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Adjusting to online learning

It's a strange time for professors and students at the University of Utah.

Erin Carraher is using no fewer than five digital platforms to teach her architecture studio class in the age of Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Erin CarraherLike all University of Utah professors and instructors, Carraher had to try to replicate all the intensive hands-on analysis and interaction her course requires onto the web when the university shifted classes online March 18 to slow the spread of the virus. Faculty and students had just a few days at the end of spring break to prepare for a fundamental change in the traditional in-person lecture format of college education.

And necessity has led to invention. Some professors are hosting Facebook Live question-and-answer sessions with their students. Others are recording and posting their lectures on YouTube. Zoom and Skype for Business video chats are ubiquitous.

But Carraher, an associate professor in the School of Architecture+Planning, has taken digital teaching four steps further, using multiple apps and online platforms:

  • Slack for informal communications
  • Zoom to meet every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, during regular studio hours
  • Canvas to post a master semester schedule and suggested drawings
  • Zoom “breakout rooms” for one-on-one consultations
  • Google documents with class meeting times and group discussion schedules

“We’re trying to be very sensitive to the varying access and bandwidth of each student, while also supporting those who do have the time and interest to keep up the great momentum they have built this semester,” Carraher says.

For students, the disruptions in the 2019-2020 school year have been layered, one on top of the other—first the end of in-person discussions with other students and their professors, then the library and most campus buildings closing, and finally changing plans for Commencement. Still, they’re trying to rally.

David Eccles School of Business student Taylor VanderToolen says he prefers in-person learning on campus. For the most part, his professors’ Zoom webinars have worked well, with a few minor losses of internet connectivity. The silver lining, the freshman from Holladay says, is being able to sleep in.

“Changing to online-only has been difficult,” VanderToolen says. “But I think that we can all learn a lot from this experience, and I will leave this quarantine much more grateful for social activities, events, and in-person contact.”

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed is proud that the campus community has pivoted so quickly during this period of inconvenience and uncertainty and has unleashed it spirit of innovation with technology-aided education ideas and approaches. The COVID-19 crisis already has led the state’s flagship research university to become more nimble and innovative, Reed says.

“The alacrity with which we were able to launch online-only education in so many intellectual domains shows there are creative ideas being developed and tested during this crisis,” he adds. “We will draw the best insights and approaches to shape future efficiency, research and scholarship.”

In the meantime, Scott Ward, a College of Health professor of physical therapy and athletic training, will continue talking to his students on Facebook.

“We miss, more than we might have thought, being able to choose between actual and virtual connections,” he says. “We crave our associations with people. Although I have always preferred actual face-to-face connections, I have discovered the power of the virtual opportunities we now are using to teach, reassure and unite in this uneasy time.”

Instructors Martha Howe and Abigail Ririe will be posting videos of their pilates and barre tone sessions on YouTube for Exercise and Sport Science Fitness students.

And Carraher is working to master Explain Everything, an app which allows professors and students to make simultaneous notes on the same virtual whiteboard or drawing.

“While not every student can attend class every day, they have all indicated that it’s nice to have the virtual company,” she says. “Everything isn’t working perfectly yet, but I do think we’re managing to maintain some small sense of normalcy during these strange times.”