State universities, colleges adjust to online instruction

DOVER — As a senior education major, Mia Mitchell was drawn to Delaware State University because of the hands-on nature of the education program.

“Our program is amazing. They give us a placement so that we have to do either observation hours or we have to teach in the classroom and I think that is something that a lot of schools do not offer,” she said. “A lot of other education majors that I know are seniors, yet they’ve never been in the classroom.”

For the next few months, however, Ms. Mitchell and other college students across the state won’t be seeing the inside of any classroom as they transition to distance learning.

Many state higher education institutions began transitioning their learning platform to online before Gov. John Carney officially mandated that Delawareans remain at home through May 15.

“Thankfully, we were a bit ahead of the curve,” said DSU President Tony Allen.

In the fall of 2018, the university began a partnership with Apple, where they were able to give incoming freshmen either an iPad or MacBook Pro, with the intent of going fully digital by the end of 2020.

Tony Allen

Dr. Allen said it has enabled faculty to provide online education in a higher volume and it has reduced students’ reliance on textbooks and decreased costs of materials.

“And third, it’s given us an opportunity to have our students learn on the devices that they have a natural affinity for, that they’re in fact digital natives of,” he said. “So it’s really about our ability to meet them where they are, provide them instruction in the way that they learn today.”

For Sydney Armbrister, a master’s student studying sports administration, most of her classes were online to begin with, she said.
While some of her roommates have to log onto a computer chat with their classmates and professor, Ms. Armbrister’s work is already posted, and it’s on her to complete it by the due date.

She said that requires discipline.

“You do have a lot of free time so you can procrastinate, so I feel like you’re definitely adjusting to having to set your own schedule,” she said. “But I like online classes to a certain extent because it can let you pace yourself at the same time, so I think that’s a benefit.”

Ms. Armbrister is one of the nearly 200 students who remained on campus after DSU suspended its in-person classes following spring break earlier this month.

Dr. Allen said that the students remaining on campus are asked not to gather and to practice social distancing. The campus still provides meal services to them.

For Ms. Mitchell, who is back to her native New Jersey following the campus shutdown, transitioning to remote learning has introduced Zoom classes, shared Google documents and group messaging to her education as a way to stay in touch with her professors and peers.

“With this, it’s more of: you have to really focus on your time management and you have to step up as a student,” she said.

The university is rising to meet them. When a student was supposed to give their dissertation defense, that went virtual too, Dr. Allen said.

“That’s quite remarkable,” he said. “The student said it went quite smoothly; the professor in charge took extra special care to make sure that happened. It shows the power of the tools. But what’s been most important during this period is the power of the people and making sure that they can utilize those [tools] to the best effect.”

At Wesley College, Jeffrey Gibson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said switching to remote education was a little more challenging.

“We were in a slightly different position because our students had already been on spring break and had returned to campus,” he said. “So we actually had a very short period with which to turn it around from when we realized it would be necessary.”

But many of the courses were somewhat online or a hybrid because Wesley is experimenting with that method, he said.

Like DSU, though, a bulk of the classes had to transition to a new format, and quickly.

“If you’ve had any experience teaching in the classroom and then teaching online, it’s not a direct translation. It’s more of an adaptation,” he said. “Things have to be adjusted and changed and, just in the way that one would adapt a book to a film, the same kind of decisions and moves and adjustments are being made when the faculty are adapting their on-campus classes to the online platform.”

For two days, IT offered training to allow faculty to brush up on digital skills for the switch.

Dr. Gibson said that some courses are using video conferencing for synchronous classes, while others are allowing for asynchronous work for students.

“We also have faculty in a variety of areas that have basically lab-type courses who are filming some of the labs being completed, and then posting those online, whereas others have gone out and found YouTube videos that cover the very same material and are making use of what exists out there,” he said.

At Delaware Technical Community College, preparing faculty to teach remotely and trying to meet the needs of students who didn’t intend on taking online courses has been crucial, said Justina Sapna, vice president for academic affairs.

She noted that the college is employing various instructional methods in the courses, and faculty members have to determine what will most successfully demonstrate student competencies.

“For example, in our nursing classes we might see a mixture of Zoom, face-to-face, so to speak, sessions where the students and the faculty are talking and meeting together at a synchronous time,” she said. “So the nursing faculty have figured out how to do simulation through a virtual environment. They’re employing that kind of strategy for courses that require that, so the students aren’t missing that time and they can complete the semester seamlessly.”

As they settle into the schedule, Ms. Sapna said she’s curious to hear how other classes — like their culinary department — are transitioning into the new normal.

“Pretty creative and out-of-the-box thinking right now,” she said.

Going online has forced the institutions to address the digital divide, as well.

While DSU has connected its students with technology through the Apple partnership, in a forum with students and staff this past week, LaKresha Moultrie, interim general counsel & chief risk manager at the university, said that the university is giving maximum flexibility to students who are having difficulties with technology or internet access.

She added that students struggling with device or connectivity issues will not be penalized academically.

“We will work with each student as long as necessary to make sure that is in fact happening,” she said.

At Wesley, about 30 students remain on campus, Dr. Gibson said. Students who didn’t have access to technology were able to stay so they could utilize campus supports, he said.

“There is a general understanding amongst the faculty to be flexible with students and also find out from those students what their limitations are,” he said.

Ms. Sapna said that the same expectations faculty may have had before now should shift to keeping things equitable and flexible.

“Some students only have a phone and they didn’t sign up for a distance learning course on purpose,” she said. “So now, managing a whole course on a phone is a challenge. So our faculty are really doing a great job of working with those students and figuring out: how can they do that using a phone?”

For a lot of students, faculty and staff, it’s not just the education that is important. It’s the community they joined when they committed to the school.

“We are very much connected here on campus between faculty, staff and students — smaller class sizes, we’re all often attending the same events here on campus so you get to know people and there’s that familiarity that’s there,” Wesley’s Dr. Gibson said. “I think a lot of what we’re trying to do to keep that connectedness is use the tools that we have available to us to remain connected, so that doesn’t just feel kind of like we’re all off for the summer.”

Ms. Sapna said that the usage of Zoom is pretty high for their campus community right now.

“Students who didn’t expect to take classes in a virtual environment, they have a challenge with being completely behind a computer screen and not having that engagement and interaction with their classmates and their teacher,” she said. “But it’s also just a matter of at this difficult time a way for people to just feel connected to other people, so there’s an emotional aspect, so I suspect that that’s why a lot of our faculty are really using that method quite a bit.”

Dr. Allen said that this proves to him that DSU’s mission is now more important than ever before.

“What I’ve told the students is for them to continue to go forward, to make sure that as questions arise, they ask those questions,” he said, “and knowing that it won’t be easy but we’ll get through it. And the only way we’ll get through it is together.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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