Eureka College’s Transition to Online Instruction Maintained a Personal Touch
By Blake Baxter
This is the last piece of a three-part series that focuses on how Eureka College has responded and adapted to the unprecedented circumstances posed by the COVID-19 global pandemic. You can read Part 1, on the EC Admission department, here, and Part 2, on student engagement, here.
EUREKA – The day after all Eureka College classes went online out of necessity, EC Provost Dr. Ann Fulop addressed the students in a “welcome back” email unlike any she’d sent before.
Due to the unprecedented public health crisis spreading across the nation, the students had their spring break extended by a week, and the learning environment that they were returning to was quite different.
“Monday was a historic day for Eureka College,” she said in the letter. “It is the first day we have delivered all classes online. You were part of making Eureka College history.”
“Even though we are not physically present with each other at this time, we are still a strong and connected learning community. I hope your first day of eLearning was productive, and do I daresay, enjoyable, if not humorous at times.”
Fulop then outlined expectations, offered encouragement and armed the students with academic resources they could use to get through this time of uncertainty and apprehension.
The letter was frank about the numerous and major disappointments that were just beginning to trickle out of the pandemic, but it also had a light, glass-half-full tone.
“If you are tempted to stop reading at this point because you got stuck in the muck, trick your brain,” wrote Fulop, an associate professor of psychology. “Act like you are excited; it will help to fight the disappointment because your brain will think you are excited.”
Fulop admits she was leaning on that idea herself when she pressed send. Though she’d spent the past week and a half putting all of her efforts into working with faculty, Public and Access Services Librarian Kelly Fisher and other staff to make the conversion as smooth as possible, it was still quite a leap of faith.
When you’re swept into uncharted waters, it’s hard to be confident.
“I just faked it,” Fulop said with a laugh.
Now that spring classes are over and Eureka College is cautiously optimistic in their planning for a fall return to in-person instruction, Fulop and her colleagues can look back with a sense of accomplishment.
“It was a tremendous amount of work,” Fulop said. “I think the faculty did a great job converting their courses very rapidly and still delivering quality education and supporting students as individuals, even in the online environment.”
“And for the most part, students have really stepped up and adapted well and done what they needed to do.”
Before online classes commenced, there was a rush to gather all the necessary tools and make them easily available to students and faculty. Fisher, who’s also the college’s Learning Management System Administrator, had her work cut out for her.
“My email inbox was full of special free trial offers and added content from vendors to help libraries support the new distance learning environments,” Fisher said. “Technical Services Coordinator Jen Rockey and I helped organize and set up trials for 20 new and expanded electronic databases, which we promoted via email and linked to our online databases page.”
Fisher also created an Online Teaching Resource Guide to help faculty enhance existing online course shells on the Learning Management System. And, through phone conversations and personalized step-by-step instruction emails, she coached faculty members through any question that arose.
Once the groundwork was laid, Fulop left it up to the individual faculty members to decide if they were going to teach students synchronously or asynchronously, based on what was right for their students.
In synchronous learning, education happens in real time. In asynchronous, learning occurs through online channels without real-time interaction. This spring, EC instructors used a wide range of learning models, often blending the types to create their own hybrid model.
From the get-go, it was clear that some subjects and classes had more visible paths online than others. For example, lecture-heavy classes could be recorded, uploaded and watched asynchronously on Brightspace (the College’s Learning Management System), while more discussion-based classes could be taught synchronously through Zoom.
But it wasn’t always going to be that simple, and for some areas – such as art, theatre, science and Spanish – it wasn’t obvious how it would play out at all.
When it began, Fine and Performing Arts division chair and art professor Rhea Edge heard concerns from colleagues and friends alike about how well applied courses would translate online. But she found that, particularly with her Art 221 Painting for Artists course, that wasn't the case.
While Edge demonstrated and instructed from her home in Bloomington, students displayed their art work and gave each other feedback from their makeshift home studios on Zoom.
“Smaller group sizes enabled us to work together with our ’at home’ individual studio spaces set up,” Edge said. “Students tried new techniques while keeping up with the work we originally planned to accomplish. Working together as we shared the challenges of our isolated world offered opportunities for fun, engagement and human connection.”
It helped, she said, that she was teaching students who had painted before and had already developed some basic skills. It was the perfect combination of class size and knowledgeable students.
One thing that made it work for senior Marisa Burton was that she felt like the class could be molded for students’ individual circumstances.
“Some of the students in the class are art majors, so they were working on stuff for their portfolio,” Burton said. “For them, it was time to do what they normally do, but for me, since I was just looking to kind of perfect my hobby, Professor Edge was really open to discussing styles and helping me interpret some things and learn some new techniques along the way.”
