Though not ideal for everyone, Texas Tech University faculty are making the best of a tough situation.
With the coronavirus forcing Texas Tech University to make the difficult, yet necessary, decision to close campus and move classes to online-only instruction, faculty are having to adapt their lesson plans to fit the new learning environment. For some, the process has been easy. For others, it's been daunting.
However, some faculty members who have taught distance-learning classes are offering their advice to those who are new to this scenario, while others are offering a look into their home office sanctuaries.
For 20 years, the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources (CASNR) has offered a distance agricultural education doctoral degree through the Department of Agricultural Education & Communications. Colloquially known as Doc@Distance (Doc[at a]Distance), the online doctoral program had humble beginnings.
"When the Doc@Distance program began in 2000, it was a steep learning curve, and we didn't have nearly the technology then that we have now," said David Lawver, a professor of agricultural education and communications.
Doc@Distance, which now is a Texas Tech-only program, began as a joint program between Texas Tech and Texas A&M University. In the beginning, Texas Tech had to use the network provided to them by Texas A&M.
"We used a regional fiber optic network that connected the universities together," said Todd Brashears, a professor of agricultural leadership and CASNR director of strategic initiatives in Washington, D.C. "You had to be at a certain site, and we had to rent time on those lines at certain times. It was a very rigid and very controlled.
"At the time we started the program, technology was difficult, at best. We'd have a class from 5-8 p.m., and our students had to go to one of those sites and connect. You couldn't sit at home or do it on the internet. There wasn't near enough bandwidth to do that at the time, and we didn't have the platforms for delivering materials, like Blackboard, that we use now. Everything had to be done via email, which meant that your files had to be tiny. You couldn't send large video graphics or anything like that. Everything was text based. It was difficult on a good day."
Some of the difficulties the Doc@Distance program faced 20 years ago are relevant to the current learning climate.
"If you want to draw some parallels between what we went through 20 years ago versus what we're doing today, I think there are some real commonalities of what we had to deal with," Brashears said. "David and I have been teaching distance for 20 years, and this transition is inconvenient for us but it's not a steep learning curve. It's something we're used to and something we deal with on a daily basis. However, there's faculty who have never taught at a distance and some who don't even have a smartphone and don't use email very well. They're now being asked to teach massive freshman courses online for the first time, and they're needing a lot of support."
Brashears said the biggest issue he had coming into Doc@Distance originally was that he didn't want to change anything.
"I wanted to use the same methods and the same model of teaching I always had," he said. "I tried to squeeze that into the technology, and it just didn't work. It took me a while to realize you have to change your expectations and you have to change the way you deliver the information to connect to the students. It's not just 'turn on the camera and talk like you always do.' It's very different. To me, it's more difficult to teach online, and it's more time consuming to make sure you stay engaged with the students and make sure they stay engaged with the course content and the things they need to be doing."
Finding the motivation to continue a daily routine can be challenging for both faculty and students. Lawver has a few suggestions for professors on how they can connect to their students during the transition.
"I try to have a personal email conversation with each one of the students who are enrolled," Lawver said. "Oftentimes, when you return an assignment in class, you pass them out to the students after you've evaluated them. But it takes a little bit more effort and dedication, I think, on the part of the instructor to communicate the feedback and those kinds of things. You need to be willing to dedicate time to maybe even have phone calls or Zoom conferencing sessions or other things like that. It just takes some dedication, and you have to stick with it to make sure you are giving that feedback."
Brashears also had suggestions for professors on staying motivated.
"For me, I'm very goal oriented, I guess is the best way to describe it," Brashears said. "I work better on a schedule. I've been teaching at a distance only for two-and-a-half years now. One thing that helps me stay connected is, I set aside time every day from 7 until about 11, 11:30 a.m. I only work on my coursework, and so it gives me time then to make sure those students are engaging with the material and to be able to check on each one of them. I don't do it every day, but I'll email every student. They will get an email from me at least once a week just to check on assignments or to give them feedback or something like that.
"It's really about setting aside time to dedicate to classes, because you can get so distracted with the other jobs we have and the other things we're responsible for. It can suck all your time away, and it's very easy to put students you can't see on a back burner and just assume everybody's doing OK. Then you get down to the end of the semester and you realize, 'Hey, I've got a student here who I haven't heard from since the first week, and they're not doing very well,' and you didn't even realize it. So, for me, it's just about systematically making sure I stay in touch with them and trying my best to make sure they're engaged."
A few things both Lawver and Brashears noted in particular are the resources Texas Tech has for faculty and staff.
