Transforming Classrooms in the Wake of COVID-19
Teaching chemistry and biochemistry at Albright for more than a decade and a half, Professor Ian Rhile, Ph.D., has been through his fair share of trials and tribulations. But the COVID19 pandemic brought forth a new set of challenges.
Within a matter of days last spring, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic completely altered the global education system as we know it. Luckily, Rhile, a veteran of teaching online classes, was already ahead of the game.
But prepared or not, the fast flip from in-person to online half way through the semester found everyone scrambling. While sharing tips, tricks and words of wisdom with fellow colleagues and students who were gearing up for virtual learning, Rhile also buckled down to re-develop his classes.
Only days before, he had been on campus wondering what he should take home from his office and how long he would be away. Major off-campus conferences were being canceled or forging into new online territory. The lack of certainty as the health crisis developed had already creeped into classroom discussions and faculty meetings.
“Students started asking questions about it and we wanted to give them accurate information and prepare them for what was going to happen, but we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he remembers.
During a Wednesday faculty meeting just before Spring Break, conversations centered around the uncertainty created by the pandemic. “We got the announcement that we were going to be online for two weeks on Thursday,” he says. Shortly after that, the college moved online for the rest of the semester.
Normally, online courses take at least a year to develop. But with the pandemic on the horizon, Rhile and other Albright faculty members had to rethink everything. Many sacrificed spring vacations just to get one week ahead.
“It just was so fast,” Rhile explains. “The technical challenge, along with the pedagogical challenge of ‘how do I present material in this environment together?’ was very challenging. And in the meantime, the pandemic is developing around you, and you’re hearing the news and the number of cases developing in Pennsylvania. It was a very intense experience.”
In Rhile’s classrooms, math-heavy material shifted from a chalkboard to PowerPoint slides. Virtual models of molecule structures replaced hand-held models. One-on-one meetings moved from office spaces or campus Adirondack chairs to Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
“I’ve never used Zoom so much in my life,” says Rhile, who began teaching online long before COVID-19.
“Albright has a group of faculty who teach online regularly, and an adult program called the School of Professional Studies, which is mostly online,” he says. “So the people who have been online were more comfortable setting up courses and had a sense of what to do from muscle memory of putting together the online course.”
In addition, Rhile offered a presentation on online course set up during a faculty “teaching and learning” day. “As faculty, we have to be willing to explore options. Being flexible, resilient and open to change are really useful skills,” he explains.
Previously a graduate assistant at Cornell University, Rhile appreciates Albright’s down-to-earth community, as well as the practicality of the faculty body. But interacting with students on a personal level is what grounds him most.
“College is such a transformative time for students who are going from their high school education to being a college graduate. Being a part of that and being able to facilitate that transformation is just incredible,” says Rhile.
Although the mode has changed, building community remains important. “How do we keep this sense of community that we have, but also how do we do this with new students and how do we do this with new faculty and new staff members?” asks Rhile.
Communication within virtual classrooms can be a challenge as well. “To be [creating new courses] on the fly and thinking ‘what are the students seeing? What do I have to anticipate? How do I make this a good learning experience tomorrow?’ can be daunting,” he says. “Setting a common format and common expectations of that format (such as quizzes or work due on the same day each week) really helps. And keeping those expectations known is essential. Students need us to communicate effectively, regularly and purposefully with them.”
Fortunately at Albright, says Rhile, “there’s a real sense of ‘if there’s a problem, let’s work together to sort it out.’”