In the spring, faculty and students had to adjust to all classes suddenly going remote due to the coronavirus pandemic. “It was quite a shock for everyone,” said Michael Brohman, M Arch, senior instructor in the Visual Arts Department. “But I was personally happy that the decision was made to shift,” he added. Plans for the fall semester, however, were dependent on the best available health and safety advice. While students were waiting to hear how CU Denver was going to plan classes, professors were also in a state of flux. Thankfully, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning got to work quickly to provide online resources on a variety of course formats.
Lindsey Hamilton, PhD, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, created a course in Canvas on effective online teaching. “It was open enrollment to anyone with a CU Denver email,” she said. “It was a model itself for a strong online course, and it gave tips on setting up courses in online and hybrid models,” Hamilton added. The idea was to prepare faculty for a range of instruction possibilities.
Safe Return Teaching & Learning Team
As part of the Safe Return team, which included a Teaching & Learning Return team made up of 18 faculty and staff, Hamilton researched possible course formats for different return scenarios, including in-person and off-campus teaching and learning. The next step was to educate the faculty about how these formats worked. “We created graphics about the different formats and a toolkit with a checklist for things to consider with different formats,” Hamilton said. Then a survey was sent to all instructors about what class format they’d like to use for their scheduled fall courses.
Hamilton admits that the process of investigating course formats, surveying faculty, and assigning formats to all fall classes was fast. “It was unfortunate timing, but that was the timing of the pandemic,” she said. “These decisions had to be made quickly, because student uncertainty had to be addressed quickly,” she added. The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning offers resources for all the course formats, and many professors took advantage of the online training.
There are some benefits to off-campus classes, Hamilton said. For example, she chose to teach remote and online classes this fall. “I have young kids in elementary school, and we didn’t know what the school system was going to look like—that was my rationale for not choosing to teach on campus,” she said. Although she loves teaching in person, she is “thrilled to not have to commute.”
Students & Professors Get Creative
It’s still unclear how long higher education will be affected by the pandemic, but it’s possible that some of the new flexibility will remain. “We can be really creative here; it’s an opportunity to reinvent education,” Hamilton said. Brohman, who usually teaches sculpture classes, tried to turn the switch to remote teaching into a challenge. “The Arts are really about problem solving with the solution being a visual representation,” he said.
Last spring semester, Brohman was in the middle of teaching a special topics class for the first time, Maquette Design, “which is making three-dimensional models for character design.” His students were planning to create a unique and original character in clay, but the switch to remote learning forced him to change the assignment. “The new emphasis was to transition an existing object into a unique character that they would develop using the form of the sculpture … The original sculpture would be used only as a starting point for their new character,” he explains.
The student projects did not suffer as a result of the assignment revision. “In fact, there were some really great personal explorations of subject matter that probably would not have happened if the students were not thrust into a situation of having to sit at home and adjust their normal approach,” Brohman said. Student Svetlana Varlamova gained two commuting hours every day when her classes went remote. “Switching to online went very smoothly for me personally. For this class, we required to have sculpting tools and also the clay of our choice. By working from home, I could set my personal schedule that works best for me,” Svetlana said.
Besides the online training resources available to professors, “We’ve hired 61 students to serve about 160 courses this year, so faculty can focus on what they do best—teaching,” Hamilton said. The idea is for the student assistants to act as technology support, managing issues with Zoom, making sure cameras work, monitoring chats during class, etc.
All the fast changes may ultimately benefit the university as a whole. “I believe that this transition forced both students and faculty to tap into their personal strengths and find creative ways to not only adapt but to become better problem solvers,” Brohman said.