Article 6 - Coastal Carolina University
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Moving Courses Online During a Crisis

Amber McWilliams, senior lecturer; chemistry; Gupta College of Science

Amber McWilliams

On March 5, the last day I taught lecture face-to-face with my students, there were rumors swirling around about extending spring break at Coastal Carolina University (CCU). My students and I had a good laugh and I sarcastically warned them to “take all of their stuff.” Then I dramatically turned and said “but seriously, take your notebook, calculator, and laptop; whatever you may need.” Turns out that was great advice. Spring break was extended by a week. And that already seems like the distant past.

We’re now ending our third week of teaching exclusively online. In some respects, I’ve honed my course to work the best it can for my students. But I’m completely lost without my students. Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” plays in the back of my head as I write this. Because, to be honest, what AM I without my students? Normally, they would be there to make fun of me awkwardly singing that Air Supply song. I’ve spent time over the last few weeks agonizing between focusing on quality content for my students and keeping some small amount of sanity. This requires juggling expectations, home life, parenting, and fear of a growing pandemic.

I first came to Coastal Carolina University in 2012, and for most of those years, I have acted as the general chemistry laboratory coordinator. We’ve had numerous hurricanes of seemingly increasing severity causing cancellation and later redirection of classes to an online environment. These disruptions taught me to be prepared for weeks of alternative instruction, which is particularly difficult for laboratory-based courses.

I have also taken an extensive number of CeTEAL courses featuring online learning; everything from various Learning Management System (LMS) features to encouraging student engagement online. My colleagues, Drew Budner, Brett Simpson, and I worked to create hybrid courses for thegeneral chemistry sequence through two Coastal Office of Online Learning (COOL) development grants at CCU. The three of us had numerous conversations concerning the effectiveness of remote learning of laboratory skills that often require tangible equipment and careful technique. I am extremely grateful for my experience in helping to create those courses because I’ve found that knowledge invaluable in our current, unique situation.

I think the most powerful idea that I’m gaining from this experience is that distance learning doesn’t have to be lesser than.
~ Amber McWilliams

To be honest, even with all of these experiences, nothing could have prepared me for this situation. I’ve heard this referred to as “crisis schooling” by numerous educators, parents, and the like. I think that pretty much describes it perfectly. Regardless of one’s previous experience with distance learning, this is different.

It’s different because we aren’t simply moving our courses online. We are dealing with a plethora of new circumstances and challenges. There’s creating a new work space, which for some is shared with numerous “new colleagues” (spouses and children) in the (dis)comfort of their own home. Creating a space in my home where I’m “at work” has presented its own challenges. Working from home is completely different than getting up and leaving home for the office. A friend of mine that has worked at home for years announced on her social media account some tips to us newbies (summarized and modified here):

  • Set up a dedicated work space. You’ll want to leave this space at the end of working. For real, leave it far behind you. Like Dorothy heading over the rainbow.
  • Get up and get dressed. It makes a difference. Put shoes on! I don’t know why, but it helps.
  • Schedule your day with regular timed breaks—snacking can become an issue if you let it. I break at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Personally, I’ve let snacking be an issue. And I’m OK with that!
  • Do you do laundry while you’re at your office? Nope. To maximize your efforts, leave household chores for after working hours. Or, just don’t do them. This is a crisis!
  • Set boundaries with your family for essential work tasks. If home with a spouse and young kids, take shifts in who’s responsible so work can be accomplished. This one has proved impossible. My kids don’t believe in boundaries.
  • Don’t let your dog take advantage of you being home. They’ll want to go out seven times a day, but stay strong.

Another challenge is the breadth of different online tools available. I’ve been hit with 12 new-to-me systems from lab simulations to virtual meeting programs. Each of them has its own nuances, and the ones being used by my children’s teachers are new to them as well. It is rewarding to discover several new tools that I plan to implement in my classrooms in the fall. Trial by fire is teaching me quite a bit about what will and won’t work.

The biggest challenge is converting a primarily face-to-face course to an exclusively online course, which in it of itself, takes a great deal of time. And, if you’re like me, you want to do it right. But with very little time to implement big changes, it was more like throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick.

