By MARTY LEVINE
Pitt–Greensburg experimented with a new course this summer to test the Flex@Pitt technology, further train professors in online teaching and give freshmen a taste of their first college class.
“This course we just did will change the way we look at especially first-year incoming students and how we give them a head-start” for the fall, said Greensburg faculty member Frank Wilson. He led a group of 10 professors from 10 subjects in teaching Interdisciplinary Studies 100, “Introduction to Knowledge,” with lessons focused on the pandemic. “This was so successful it has made us re-think a lot of things — I think it will be a continuing story.”
Securing one set of Flex@Pitt equipment with which to practice, Wilson got all 10 faculty masked and socially distanced in a classroom for the first session, while 40-plus students Zoomed in to the two-credit, non-graded course.
“I was sort of the emcee of this thing,” said Wilson, assistant vice president for Academic Affairs, who teaches in criminal justice and sociology. The campus president, biologist Robert Gregerson, created a lesson on virology basics, while other faculty conducted sessions on philosophical, historical, statistical and other aspects of pandemics past and present. The sessions also included introductions to the campus and to the new online technology.
On day one, Wilson said, “I was talking to the people in the room” but quickly realized he wasn’t facing the students. “If I wanted to see them, I had to be looking at a screen, and it was immediately awkward.
“I’ve been teaching at the university level for 31 years and after that short experience I’ve never felt as frustrated or flustered,” he said. He couldn’t tell whether the remote students could see or hear him or were asking questions in the chat box, and the more he moved his head, the more his glasses slid down his nose and fogged up.
“We learned that first day, you probably need a sidekick” to watch for student queries and help get them into their Zoom breakout rooms for small-group discussions. On a campus without graduate students, this can be tough, but recruiting and training undergraduates has proved helpful, Wilson said — where possible, this has become a work-study job or other paid position.
Gregerson experienced what is probably a worst-case scenario during his session: Internet for the entire Greensburg area went out.
“That just shows you, when you’re working remotely, it’s hard to predict all the crazy things that are going to happen,” he said. He used a cellphone to get back online, so he didn’t need internet in the room.
“For some folks, just learning to look at a camera was something to learn,” he said. “I think it was tremendously beneficial not just to practice with the technology but to use it in a real session.” After the class, the newly experienced faculty took these lessons to their fellow professors.
“It was not scary,” Gregerson said. “There were some folks, including myself, who were wary that it would feel distant and removed from the type of interaction you’re used to.”
But once he got going, he said, “it felt like we were in the same space at the same time and everybody could participate and make comments.” Now he sees the online component being used more frequently in the future — “seeing that it really is a different way to connect.”
Kristen Asplin agrees. A psychology faculty member, Asplin taught her class session on how the pandemic has affected our mental health and even the way we communicate. The only real glitch, she said, was trying to assign breakout rooms to students before the class started, based on their Pitt emails, then finding some had not logged in with their University accounts.
She felt the students in Introduction to Knowledge “responded really well. I think they really liked having a way to connect to campus before the semester. They got to see what it was like to do breakout groups and interactions within the setting.”
Having 10 faculty experience Flex@Pitt, while each had to plan only one week’s worth of material, was good practice as well, she said.
Heading the campus’s Committee for the Advancement of Teaching, Asplin has been helping to bring training sessions to faculty all summer and recording lessons on using various software. After the class, several participating faculty and a Greensburg IT staffer held workshops on Flex@Pitt and their experience with Introduction to Knowledge before the fall semester started.
“We’re really glad we did it,” Wilson said about the class. “We discovered, I think, almost all of the technical issues and how to train people to avoid the problems. Our goal is for Pitt–Greensburg to be one of the success stories in the adventure that is coming.
“We don’t think it’s made everything perfect,” he added. “The Flex@Pitt model is more labor-intensive than most of us are used to. It’s the kind of thing that I think takes serious training and it’s not ideal conditions to do it in a rush. … in the middle of this pandemic … but I do believe when this is over, we will see a lot more of this incorporated into universities across the nation, because we have seen some value in it.
“The problem I see for Oakland,” he continued, “it’s so much larger and there’s so much more complexity and they haven’t had enough time to be trained.”
Having just received student course evaluations, Wilson said, he sees that students had not particularly liked their online experience at the end of high school and would prefer to attend class in person. “But after this experience, they learned that it wasn’t that bad,” he reported. He said they rated Introduction to Knowledge as “helpful … and that they were glad that they did it.”
Wilson believes the class also kept attendees from falling behind in the summer, and noted that online summer classes had already been getting record attendance before the pandemic.
“I think it’s going to be incorporated — probably not with 10 faculty in one course,” he said, “but I know we’ll be discussing how to implement a version of this (class) even when the pandemic is over. It’s a safe bet in the coming years this is not going to be the only time we have this sort of disruption in business as usual. Now we’ll be better prepared for the future and won’t panic about it.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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