FEATURED STORY

Adjusting to the Reality of Online Instruction

Blended Teaching Brings Struggles, Successes

BY TY DEMARTINO ’90

For 30 years, Frostburg State University's Dr. Gerry Snelson '65 taught his English and Literature classes face-to-face. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the seasoned professor was forced to abandon his classroom in Dunkle Hall and adapt from face-to-face to camera-to-camera.

"I taught completely online this fall," said Snelson, who had to quickly learn online instructional programs for class discussion, assignment uploading and grading. "Essays came to me via Turnitin, a pretty good plagiarism catcher, and it worked for me. Once I got used to evaluating papers online, I started to see that I could do my grading that way almost as efficiently and quickly as with a pen."

Snelson was just one of many FSU professors who had to adjust their teachingstyles and course planning to keep their students and the campus safe.

Gary Snelson

After Spring Break in March of 2020, the University switched all of its classes to online when worries of the pandemic and the virus started to spread. In fall of 2020, FSU offered blended schedules, a combination of online and in-person classes with masks and social distancing required, and limited numbers of students allowed in each classroom. Frostburg professors with health concerns were given permission to teach completely online as well. As a result, 30 percent of FSU classes were held fully online in the fall.

“These results are a sign of the resilience, determination and talent of our students, and the skill and dedication of our faculty and professional support staff ...”

End-of-the-semester reports showed that Frostburg undergraduate fall performance was "consistent with and even slightly exceeded the most recent pre-COVID semester, fall 2019," according to Dr. Michael B. Mathias, FSU's interim provost. About 33 percent of full-time undergraduates (1,158 students) were named to the Dean's List, earning a grade point average of 3.4 or better.

"These results are a sign of the resilience, determination and talent of our students, and the skill and dedication of our faculty and professional support staff in working through the complexities of learning and teaching during a dynamic time and in a blended and online setting," Mathias said in an email to the campus community.

While some course content can be shifted easily to an online environment, other material presented a challenge, forcing instructors of science labs, video production, performing arts and others to think outside the classroom box and inside the computer box.

To figure out how to use technology in creative ways, many professors turned to FSU's Instructional Design and Technology Manager Rita Thomas '05/M'07/D'17. Her job is to work with faculty on the use of FSU's Learning Management System (LMS), troubleshoot and resolve issues and provide professional development for professors new to the online world, like Snelson.

"The courses that are ideal for online learning are well-designed ones that follow best practices in online course design," Thomas said, explaining these are traditionally "front heavy" classes that usually involve work prior to the semester and are aligned with learning activities, assessments and resources. "Then once the semester starts, the instructor is carrying out the plan and making items available through the LMS."

With the sudden pivot to teaching online in the spring of 2020, Thomas admits this was a major challenge for instructors. For fall, there was more time to prepare, but similar challenges.

#Folklore

One instructor who had difficulty in pivoting, for reasons beyond the pandemic, was folklorist Dr. Kara Rogers Thomas, professor of sociology, coordinator of the FSU Appalachian Festival and director of the FSU Honors Program. Rogers Thomas broke her leg one week before the start of the fall semester and was forced to hold all of her classes online after planning for them to be blended. It would be a different experience for the teacher known for her intimate, in-person folk storytelling.

"I love and value face-to-face communication," said Rogers Thomas. "Being virtual was a real challenge for the classes I do."

ARC virtual conference participants on zoom meeting

Another huge component to Rogers Thomas's courses is a community involvement and teaching partnership with Appalachian Regional Commission in which FSU students go out into the community to gather stories and traditions to pass along to younger audiences. Traditionally, they gather in small groups, huddle around and listen to tales of the days of yore.

Rogers Thomas witnessed a rise in her students' creativity and ways of delivering content. The traditional folklore stories are now being recorded and posted as podcasts.

"It's definitely a new means of expression," she said.

Overall, Rogers Thomas believes going online for the semester has changed the way she will teach in the future. She has grown accustomed to looking at the "big picture" of how course information is delivered. In person, she would often adjust her lesson plans depending on the pace of an individual class.

"You start with a module, with an overview, and you can see the entire semester," Rogers Thomas said of her online course planning during her recuperation into the fall. "Doing some of that has been helpful."

Someday, in the future, her folklore students may even tell the tale of "the semester spent online."

Cyber Art

Over in the Fine Arts Building, Professor of Illustration and Drawing Jamison Odone's physical classrooms are dark. His students are now huddled in a chatroom, uploading their drawings for review. The professor decided to conduct his four art classes online for the fall, and, according to Odone, it's going smoothly – minus the at-home distraction of "the occasional dog barking at a chipmunk." He even finds his students are more vocal and interactive online.

"My students were more productive, and my attendance was better," he said. "The face-to-face component is missed, but I intend to use some of these teaching formats in my classes going forward once large groups are safe."

student illustrations on a white board

Odone met students "live" at the regularly scheduled class times each day. He said they adapted quickly to the change, and it was even preferred for some of his digital design artists.

"Holding critiques was easier because I could help them with their projects by correcting things digitally in real time," he said. "I was able to replicate a real-life commercial artist's working environment. We were able to work as a team on projects. I was the art director, and they were the creatives and designers."

In his Art Appreciation classes, students could see Odone teaching while images of art popped up on their screens.

Still, he values the importance of in-person instruction.

"I do miss it because I feel that some of the students need professors to be there for them," he said. "College is their transition to their adult lives and their careers. They miss having their parents and teachers around them sometimes just as a comfort. I'm glad that I was able to give them a bit of consistency in this inconsistent time."

The Show Must Go On

Across the quad in the Gira Center for Communications and Information Technology, the Mass Communication program was re-thinking its policies on loan-out of cameras, lights and audio equipment for its production classes.

"The nature of the discipline is very hands-on, interpersonal and technology dependent. ... We needed to find unique ways to keep our students engaged during remote learning," said Annie Danzi, an assistant professor of communication who teaches video production courses. Students were also granted access to cloud-based software that was once reserved for on-campus editing suites. "Making sure they were equipped with the right tools was the first step toward making it all work."

Danzi continued to assign production work and challenged her students to film safely within their "bubbles" to fulfill course requirements, since in-studio experiences and in-person collaborations were off the table.

Annie Danzi with class via iPad

She consulted with colleagues and other industry professionals on how to keep shows going. Just as all TV network shows adapted their operations, Danzi had her FSU students film from safe locations. The results were extremely creative and an exercise in production problem-solving. She is continuing these tactics in the spring.

"I am really excited about a show my MCOM 488 (Multi-Camera Field Production) will produce as a team, from their unique locations," Danzi said, noting that she is requiring students to collaborate virtually on scripting, filming and editing episodes. "We are already isolated enough, and, in the real world, you don't work in a bubble. So, I'm striving to prepare them for that."

For her Advanced Video Production class, Danzi challenged students to make mini documentaries about their individual pandemic experiences.

"I had several students create really beautiful, poignant films on their time in quarantine. The ability to create films together about this challenging time was good therapy for all of us."

Even though Danzi, like other professors, found success, she still longs for that creative energy that comes from sitting together in a room and bouncing ideas off of one another.

"We are creative people," she added. "We build off of each other and inspire each other, so not being together in the classroom has been sad, to say the least."

Back in Dunkle Hall, Snelson was getting ready to pack up his office and turn off the lights in his classroom. After three decades of teaching and seeing the direction of the new online world of education, he decided to retire at the end of the fall semester. It was time.

"Teaching online had everything to do with my retirement. I had hoped for another year of teaching – another semester, at least,” Snelson admitted. "The frustrations of the separation between teacher and student made the move imperative."

Dr. Snelson: Logging off.