COVID-19: Adapting to the “New Normal”

Faculty Perspective

April 16, 2020

On March 11, 2020 a historic decision was made by the leadership of the University of Louisville including the Speed School of Engineering:  to move all instruction online. Within just one week, all classes were being delivered virtually.

Faculty, staff and students alike – along with the rest of the world – were taken aback by the sudden changes dictated by safety concerns from the rapidly spreading Coronavirus or COVID-19.

Erin Gerber, Director of Academic Affairs, Industrial Engineering, said the Student Affairs team quickly took action by collecting resources and disseminating information. “It’s been difficult for a lot of people,” said Gerber. “The faculty has taken up this challenge and worked really hard to understand how best to do online instruction and participate in training. It has been a huge effort of coordination to ensure everyone had the resources they need. I did find that the faculty in general, really rose to the occasion,” she said.

Gail DePuy, Associate Dean of Academic & Student Affairs and a professor of Industrial Engineering, agreed. “When this first happened, the response we received from faculty, department chairs and everyone across campus was phenomenal. Of course, other units across campus were also in “hurry- up and gear- up” mode so we are all in this together, and we were sharing information with College of Business and vice versa,” said DePuy.

The Challenge of Online Instruction

The Delphi Center, a University of Louisville resource for skills and training for online instruction, carried a lot of the load in terms of training faculty. “That faculty was at all ends of the spectrum – from well- versed in online instruction to not ever having done anything at all,” said DePuy. “To get people with varied backgrounds to a level of proficiency in less than a week is a testament to the instructors taking responsibility for their own courses, and more expert instructors helping other colleagues. People really do come together in a crisis; it’s a great thing to see.”

With the nature of traditional engineering curriculum dependent on hands-on instruction and lab work, how have Speed School instructors managed those challenges? DePuy and others gave examples of shifting and modifying expectations.

Senior students typically work in groups for their sponsored capstone projects where the end goal is the development of a physical prototype. “Now that they are unable to do that, those course expectations have been modified, explained DePuy.

“We’ve shifted to other tools, techniques and ideas that are still important for students to learn,” she said. “We have ways where we can spin and pivot quickly and make this into something that is still very valuable for the students.” Dr. Gail DePuy

Dr. Patricia Ralston, Chair of Engineering Fundamentals, said for her Engineering Fundamentals Class 111, students take the tools and methods taught from 110 and put them into practice in the Engineering Garage by building windmills. The critical portions left for students to complete this semester involved computer programming on hardware they no longer had access to. “What the faculty did for that course was modify so they still did a group report but didn’t do the group presentation they would have done,” said Ralston. “We talked with Gail (DePuy) and her group and we do feel we honored and remained true to the course objectives and the students met them, perhaps in a suboptimal way.

Dr. Erin Gerber has taught a couple online courses previously, but was always able to restrict course size to 25 -30 students. Of her three current courses, one has 27, but the other two have 50-60 students. “While the content created may be easier to disseminate to a lot of students, the problem is you don’t have in-class time to clarify things to the entire group, so you get the same questions by email from numerous students,” said Gerber. “The other difference is the prep is extensive compared to face to face classes,” she said. “When I taught online in the past, it wasn’t the kind of course that was hugely quantitative with problems by hand with formulas where I need to see their work. It’s a challenge.”

For Gerber, that has meant learning and incorporating additional tools such as Blackboard Collaborate so students can ask questions live.

Ralston is one of four teachers handling 250 students for second semester calculus, a face to face oriented course which would typically have a test and a quiz once a week. “In a typical online course, students are asked to find a proctor like a librarian or teacher, but that is not possible now. We are trying to devise a high integrity situation for testing because we feel very strongly that frequent testing – requiring students to retrieve something from memory and demonstrate their facility with that material – is key to learning. We didn’t want to lose that in this environment. Devising a way to assess students while maintaining academic integrity is a challenge.”

What about Co-Op?