"The other good news is that we have structures in place like the Teaching, Learning & Professional Development Center (TLPDC) that stands ready to help people with any issues, problems, advice or support," Lawver said. "There are also our IT Help Central folks who are really good at helping our distance students – the ones we currently have – helping them overcome technology challenges and things of that nature. Granted, those structures were maybe not designed to serve 30,000 students all at once, but I think with a little patience and everything, we can get it done."
Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa, a professor of nutritional sciences and the director of the Obesity Research Institute, gave her perspective of working and running a lab from home.
"While I have used my home, at times, to be more productive, focus on meeting some deadlines such as writing and submitting research grants, peer review of grants for funding agencies or grading student project reports, it is definitely a challenge to work 100% from home," she said. "I moved my whole office – desktop, phone, screens – and converted my dining room into my new office, and I plan to use Zoom for teaching for the remainder of the year. I teach a graduate-level, advanced research methods course focused on grant writing, and I am able to continue interacting with students during our regular meetings times.
"Our Nutrigenomics, Inflammation & Obesity Research (NIOR) lab had to close down, like most labs on campus. We have successfully used Zoom for our weekly lab meetings to remain in touch with students, postdocs, research faculty and staff, and it went very well."
Moustaïd-Moussa also shared details of her personal means of staying motivated and connected.
"Accountability and motivation are so critical in these challenging times as we work from home, especially those who have children," Moustaïd-Moussa said. "What I did for my lab is generate an Excel spreadsheet shared through OneDrive for all lab members with weekly readings and writing assignments. I also asked each to edit and add a list of tasks they plan to accomplish each week. I continue to require weekly reports from all lab members, including undergraduate researchers. They also know I am available during business hours online and via text for any questions they may have."
While Moustaïd-Moussa notes that working outside the lab setting isn't ideal, she said it's a good way to find new opportunities and focus on writing.
"The major loss for us is not being able to conduct experiments on the bench, which is critical for most biomedical basic scientists," Moustaïd-Moussa said. "However, the current situation also provides us with other opportunities, such as completing a paper we never had time to do or analyzing data for writing new research proposals. Students can use this time to develop or finalize their thesis or dissertation proposals, analyze collected data, write their dissertations and submit their manuscripts for publications as they can now redirect their research efforts to writing. The same goes for postdocs and faculty.
"Students who have not been here long enough to generate data can start on their literature review, and possibly even target it for peer-reviewed publications. This is a good time to read published research related to our research and make progress in our writing. Fortunately, Texas Tech has an excellent library and TLPDC resources, as well as research resources through the Office of Research & Innovation."
Justin Louder, associate vice provost of eLearning & Academic Partnerships and interim superintendent of TTU K-12, said Texas Tech has a long history of online learning, which has better positioned the university for this unique situation.
"Texas Tech University offered more than 100 different fully online programs before the COVID-19 pandemic required the university to move all classes online," Louder said. "Because of the robust online offerings already in place, we already had the processes and staff to assist faculty in moving online. The staff with eLearning & Academic Partnerships has worked with faculty from all over campus to transition their courses to a remote delivery option.
"We have partnered with the TLPDC and the Information Technology Division to make sure faculty have the resources and support they need to continue to educate Texas Tech students. It has been a difficult few weeks, but the Texas Tech community has come together to make sure we will still provide a quality education to all of our students from wherever they may be."
Joseph Dannemiller, assistant academic dean of the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, said the College of Engineering is adapting to working on and completing projects virtually.
"The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we all work and continuing with yearlong, semesterlong or even weeklong, hands-on projects is simply not possible at this time. Fortunately, every engineering field utilizes computer-based simulation and analysis programs. In lieu of hands-on, face-to-face projects and labs, the College of Engineering is working to implement tools for our students to move capstone projects and regular semester labs online. This transition is being handled on a department-by-department basis, focused on the needs of the students and the capabilities of each department.
"We are fortunate that over the past few years Dean Al Sacco Jr., our faculty and our information technology group have been moving to a server-based deployment for most of the industry-recommended engineering software we teach our students. Obviously, we will all have to work very hard in the coming weeks, and everyone in the College of Engineering is committed to working with our students to make this transition as smooth as possible. In the end, we feel confident our students will have a better understanding of how to work in a global economy – an economy that will, most likely, look very different after the weeks to come."
A look at faculty home offices
With students, faculty and staff packing up and moving home, people have turned their home sanctuaries into makeshift offices. Some Texas Tech faculty members shared what their new workstations look like, hoping to inspire others on how to utilize their space.