“It just depended on what the students needed; that’s why this one worked really well online. She was able to tailor it to each student in particular,” Burton said.
Originally worried about how going remote was going to affect her final undergraduate semester, Burton said that, between her detail-oriented approach to learning and her teachers’ flexible approach, it was a relatively smooth transition.
In Dr. Joe Cunningham’s writing-intensive, lecture-based Metaphysics course, Burton said that she learned more at home than she would have in class, because it forced her to spend more time on the readings.
And for all the papers she wrote, Cunningham gave substantial critiques in writing and by Zoom, spending ample time helping her interpret challenging passages from various philosophers.
Dr. Marygrace Kaiser’s Early Childhood and Development course was her only class with a Zoom lecture, and Burton was surprised to see how many students were logging on to participate. There was consistently a lot of student participation in both the chat and out loud in real time.
“She really made it fun in a time that we were all dreading logging in for class in general,” Burton said.
“These professors were extremely communicative with us,” she added. “They would meet with me at other times and they were really reliable as far as communication over email and Zoom. If you needed to talk, you’d get a response within five or 10 minutes saying when they were available.”
Another art professor, Chris Wille, adapted to an asynchronous approach for his digital media and design classes.
Usually, he would assign a project and go through a demonstration of tools or discussion of theory, and then move around the room helping students individually, but this didn’t work remotely. Instead, he organized a calendar of Zoom appointments with students and had them share their screen while he annotated with tools in the software.
This approach, of course, slowed down the process a little bit, which made patience essential.
“I was fairly patient to begin with, but this has made me focus on trying to be even more so,” Wille said. “There are a lot of things we have to collectively do to get through this, and if we all show a little patience and work together, we can and we will all be better for it.”
Theatre and drama professors Holly Rocke and Marty Lynch had to mix things up quite a bit as well. Their most valuable resource has been online streaming service subscriptions that Fisher attained, allowing students to watch live theatre.
In Rocke’s Dramatic Literature class, students could go watch productions from the National Theatre in London and then apply what they learned during the first half of the semester. In Acting, students recorded monologues and submitted them online. For Stage Makeup, they pivoted to making props from home.
“I was glad we got to do the first half of the semester in person, so I got to know the personalities of each class,” Rocke said. “I understood learning strategies that worked for each class. I also knew some of their family and work dynamics. It allowed me to create an online experience that was still personalized.
“To me, the key was to be nimble.”
Lynch’s classes also took on many different looks and shapes.
A Production class that was dominated by individual projects and shop hours became based around critiquing live theatre and home playwriting exercises. A Stagecraft course that was planned to feature building a number of scene-painting examples became a deep dive into Vectorworks 3D design software.
He did, however, find that his Playwriting class translated well to Zoom.
“If anything,” he said, “the isolation has made students more attentive.”
In a serendipitous twist, while his colleagues were figuring out how to adapt during a pandemic, biology professor Dr. Paul Small was teaching a course on Human Virology.
“When the class opened in mid-January I told them that we should watch the news about the Coronavirus emerging from Wuhan,” Small said.
The class began with a unit on the reasons behind emerging viruses and evolved into case studies that showed how accurate diagnoses are made and lively discussions of stay-at-home orders as the crises escalated.
“All of them are heading into the healthcare arena, from pre-nursing students to ones interested in pre-med, pre-dentistry and pre-vet,” Small said. “Many said that the current crisis only reinforces their desire to be a healthcare professional.”
For other classes such as Microbiology, Small crafted online labs that covered the same concepts that he would have been taught in person.
For Spanish professor Dr. Emily Eaton, the asynchronous format was never an ideal option. The easiest way to practice speaking the language is through conversation, so she chose to recreate in-person class activities by way of live Zoom sessions.
She heavily used the Breakout Rooms feature for partner/group chats, and though there wasn’t a way to listen to all of the conversations at once, it did give her the option of dropping in on them one at a time.
Group activities on Zoom took a little longer to get through than in person, so she compensated by offering optional extra credit activities in every class. By the end of semester, 74 percent of her students completed at least one extra credit opportunity. Engagement and class participation didn’t change and grades were remarkably consistent.
“What I learned from this experience is that my students and I are capable of pretty amazing things,” Eaton said. “I can't believe how quickly we adapted to a very challenging situation.”
Although Eureka is known for its personal attention inside the classroom, Fulop believes they’ve gained something from being pushed out of it for a while. Despite the obstacles they faced, the faculty maintained a personal touch online. And, after putting all of that effort into building these courses, she could even see some faculty members offering online options for summer courses in the future.
The students might have gained a little different perspective, too.
“I think students will be more appreciative of in-person education in the fall,” Fulop added. “My hope is that they’ll keep applying some of that self-discipline that they needed to get through an online class.”