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When Nick Gaspar saw an article about the Chinese government’s rush to build a new Wuhan, China hospital in February, the University of Michigan-Flint distance learning director started silently working on a new website in February.
Gaspar, an adjunct lecturer in nursing, didn’t think the page would ever be used, but in case the University suddenly moved to remote learning, he wanted faculty members to have a resource guide on what to do. He built what is now the Academic Continuity page on the U-M Flint website.
The first item on the Academic Continuity page is a video Gaspar didn’t think anyone would see. A month later, Gaspar stood in a faculty meeting as everyone watched it.
“Hello, I’m Nick Gaspar, director of the Office of Extended Learning,” he says in the video. “If you are watching this, then there is likely an emergency preventing you from teaching on campus.”
Gaspar described the week of March 9 as exciting rather than troublesome. Because the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses have regularly offered online courses each semester, many faculty members have previous experience teaching online. Both campuses also had centralized departments responsible for online instruction assistance before remote teaching became universal, which faculty said helped ease the transition.
Jill Darling, a lecturer at the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters on the Dearborn campus, has been teaching online for nearly four years. Usually, she teaches one online section and three in-person sections of a writing course.
“I was pretty comfortable with it, but also teaching online is so different than teaching in person,” Darling said. “It’s like you have to continually learn and improve the class every time.”
This year, Darling gained access to Zoom to connect with students in her asynchronous classes. Rather than technical issues or online experience, Darling’s primary concern during the remote transition in the winter semester was her students’ well-being.
Similarly, for Stevens Wandmacher, a philosophy lecturer on the Flint campus, the only difference this semester is teaching synchronously with Zoom. Wandmacher had been teaching at least one online course each semester before COVID-19. He once had a former student take another course with him online because it fit the student’s schedule better.
“We had all that, a well-established staff dedicated to those sorts of things for when COVID started, and people who had never taught online had to switch,” Wandmacher said. “We had people that were prepared to help them with experience and whatnot, and I think that helped us a lot in Flint.”
This pivot felt more rigid for instructors on the Ann Arbor campus, according to Kirsten Herold, a lecturer at the School of Public Health who serves as the Lecturers’ Employee Organization vice president.
Herold, whose union represents lecturers on all three campuses, said transitioning to online instruction has been particularly difficult for Ann Arbor faculty members, who have less experience with online teaching than faculty on the other campuses.
“I think the main difference really was that Ann Arbor until this point had not really embraced online education,” Herold said.
Looking back at the winter term, when faculty had five days to convert classes to online formats, Cindee Giffen, a Biology lecturer on the Ann Arbor campus, views that time as crisis management.
When preparing to teach this semester, Giffen didn’t anticipate certain challenges — for example, the large time commitment needed to build an accessible online course. She spent nine weeks converting her Biology 171 course to a digital format over the summer.
“I would say that what we were doing in March was emergency online teaching, it was not really possible for us to use good online pedagogy at that point,” Giffen said. “And so it was anxiety-inducing, it was difficult. It was learning a ton of new things all at once.”
Giffen and her co-instructor recorded lectures, rewrote exams, edited old recordings, modified course content and added COVID-related material, split videos into smaller clips and wrote guiding questions to keep students focused during videos in preparation for fall semester, which she didn’t have time to do in March.
In the winter term, Giffen had a lab prep staff who, because they were no longer preparing labs for in-person instruction, captioned recordings and could provide assistance in moving the course online. This summer, however, as she prepared for an unprecedented fall semester, she and her co-instructor were left to caption a semester’s worth of lectures alone.
Nearly 8,300 students came to dorms on the Ann Arbor campus last week. Part of the University’s plans for a public-health informed semester includes testing approximately 1,500 students moving into affiliated fraternity and sorority houses in addition to testing 3,000 individuals weekly by the end of September.
Decisions related to teaching methods differ by college. In LSA, the largest school at the University, classes with more than 45 are all taught online, while smaller classes vary between in-person, hybrid and remote formats.
French lecturer Lauren Wester-Murphy had never taught a course online before this year. She described the process of moving classes online as stressful because so much of the course is now dependent on technology.
“But we found that even from morning to evening, some of the technologies might have crashed in the morning but then worked fine for an afternoon class,” Wester-Murphy said. “It was basically just like being on your toes all the time.”
Wester-Murphy and her colleagues are concerned that their hiccups with delivering course content online could impact their evaluations.
Teaching evaluations are also a concern for Giffen, who said that many lecturers have less time to prepare for the semester over the summer, either because they work other jobs to earn more money or do not want to do unpaid work. Some lecturers didn’t get their teaching assignments until recently, which also left them with less time than they would have hoped for to prepare course materials, Giffen said.
Technology services for these classes are also different in Ann Arbor compared to the University’s other campuses, according to Herold. She said there is variation among the different schools within the Ann Arbor campus as to how well instructors and tech services have adapted to the needs of online education.
Technology and support for online teaching, on the other hand, is centralized in Flint and Dearborn. While Gaspar said this makes his department’s communication with faculty more efficient, it may not be a practical option for the Ann Arbor campus, which has more students and faculty.
After students moved to remote teaching, there was a period of time when staff were still on campus. On the Flint campus, when faculty and staff were finally told not to return, Gaspar and an instructional designer started trying doors of classrooms to find one unlocked. They had one camera from their office, and the two accompanied Wandmacher to a classroom. They started recording lectures.
“We didn’t know what was about to happen, but it was less panic and more let’s do this,” Gaspar said of Flint faculty members’ ability to deliver coursework effectively in remote settings. “I wanted to lean back on my training and my experience. I knew that we already had a lot of really strong online infrastructure.”
“We have faculty who have been well-trained,” he added. “I knew that we could get through this.”
But in Ann Arbor, instructors aren’t so sure.
Herold said the prospect of teaching in hybrid and, for some courses, fully online formats is overwhelming to think about, especially for those who have previously taught solely in person. Giffen said it is hard to achieve what the University hopes of faculty for the semester.
“The guidance given was, ‘We want to be flexible, we want to be adaptable, we want to make sure students feel safe,’” Giffen said. “We don’t really have support for that.”
Daily Staff Reporter Ayse Eldes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.