Adapting to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic

Thursday, May 7, 2020
Clockwise from top left to right: Tess Harpur, Suzinne Pak-Gorstein, William Tsang and Sara Mackenzie during an instructor Zoom meeting.

As Washington became the first state in the nation to identify an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, faculty in the School of Public Health quickly grasped that life was about to change.

“We were ramping up, knowing that we were going to need to shift to online teaching at the end of winter quarter,” said Dr. Sara Mackenzie, director of the B.A./B.S. in Public Health–Global Health and principal lecturer in Health Services.

And then, within two days, the University of Washington became one of the first in the country to make the switch to 100% online teaching. Few of the core Public Health–Global Health faculty had online teaching experience, Mackenzie said, and most had never set up a Zoom meeting. They had a lot to learn, she said, but also a lot of support from the School and University.

“I’m just blown away by the faculty, staff and students, and how they’ve risen to the occasion,” Mackenzie said.

The transition has not been without hiccups, from dropped connections to security lapses. But it also has sparked creative adaptations and efforts to strengthen teaching that faculty and students say will continue to influence higher education long after in-person classes resume.


Building a virtual community

How do you build community when you can’t meet face to face? That was a key challenge confronting faculty as they planned for this new way of teaching, says Mackenzie.

One answer for Public Health–Global Health was to require students to log on to classes at their scheduled times. “The evidence suggests that, in times of uncertainty, having opportunities to come together and connect can really be meaningful and important,” Mackenzie said.

That meant faculty couldn’t just lecture, she said. They had to be intentional about finding ways for students to contribute to the conversation.

Student with dog
Tess Harpur with her dog Hobbes.

Instructors, for example, are having students drop their ideas into the chat box and asking them to quickly answer questions via online polls, providing immediate feedback on how well they grasp a concept. Small-group discussions now take place in virtual break-out rooms, with one important difference from the classroom — instructors can’t walk around the room to check in and answer questions. As a result, faculty have learned that they must provide extremely clear, written guidance students can refer to during those break-out conversations.

Some of these tools have enhanced participation, said Stephanie Farquhar, the School’s acting associate dean for education and clinical professor of Health Services and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. “There's something about having the safety of that physical barrier of being online,” she said, “that I feel like more students are asking questions and participating.”

Online teaching, instructors say, also has required them to focus on the most essential material. They simply cannot cover as much in an online setting, Mackenzie and Farquhar agreed, though it’s unclear why that’s the case. It might take longer to “be really clear and share information in this format,” Farquhar said, and for students to get settled into break-out rooms or to switch between Zoom screens.

“If you have to get rid of two-thirds of content that you already thought was critical,” Mackenzie said, “you really have to step back and think, ‘What is it I’m trying to do? And how do I do it in a way that students are actively engaged?’”

For Sarah Sutton, who is both a second-year MPH student in Health Services and a teaching assistant for Public Health–Global Health, online teaching has been “exciting and challenging.” It’s also nerve-wracking, she said, because you’re learning as you go. “To be honest, having technical issues at the beginning of class can be enough to throw me off for the rest of class,” Sutton said.

Many instructors have expressed similar frustrations, said Farquhar. They are supporting each other through weekly meetings and have started observing each other’s classes to learn how others use Zoom’s features.

Challenges remain, but some former skeptics are converts to online instruction.

“I never thought I would say this,” Mackenzie said, “but I’m actually loving the online environment.”


Transitions to online learning

Not all students are as enthusiastic about the transition to online learning. It has been “more of a bummer on the student side,” Sutton said of her experience as a graduate student in her final quarter. “It’s sad not to see your friends and peers.”

That echoes what Farquhar heard when she polled her students, all graduating seniors, on the first day of class. Many seemed disappointed to miss out on the in-person experience. As of mid-quarter, a second poll revealed that most still feel the same, she said.

For Paloma Silva, a senior Public Health–Global Health major, the experience has been mixed. She likes being able to show up for her 8:30 a.m. class in her pajamas but also finds it harder to stay focused. While she feels more comfortable answering professors’ questions in the chat box than she did speaking up in class, break-out discussions can be “awkward” because the students don’t know each other.

Although Silva prefers in-class lectures, she appreciates her professors’ efforts to retool their classes for online learning. “Their quick adjustments and constant request for class feedback tell me that they really care and strive to make the online learning environment as enriching as possible,” said Silva.

Early on, Silva missed a week of class because she didn’t have an internet connection. Relying on her cell phone as a wi-fi hot spot had made it unaffordable. Silva was able to get an emergency grant from the School to help with the bill until she could get internet service set up at home. Other students who needed a computer have been able to borrow one from the University. 

Despite the challenges, students are making a “phenomenal effort” to be present, Mackenzie said. Students now live across the country and the world, in time zones up to 15 hours away. Yet most manage to log in at class time, and faculty accommodate those who cannot.

At the same time, security has been a challenge. There have been several instances of Zoom-bombing, where an unauthorized person gains access to a class and shows vulgar or inappropriate images. In one case, said Farquhar, a student was threatened. Such incidents have decreased as the University and Zoom have taken steps to improve security, she said.

But there’s one kind of Zoom-bombing that should be encouraged, says Sutton: Let students bring their dogs on camera. “That's a way to bring a little humor into it,” she said, “and also acknowledge the situation that people are in right now.”


Disruptions spur change, success

As both students and instructors realize that they can be successful in an online environment, online course offerings are likely to expand, faculty say. 

“It's making me consider things that I never thought about before,” Mackenzie said.

While it’s harder to do active, cohort-based learning online, she’s realizing that it’s not impossible. Perhaps, she mused, one of the three Public Health–Global Health cohorts could be offered online in the future.

Even service learning can be done remotely, the program discovered. After initially planning to scrap the community service requirement, faculty worked with partners to develop projects that more than 100 students could do remotely.

“Sometimes,” Mackenzie said, “it takes these big disruptions to force us to change.”