Classes, community and COVID-19
COVID-19 forced the University to answer a new set of questions regarding how to safely teach its students.
As students, professors and staff prepared for the fall semester, COVID-19 forced the University to answer a new set of questions: What can the University do to ensure stability when classes may need to shift between in-person and online learning throughout the semester? How do faculty and staff cultivate community during a pandemic? And how does a university keep students engaged during the semester despite everything that’s happening in our world?
True to academia, UD’s search for answers began with research. Students were surveyed about their online learning experience as soon as the spring semester ended, and their answers guided the University forward. One of the students’ biggest concerns? Consistency from class to class.
To be fair, Ryan Allen, associate director of e-learning systems and support, said, “No one should call what happened in the spring online learning. The response to the pandemic in higher education was emergency remote learning.”
As soon as that emergency ended, student feedback was merged with faculty and staff expertise to establish some straightforward guidelines for course facilitation and engagement.
The answer to consistency was found on Isidore — UD’s open-source learning management system that was named after St. Isidore of Seville, the patron saint of students. Thanks to Isidore, students have a central location for all their course information this fall.
“Our goal is to reduce the cognitive load on students so they’re not learning how to learn,” said Allen. As students navigate a combination of online and in-person classes, a base level of consistency allows the students to focus on their learning outcomes instead of forcing too much emphasis on organization.
The fall 2020 guidelines do a lot more than promote consistency. In harmony with the University’s Marianist mission, the guidelines include creating intentional spaces for live connections between professors and students as well as a call to develop learning environments that foster flexibility, compassion and understanding.
Patrick Thomas, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the English department, is one of several professors who taught summer pilot courses steered by these guidelines.
“The challenge is recognizing that students are having to adapt to all kinds of course designs and a changing day-to-day experience while facing concerns for their family, their own health, commitments to work, internships, racial injustice, economic and health crises … their whole life outside of classes,” said Thomas. “If we really do care about teaching the whole person, then we need to make room for, and acknowledge, what they are going through.”
“If we really do care about teaching the whole person, then we need to make room for, and acknowledge, what they are going through.”
Educating the whole person is part of what makes UD unique. How faculty and staff continue to foster and develop a sense of community is another important goal for achieving success this fall.
“Fostering a community acknowledges the varying experiences students are having in class, and it’s trying to account for what is not available right now on a college campus,” said Thomas. “Think about how class discussions spill outside of the classroom and into the halls or over to Kennedy Union. That doesn’t necessarily happen in a digital environment. Intentionally building these spaces that are accessible for all of our students is going to be key.”
Sabrina Neeley, associate professor and associate dean for health sciences in the School of Education and Health Sciences, also taught a summer pilot course. Neeley points out that, although the delivery of a class may change, the heart of a UD education remains the same.
“It’s still about engaging — even though it may be through video and social media,” said Neeley. “It’s still about educating. It’s still about sharing and caring.”