“The hallmark of Speed School is the Co-op Program,” said DePuy. “This epidemic has not only had an effect on this semester for co-op, but will have a lasting effect because of the economic downturn. Our students won’t be able to find traditional co-op placements,” she said.

When classes moved to online in March, Speed School not only had to figure out online learning, but had to make complex, sometimes rapid-fire decisions about co-op. There are students in co-op placements around the country and around the world. “We had to get students home from different parts of the country or the world,” said DePuy. “We had to balance the student as an employee of the company and student of the University, where rules, deadlines and policies often differed between the two. We had to decide when to keep students on or take them off co-op. Now, looking forward, how are we going to accommodate students who cannot find a co-op position because companies aren’t hiring?” asked DePuy.

In addition, many students not only rely on those co-op placements for the experience and valuable academia-to work pipeline, but the pay they receive.  Many students need that money to continue schooling, and weren’t planning on this unexpected financial hardship. That hardship can also extend to students’ families.

“Many students have parents who have lost their jobs or experienced furloughs,” said Gerber. “Some students will be asking for continuing scholarships of some sort because their parents can’t help pay tuition. We will also have to watch some who have scholarships because they’re based on how they do in the market,” she said.

“We need to make sure we have enough scholarship money to continue everything, and giving out additional scholarships.” Dr. Erin Gerber

Supporting Students Number One Priority

How are students responding academically and emotionally to the challenges posed by COVID-19? The whole team of Student Success has tried hard to figure out how changes are impacting students even down to an individual level,” said Ralston. “Under Gail’s (DePuy’s) leadership, that has been the highest priority.”

“Engineering Fundamentals and Academic and Student Affairs have always had a very strong partnership, but in this time of crisis that partnership has really paid off,” said DePuy. “Pat’s (Ralston’s) group is so dedicated to our students and to the craft of teaching. Her department holds students to a high standard, but are also very concerned with the well-being of each student and in this time in particular, that has shone through. I know the students have appreciated it – they’ve spoken about it on numerous occasions,” said DePuy.

Ralston said a key partnership that has enabled her to stay in contact with students in isolation is REACH, the University program that offers tutoring and peer assisted learning sessions for many Speed School courses. “Fortunately we knew our PAL (Peer Assisted Learning) leader and he’s been staying in contact with students and will point me to students he’s concerned about, and I can reach out by email,” she said.

“I’ve had so many students mention to me, ‘I was afraid to ask for help, thank you for emailing me.’ It’s hard because it’s not like it used to be when I could walk up to someone in the classroom with their head down and shoulders shrugged, and ask how I can help. Those are the kind of things I did instinctively that I can’t do anymore,” said Ralston.

For Erin Gerber who teaches many seniors, she may not get to have another face to face interaction with many students. “I know one student who is returning home to Venezuela, and one about to go home to Panama. It’s difficult. We were sort of ripped apart, and we never knew we weren’t going to see each other again.”

Ralston said she believes students in general are responding very well to the challenges posed by online instruction and isolation, but she said she has had a bit of a revelation. “What I came to realize somewhat slowly, and I consider myself fairly sympathetic, empathetic and aware, is you just don’t know what some people are experiencing,” she said. Ralston talked about two students she encountered recently with special challenges: one a single mom with three children juggling childcare and academics, and another a young man who lost University housing and had to move in with grandparents who are elderly and at-risk. “In the second case, now suddenly, he has this added responsibility he had no intention or thought that would fall on him in this,” she said.

“That’s what I’m suddenly very aware of – we often make assumptions by remembering when we were 18 or 20, but this is very different,” said Ralston.

“Even the most resilient go-getter students may find themselves in very difficult situations.” Dr. Patricia Ralston

The challenge is that so many kids have said, ‘If you had not reached out, I was just going to let this go. I was afraid to ask for help.’ Those are the things we, as faculty need to keep hammering on and trying to improve communication.”