UMW professors find creative ways to teach through COVID-19

by | May 3, 2020 | Health & Wellness, University of Mary Washington

From UMW:

Teaching at Mary Washington looks a bit different lately. Andi Smith films YouTube videos with her children to demonstrate architectural principles. Zach Whalen uses cartoons to teach a digital studies lesson. Smita Jain Oxford holds Zoom office hours for business majors on her daily jog.

Assistant Music Professor Christopher Ryder teaches conducting over Zoom. "I’ve been impressed by the students’ ability to adapt to very difficult circumstances," said Ryder, who is among the UMW faculty who are now finding new and creative ways to teach remotely.
Assistant Music Professor Christopher Ryder teaches conducting over Zoom. “I’ve been impressed by the students’ ability to adapt to very difficult circumstances,” said Ryder, who is among the UMW faculty who are now finding new and creative ways to teach remotely.

When the University moved to virtual classes last month due to the coronavirus pandemic, UMW faculty had to adapt quickly. Some already had experience with online instruction, while others became students themselves, seeking advice from tech-savvy colleagues – as well as the Digital Learning Center, Center for Teaching and UMW Libraries. Armed with a variety of technology tools, they’ve been finding creative and engaging ways to educate, support and stay connected to students through the end of the semester and beyond.

Students are facing multiple challenges as they complete their coursework, said Janine Davis, an associate professor in UMW’s College of Education. Dealing with limited internet access, caring for sick family members and serving in essential jobs are among their chief concerns, she said, and they’re also managing a wide range of emotions.

“We have to give students some space,” Davis said, “but also let them know we’re here and we want them to succeed and be healthy.”

Balancing “academic rigor with compassion” has been the goal of Lauren McMillan, an assistant historic preservation professor who has tried to simplify her online assignments while maintaining the high quality of instruction found at Mary Washington. “One of the most important things to me right now is helping my students cope in this one small way.”

The director of UMW’s Eagle Pipe Band, McMillan recently took a photo of herself giving a Skype bagpipes lesson to rising senior Matt Smith, which she submitted to the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Instagram page.

“We’ve highlighted our faculty’s dedication, creativity, good humor and concern for student learning through this crisis,” said CAS Associate Dean Betsy Lewis, who asked professors to share images of their remote teaching experiences for the “UMW Teaches Through COVID” (#UMWteachesthrucovid) project.

Taken by the instructors themselves or family members, the photos give viewers an intimate and humanizing glimpse into UMW professors’ lives and workspaces – home offices and studios, living rooms and kitchen tables.

Some sit poised at laptops, videoconferencing with students, while others prerecord themselves using elaborate setups. They employ new-fangled software many were unfamiliar with at the beginning of the semester – Zoom, Canvas and Screencast-O-Matic.

Pets and kids sometimes get in on the scene, like Mara Scanlon’s cat perched on her lap while she reads poetry, Michael Benson’s dog lounging behind him as he teaches scenic painting or Theresa Grana’s baby, who sleeps as her mother tapes a late-night biology lecture.

“I was struck by the variety of senior and junior faculty from across the disciplines who participated,” said Lewis, citing Ana Chichester, who has taught Spanish at Mary Washington for over two decades, and will teach virtual summer classes. Instead of a final paper, Chichester said, she asked her students to keep a journal of their experiences during the pandemic – in Spanish, of course.

Teaching sculpture online has been challenging, said Art Professor Carole Garmon, whose photo shows her evaluating a sculpture by senior Laura Link – a face mask created with vaccine caps. “But I’ve been amazed by how students are incorporating current events into meaningful and provocative works,” Garmon said.

John Burrow had never taught virtual business courses, but said he felt better prepared after a workshop led by Jerry Slezak from UMW’s Digital Learning Center and Victoria Russell from the Center for Teaching, who provided insights he hadn’t even considered.

“I wasn’t excited to teach online, but I’m thankful for it,” Burrow said. “I can’t imagine what we would have done 10 or 15 years ago.”

Certified in online instruction, Assistant Education Professor Melissa Wells urged her colleagues to keep it simple and be empathetic to students, especially as they navigate completing final papers, projects and exams remotely.

“Maintaining the human connections with learners,” Wells said, “is the secret to thriving in online teaching.”

Faculty are hard at work planning an online course on the COVID-19 pandemic, to be offered in June and July. It will be an interdisciplinary course featuring faculty lectures from across the university and will be open to all UMW students as well as community members and alumni. Look for an announcement on how to sign up for the course in the coming weeks.

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