Remote Learning Takes Off UW-Superior instructors and students step up to the challenge of remote learning amidst pandemic

UW-Superior students are about a month into learning remotely since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In a historic first, colleges and universities across the country scrambled to deliver courses in alternate formats as people sheltered in place. At UW-Superior, instructors stepped up to meet the immense challenge, transitioning more than 400 face-to-face courses in only two weeks’ time.

“Designing a course in a remote learning format is a complicated and challenging task, especially under a two week timeline, but the UW Superior instructor community rose to the challenge in every way,” said Maria Cuzzo, interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. “It was a stunning accomplishment and reflects our commitment to quality teaching and learning.”

As the first in the UW System to offer online programs, UW-Superior has a long history of distance learning solutions, which proved beneficial. Another invaluable asset was the university’s Digital Strategies Team, whose staff quickly sprang into action to assist students and faculty make the transition to remote learning.

“It’s important to make the distinction that what we, and other universities, did really wasn’t simply ‘going online,’” said Rebecca Graetz, instructional program manager. “Online programs per se are designed with specific preplanned pedagogy and outcomes. What we did was act creatively and quickly to adapt existing coursework for remote delivery in ways that would preserve quality and educational outcomes to the greatest extent possible – online delivery being one of the modalities.”

Graetz and Delwin Wright, instructional designer and technology consultant, assisted as many as five instructors per day during the two-weeks of preparation. In addition, a Continuity of Operability (Co-Op) team of faculty was formed to consult with instructors and assist students with the change, troubleshooting issues ranging from access to technology and connectivity to helping students resolve personal issues resulting from the pandemic, and assisting their peers with transitioning courses.

Through it all, the message that resonated throughout the university from top administration through all departments was one of unwavering commitment, understanding and support for students and the entire campus community.

“My remote learning experience has been a pretty smooth transition,” said Hannah Brunner, senior elementary education major. “All of my teachers have been very flexible and understanding due to the unprecedented times we’re in.”

Using Every Tool in the Toolkit

“It helped that the university had implemented a new online learning platform called Canvas recently and had already provided a significant amount of training,” said Wright. “Many instructors were already using Canvas to some degree in their classes. Perhaps a silver lining is that this crisis has given us the impetus to continue integrating Canvas, not only as an instructional tool, but also in non-instructional ways, as well, such as grading, professional development and day-to-day work procedures.”

Some courses lend themselves easily to remote delivery, but others centered around experiential learning were particular challenges, prompting instructors to pull out every educational tool in their toolkit.

For Khalil (Haji) Dokhanchi, professor of political science, using a Zoom meeting for his Political Science 101 class has proven to be effective, as has using the topic of the global pandemic for instructional purposes.

“I have had over 90 percent class attendance, which is literally the same as what we had in-person,” he said. “I think the virtual meeting format allows me to talk to students and enables them to interact with each other, just as in class. When our situation returns to normal, I plan to continue to offer some courses via Zoom because it allows students to join in from anywhere.”

Professor Dokhanchi used the global pandemic scenario to create a simulation for his class in which students represented seven countries and had to negotiate a compact for how to prevent future virus outbreaks.

Political Science professor, Khalil (Haji) Dokhanchi uses Zoom to conduct a Global Compact on Prevention of Infectious Diseases simulation experience in his Political Science 101 course.

Leveraging Strengths

For Scott Minor-Smith, an experienced online instructor in the Communicating Arts Department, the recent switch to remote learning presented few challenges. However, his expertise was tapped to assist others making the transition.

“I look at this from a strengths perspective, rather than deficit,” he said. “How can we use online learning to our advantage? What tools and techniques can we use to enrich student learning through the use of technology? We have a huge asset in our Canvas online platform, and by using it effectively, coupled with multimedia resources, student participation and dialogue, I’ve found it to be a dynamic learning experience for students.”

Scott Minor-Smith, Communicating Arts senior lecturer, provides an up-close look at online learning at UW-Superior.

Some classes were particularly challenging because of their hands-on experiential nature. And while it may be true that nothing will ever completely replace the benefits of face-to-face classroom environments, UWS instructors have been very creative in finding solutions.

For example, Erin Aldridge, music professor, teaches violin lessons, which of course, are typically done face-to-face in a small studio providing a private setting between instructor and student where sound is optimal. While ultimately nothing can truly replace face-to-face lessons, Dr. Aldridge has found Zoom to be the best alternate platform. “Sound isn’t optimal and sometimes technology poses challenges, but now I’m finding I can listen for intonation and rely on visual cues to help my students. I’ve also lost the ability to physically show students where to place their hands, etc., but I’m doing my best to take my pedagogy and mold it around the students and our circumstances.”

Erin Aldridge, music professor, uses Zoom for one-on-one music lessons with her students.

Cassie Brown teaches Ojibwe language classes at UWS and has found audio to be an effective way for students to practice speaking the language and to conduct quizzes and assignments. Brown records questions in Ojibwe that students have to listen to and record their spoken answers. Brown’s class is also working on a QR code project in which they are labeling campus in Ojibwe and using QR codes that people can scan to hear the word for places like ‘cafeteria’ or ‘classroom’ and view the spelling. Labels will be put up when students are back on campus.

Cassie Brown, Ojibwe language instructor, uses audio files for students to submit tests and assignments.

“There are many pros and cons with this unexpected transition,” said Kristiina Thums, senior instrumental music education major. “But, I am trying to make the most out of the final weeks of my undergraduate degree and I really appreciate the effort my instructors are making. I look forward to when we are all able to be together again.”