I almost immediately chose to move my course into Microsoft Teams, even though I had little experience with it. I was already using Moodle in conjunction with McGraw-Hill Campus where students have traditional digital homework problems (Connect), reading assignments (LearnSmart), and online tutoring through Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) adaptable learning modules

In my face-to-face classroom, I typically use a combination of lecture and small group work. I wander around the room during group work and encourage them to collaborate and point out mistakes or confirm correct work. Microsoft Teams is really a virtual version of my classroom. It has a central messaging board, an assignment app and chat rooms where students can interact with me or each other.

I’ve set up individual spaces only accessible to specific members for each group to collaborate on worksheets. They can share pictures of their work or edit directly into the worksheet. I also asked them to schedule a meeting once or twice per week to video chat with their group. I am included in the meeting, but I do not attend unless requested. This allows me to see who is attending the meeting, see how long they meet for, and drop in if necessary but still give them privacy as if they were at their own table. This is similar to breakout meetings in Zoom, but allowing more scheduling flexibility.

The downside is that while I still have worksheets (everybody loves a good worksheet!), I’ve been heavily editing them to reduce the rigor and length as to not overwhelm students. We lost nearly two weeks of instructional time (one week to extended spring break and the rest to
“adjusting to life online”). So cramming the same expectations into less time was not possible. As Provost Ennis suggested, I really took a look at the learning outcomes for the class and attempted to prioritize the topics accordingly.

For the General Chemistry Labs I and II, it was difficult to find quality replacement activities in such a short time. While there are an overwhelming amount of online simulations, video recordings of experimental procedures, and available data with which students could analyze; it was an effort to sift through and find the most appropriate and seamless substitutes that would present as little confusion as possible to both students and faculty. Luckily, Simpson had recorded video of one procedure that we were able to use. The others required the combined effort of several faculty, using online simulations and creating new procedural instructions. I don’t feel as if these really replace the hands-on experience of being in the lab to handle equipment and chemicals, but to finish out the semester it was satisfactory. As the lab coordinator, I am already searching and thinking ahead for a better alternative in the future.

I would say the most important thing in transitioning my courses online was continuing my relationship with my students. Unlike a traditional distance learning course, I know my students from face-to-face meetings. I know their faces and voices and their mannerisms. I fully believe that this was an advantage to students in transitioning to the online environment because they already knew each other quite well. 

More than anything though, I miss my students. It has been a tradition for me for several years that I take a last day photo with all of my general chemistry lecture students. This year there will be no picture (well not a traditional one, anyway). But there will be lasting memories, both good and bad. ~ Amber McWilliams

 During the week of March 23, our first week all online, I met in Microsoft Teams with almost all—50 of 55—students in virtual meetings in their small groups. While I didn’t ask them to turn on their video cameras, nearly all of them did. This was, far and away, the highlight of my online teaching experience thus far. I think that this was a necessity to keep them connected to me and to each other. Most of the groups are still consistently meeting once or twice a week for video chats.

I also have experienced a great deal of gratitude from students, everything from appreciating clear communications of new expectations to simply being understanding and flexible. Since our transition to virtual learning, I’ve had four students contact me with deaths or severe illness in their close families. In an informal course survey using Microsoft Forms, roughly 40 percent of my students said they were experiencing depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental stress. This was in an open-ended question simply asking if they had additional comments and did not ask if they were struggling. Our students are hurting, and it is important that we recognize this.

I think it is also important that we acknowledge that this is what education looks like in a crisis. It isn’t pretty. It was hastily executed. Some doesn’t meet our high expectations for student learning. Once this pandemic is over, which hopefully is sooner rather than later, I hope that we are able to reflect on this experience recognizing that this isn’t what online education has to look like. With forethought, training, and planning, distance learning would look different than it does for many of our courses. There are excellent tools out there to make distance learning nearly as good as face-to-face learning. While that seems next to impossible in the hard sciences, even that can be attained. I think the most powerful idea that I’m gaining from this experience is that distance learning doesn’t have to be lesser than. But it is completely out of the comfort zone for many of us. While I will always advocate for face-to-face, hands-on experiences particularly for laboratory courses, I recognize the value of being flexible with the delivery of course content. Incorporating some of the tools we’ve been forced to use now, such as virtual office hours, could lend better flexibility to our face-to-face classrooms in the future.

More than anything though, I miss my students. It has been a tradition for me for several years that I take a last day photo with all of my general chemistry lecture students. This year there will be no picture (well not a traditional one, anyway). But there will be lasting memories, both good and bad. I do hope that my students can look back on this class and know that I tried my very best to provide them with a reasonable learning environment and a big dose of love and understanding.