Since NMU decided to transition entirely to online classes for the remainder of the Winter 2020 semester, students and faculty have been adjusting quickly and navigating a new academic environment.
Even with the occasional EduCat slowdowns and outages, Zoom meeting headaches and shifting syllabi, Vice President of Extended Learning and Community Engagement Steven VandenAvond said he thinks the university was in some ways well-prepared.
When online classes were decided upon, NMU’s IT department shifted partitions and put in preemptive measures to help the university’s network deal with an increased load.
“Scholars and IT services were here all hours,” VandenAvond said. With these changes to the network, there have been a couple of setbacks—a large Educat malfunction last week and a 10-minute disruption on Monday, said Director of Instructional Design Technology Mathew Smock. Even with these crashes, VandenAvond said there is reason to be thankful for the position the university was in to handle the transition.
“The University was fortunate that it was well-positioned, with a strong center for teaching and learning that understands the issues and faculty that focus on students,” VandenAvond said.
Along with using Educat, professors are generally comfortable using online resources such as Google Docs, shared Google folders, Voicethread, Zoom group meetings and Google Hangouts.
According to Stacy Boyer-Davis, assistant department head for accounting, Computer Information Systems, cyber defense, finance and risk management and extended learning and community engagement scholar, Zoom licenses at the university have tripled and voicethread usage has upped 500%.
However some things, especially in the hard sciences, can’t be put online. Students conducting undergraduate research projects may have to postpone or drastically alter their projects in order to deal with new circumstances. Director of the McNair undergraduate Scholars Program, Heather Pickett, said she had some concerns about students’ abilities to conduct the research they want to.
“For students in social sciences and things that can easily be put online, it’s not a big deal, but for students who need to be doing lab work, it really can be a problem. If they’re not able to get into the lab, that will change the way they’re going to need to be doing research,” Pickett said.
The Freshman Fellows program and the McNair Scholars Program are not officially calling off research as of now. Pickett said they will wait to see how best to proceed. Despite this potential setback, Pickett remains optimistic that students can gain from these interesting times.
“Skills like being able to use statistical analysis and being able to communicate with a lot of different people from all sorts of different places, I think this is going to end up being a really good learning experience for everyone,” Pickett said. “Students figuring out new ways to implement their research now could end up being on the leading edge of a new way of doing research.”
Like students, Pickett said that NMU faculty are working hard to communicate with each other and learn from each other to best move forward.
“I think people were a little bit nervous at first, but also kind of excited because I think faculty like challenges,” Pickett said. “I think the hardest thing for people is staying committed to the work while they’re stuck at home, alone, in isolation.”
According to nursing Professor Lisa Flood, face-to-face training sessions were recorded for faculty to prepare them for the reality of online teaching. Surveys were also sent out to assess immediate needs, and two live webinars were held, taped and archived for faculty resources.
“Faculty has risen to the occasion, with really only four days to transition,” Flood said.
A great deal of this success is attributed to the work of the Center for Teaching and Learning, where professors can access resources and learn how best to transition.
“The Center for Teaching and Learning has been really helpful. They’re working like rockstars. They’re using technologies that they’ve been supporting faculty in using for a long time, but I think now their services are being used more,” Pickett said.