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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Lecturers discuss obstacles, plans for remote instruction

Faculty explore alternatives to engage, offer flexibility to students 

Following UC Davis’ decision to implement remote instruction for the remainder of the academic year, students and faculty now face some challenges in the transition from in-person to online classes.

John Theobald, a continuing lecturer in the Department of Communication, will be instructing CMN 142: Newsmaking and CMN 148: Contemporary Trends in Media. Both courses aim to teach students about the principles of journalism and globalization in media, respectively. He plans to post weekly asynchronous lectures so that students can access his videos on their own time, and he plans to incorporate video supplements and a participation component. Theobald explained, however, that finalizing Winter Quarter grades and preparing for Spring Quarter courses in the span of one week of Spring Break has posed a struggle.

“We’re having to do this very quickly, as are students, on how to access and work with different systems,” Theobald said.

Theobald noted that courses are going to lack the polish and careful preparation that would otherwise be expected of an in-person class. 

“We’re all operating under very pressured, less-than-optimal circumstances, and as a consequence of that, we are going to be cutting some corners — it’s unavoidable,” Theobald said. “It’s just a function of having very little time to prepare for this.”

Theobald said many faculty members on campus have never taught an online class before. 

“Some things lend themselves to an online format better than others,” he added. 

Lynette Hunter, a professor and Ph.D. advisor for the Department of Theatre and Dance, addressed the obstacles of transitioning an advanced acting course instructed by Professor Peter Lichtenfels. Hunter explained the technical elements practiced in the course and other courses in the department, such as pauses and silences, gesture and movement and breathing and shared lines. The original structure of the course involved three hours twice a week — including one-on-one practice with the professor and group work, which is not as feasible in an online course. 

Hunter said the course is now structured to have the first hour as an optional Zoom room hangout or visiting hour where the professor will be available for questions and technical advice. Students can work either in the main room or in a breakout room in smaller groups. 

“We plan to split the class into one hour of visiting and two hours of actual group class time,” Hunter said. “They will be working primarily in gallery mode [on Zoom], but we hope to be able to pin two people. Breakout rooms make it a lot easier.” 

Hunter explained that the breakout room feature on Zoom — in which students can  break up into smaller groups and work privately before reconvening in the main gallery room with the entire class — will allow students to practice scenes together similar to the original structure of the course. 

Hunter acknowledged, however, that they are still working on finding a way to have students showcase their whole body vertically in order to analyze gesture and movement.

“This way of doing it is going to be very different because [the arts] are nearly the only department in the university — and in sciences as well, with labs — where you physically use your body as part of the learning experience,” Hunter said. “A lot of students take our classes precisely because they want that experience, so going online is not going to be something that a lot of students want to do.” 

Remaining optimistic, Hunter noted the possibility of remote instruction producing some courses that are specifically tailored for distance learning. 

“Who knows, we may be able to develop a suite of courses that are for distance learning for people with disabilities or people who live in remote places, but as far as you can go in a long-term way is a hybrid course,” Hunter said. “[Remote instruction] is actually quite important in interim, but in the long-term, I think there are many issues that need to be resolved.”

Mark Verbitsky, an assistant professor in the political science department, foresees two big challenges in his online classes: Keeping students motivated and building a sense of community in the class. 

Verbitsky will be teaching two upper-division political science courses next quarter, POL 113: American Political Thought and POL 151: First Amendment Liberties, both with about 75 students. He mentioned that remote instruction will have a major impact on his classes because he typically incorporates discussions and opportunities for students to work through questions together. 

“I’m not going to be able to have the same level of interactivity,” Verbitsky said. “I’m trying to come up with ways to maintain a connection with students, but it’s going to be difficult.” 

He plans to use both asynchronous and synchronous teaching, including recorded lectures for students to watch and absorb information on their own time as well as live sessions for students to attend. He hopes that students will better understand material if they are able to pause or rewatch lectures, but that they also have the option of drawing on the advantages of live sessions and spark discussions through that medium. 

This quarter will be Verbitsky’s first online course. Since this will be a learning experience for both him and his students, he plans to send out a survey for student feedback in order to better gauge reactions. He will adjust the course to help students learn better. 

Regarding student motivation, he acknowledged that students are understandably going to be distracted and may have more pressing concerns, which may lead to a tendency to push off videos and lessons. 

“On the one hand, I plan to build in some flexibility to allow for outside world factors, but on the other, I need incentives to keep students engaged, so I’ll have more small-scale assignments throughout the quarter such as semi-weekly quizzes that will take the place of a major midterm,” Verbitsky said. 

Regarding building a sense of community, he noted that he will utilize Zoom’s breakout room feature during live sessions, which will require students to talk to and learn from each other, as well as the discussion board on Canvas to facilitate group work for one of the major class assignments. 

“University classes can always be isolating, but now students are going to be literally isolated and many will be displaced, living in non-ideal study conditions, so I think it’s even more important to let students build a connection with each other,” Verbitsky said. “I think students can learn a lot from each other, but another part of this type of assignment is simply to encourage students to interact and remind them that they’re not alone.” 

Despite only having one week to prepare for Spring Quarter, Verbitsky said he is open to being surprised. He explained that students may be more responsive to his attempts to get them engaged and to draw more students to speak out to an online platform. 

“I also suspect that there will be different students than usual who get more involved in the class,” Verbitsky said. “Some students are comfortable speaking out in class, whereas others might be more comfortable in an online setting, say using the chat features in a live session or on the discussion board. I think the course could reach different people more effectively and I look forward to learning about this as we go.” 

In regards to the technical aspect of the transition to remote instruction, Verbitsky said that Academic Technology Services is doing a great job offering guidance to faculty in the rapid acquisition of software licenses and guidance on how to use them, but they cannot tailor support to each faculty member because of the limited preparation time. He noted that each department is working internally to meet the challenge. 

“Suddenly, what was background support is now front and center as one of the most important needs,” Verbitsky said. “The university is offering overarching guidance for this. Different disciplines will teach differently, though, so it’s ultimately more up to the departments and individual professors to decide how to adapt their classes to the new circumstances.” 

In the uncharted territory the university now finds itself in, Hunter also noted that although she believes it is unrealistic for the university to expect everybody to be able to do remote instruction and an entirely online quarter, she acknowledges the responsibility that faculty has to students. 

“We’ve got graduating students and we want you all to pass and finish your year,” Hunter said. “We have a responsibility here, even though it’s completely crazy, we’re all trying the best we can.” 

Written by: Graschelle Fariñas Hipolito — campus@theaggie.org


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