The transition to online learning at Fort Hays State University due to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the school’s professors are finding a way to provide workable solutions for their students.
Dr. Lorelei Patrick, assistant professor of biological sciences, is in the midst of her first year at FHSU. She has never taught online before. But she had to find a way to provide a lab experience for her 48 zoology students and 24 ecology students while they were scattered here, there and everywhere.
Patrick turned to Blackboard, the school’s online learning management system used by both teachers and students in each class, to be a conduit for the lab experience. For instance, Patrick put online dissection YouTube videos for her students as well as slides and handouts. Students identified label sections to receive points. Patrick also put quizzes online.
“It seems to be working pretty well,” Patrick said. “In an ideal world they would be working in a lab and getting the experience of doing the dissection themselves. This is a pretty good substitute for that.”
While Patrick is a novice when it comes to teaching online, Dr. Juti Winchester, assistant professor of history, has at least one online class every semester and before she came to FHSU she had extensive online teaching experience. Winchester already had two online classes and switched two more online once FHSU made the change after spring break.
Winchester said there are differing approaches to teaching in a classroom and online.
“A properly designed online class is really different from a face-to-face class,” Winchester said. “You organize it differently and you approach your material a little bit differently.
“So, to stop and switch over, it seems like it would be really simple, but it’s not,” she added. “It’s a different philosophy of teaching and it takes so much more preparation.”
Winchester added FHSU, with its commitment to distance learning, was perfectly placed to make the necessary switch in course structure.
“Fort Hays is uniquely positioned to go online quickly and effectively,” Winchester said. To go online effectively is not something some other schools were ready to do, she said.
“So much of what we do is an online component, we have the people who can help, we have the experienced instructors,” she added. “Every experienced instructor you have is one less person IT has to help.”
Carly Kauffman, a graduate assistant in the history department, is still on track to graduate from FHSU with her master’s degree in fall 2020. Kauffman did have to change her thesis topic due to the pandemic. Her plan to conduct local research was no longer possible, so she chose a topic with voluminous information online: the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
“The transition to online really hasn’t been that big of a deal,” Kauffman said.
Of more concern to Kauffman was her health.
“I have a really bad immune system,” Kauffman said. “I catch practically anything that comes my way. I know if I catch something, even if it’s not COVID-19, it’s going to bring my immune system to a screeching halt.
“I’ve tried to avoid going out; since it started, I’ve only gone out a couple times,” she added. “Otherwise, I just stay in my apartment.”
Winchester has not been able to avoid thinking ahead to the fall, and what the educational experience will be like then. Unlike this spring, when she had to quickly make the switch to online learning, if that becomes the new normal in the fall, she anticipates having more time to prepare.
“It’s entirely possible because of this virus we may not be coming back (on campus) in September,” Winchester said. “If that is the case, we have the summer to think about it.”
Patrick is not allowing herself to think that far ahead. Right now, she is concentrating on getting through this semester.
“I have not thought that much about it,” she said. “I just want to focus on doing the best job I can for my students now. When this semester is over, I will focus on what’s going to happen in the fall based on what Fort Hays says we are going to do.”
Personally, Patrick has had to adjust to not coming to campus every day. After years in school, she finally was a college professor.
“It’s a little sad,” Patrick said. “I feel like I had just landed my dream job. I would get out of my car every morning at Fort Hays and feel like, ‘Oh my god, I am a professor. I get to teach classes that excite me and do research.’ That was exactly what I wanted to do. This was exactly the school I wanted to be at. Now I’m doing it – I’m just doing it at home.”