UVA Wise faculty were enjoying a normal spring break when a global pandemic erupted. The COVID-19 crisis and the need to keep the campus community safe by stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus meant UVA Wise officials made the tough choice to transition courses from traditional classrooms to virtual delivery.
 
Faculty were given about a week to make it happen. On Monday, March 23, the students will begin virtual classes, and the situation will continue for the remainder of the semester. An Online Boot Camp, conducted by the College’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and some mentoring sessions by Apple Specialist Rachael Hulme helped faculty prepare for the difficult task ahead. Faculty experienced with online courses mentored their colleagues.
 
“I am tremendously proud of the way our faculty took swift action,” Chancellor Donna Henry said. “They rallied together, helped each other, and they were determined to be there for our students. They are ready to get to work.”
 
Chancellor Henry believes the new iPad initiative, a program that puts iPads in the hands of all full-time students, faculty and staff, could not have come at a better time.
 
“The iPads have the potential to become one of our most valuable tools to get us through this unprecedented crisis in higher education,” Chancellor Henry said. “The technology is there in the palm of our students’ hands, and faculty have so many options to choose from when deciding how they want to model their virtual instruction.”
 
Faculty started discussion groups on social media to discuss various apps or programs that would best match the needs of different courses. They participated in national discussion boards that saw membership jump by the thousands as more and more colleges and universities transitioned to online teaching.
 
“I’m excited about some of the ideas that are being shared already about creative ways to get classes online,” Professor Madelynn Shell said.
 
Professor Alex Reynolds is also heavily involved in mentoring colleagues new to iPads or online teaching in general.
 
“I think establishing this team of people will help show others who can help,” Reynolds said. “Some of us know others are more comfortable talking or asking for help from specific people. Knowing who the gurus are and who to turn to, even if it’s just a question, will help overall. We need to support our colleagues in this chaotic time.”
 
Reynolds and Shell said the current situation in higher education is a new world for many people. Helping each other out during the transition and in the weeks ahead is critical.
 
“The main message I want to send is that we are all here to support one another,” Reynolds said. “We want our colleagues to not be afraid to ask questions. We know this will feel so overwhelming because they are about to get thrown a lot of material and resources. It will be more material and resources than they probably are ready to think about, let alone use.”
 
Professor Heather Evans, the Morton Beaty Endowed Chair, has also taught online for several years. She is experienced in the introduction level, upper level and graduate school level courses, but dealing with a short timetable to transition to virtual teaching is not without stress.
 
“I’ve never been asked to get multiple classes online in a week,” she said. “I strongly suggest professors to go asynchronous right now with the way they put their classes online, meaning recorded things that students do at their own time.”
 
Evans said students did not sign up for their classes to be online, and they may be home in places that lack a strong internet connection. The students may also face family and work responsibilities and a great deal of stress.
 
“Having students be online during a professor’s normal class time just won’t work for many students,” Evans said.
 
Reynolds suggests faculty keep things simple in terms of creating virtual or online resources.
 
“Don’t worry about anything looking pretty or working on an amazing set-up,” Reynolds added. “Just do the essentials to get things moving in class.
 
Communicating with students will be key, Reynolds explained. Email them often and give them a tentative plan, she said.
 
“Students are panicking just as faculty are as well,” she said. “Be flexible with your students, with your classes, with your material, and with the technology. Things may not work. It’s okay. Technology is great until it isn’t. There are ways around our first attempt and we have faculty who are experienced enough to help with this.”
 
Shell said getting courses down to the essentials is a solid option.
 
“It’s important to consider the main points you want your students to get out of your class and focus on those,” Shell said. “When considering lectures, recorded lectures may need to be shorter than a typical class period, but students can watch them repeatedly, which is something they can’t do for a regular class.
 
Shell said a professor’s classes may not look as originally planned. She has had to change one course involving collecting data from local middle schools. She decided to change the assignments to ensure her students get to think like a researcher without the opportunity to go out and collect data.
 
“Thinking about the key takeaway points of assignments and really considering adjusting assignments and expectations to accommodate our new learning environment could help,” Shell added. “We need to remember that, even more than usual, students may have life situations that make learning and class engagement challenging,” Shell said.

Professor Michael McNulty, chair of the visual and performing arts department, said work the VPAR faculty is doing to prepare for virtual teaching is remarkable.

“To quote my esteemed colleague Hannah Wunch Ryan in response to the loss of sentient access to artistic opportunities and experience on the part of our newly online students: ‘We will make beautiful and meaningful music again. I encourage you to keep singing. Sing in the shower. Sing on a walk. Sing on facetime to your nephew in Arizona, but keep singing. Others need your music right now, and you do, too.’”

McNulty said Ryan’s words are powerful and are true literally and metaphorically.

Virtual classes begin on Monday, March 23.

Photo by Earl Neikirk