation is a lesson in uncertainty for her doctoral students. Having just finished their qualifying exam, many of them are conducting research that requires human contact through interaction and recruitment. All of that is now on hold, she said.
“Some of them are nervous about how long they’re going to be in here now. I think that’s one of the frustrating things about doctoral studies, is that it’s over when it’s over,” she said.
D’Alonzo said research is always fraught with potential pitfalls and this is just an extreme example of how real life can interfere with your work.
“You know, your work is not the center of the world, it’s a very small piece of what goes on in life. You have to realize it. That’s one good lesson that maybe we can take away from this,” she said.
Kaplowitz said she used the COVID-19 outbreak to teach students a lesson on classic game theory and the Nash equilibrium. She said people may not want to practice social distancing and hoard medical supplies such as masks because it is more beneficial for themselves in the present. By doing this, individuals actually worsen the situation by prolonging the outbreak.
“If we do what is best for us without thinking of others, we end up worse off,” she said.
Like much of the University faculty, Handelman said he has been constantly at his computer working to find solutions to the challenges posed by remote instruction.
“Everyone is working overtime right now to try and get through this and plan for the summer and fall,” he said.
Handelman said the response from students and faculty has been positive so far.
“There are some instances that are more challenging, but overall, I think everyone is just so relieved to connect, see one another again and push forward,,” he said “Everyone understands that this is new territory for us, but given the upheaval of the last three weeks, I’m really inspired by this community and how they are moving forward."