For Mark Pilgrim, an associate professor of biology in Lander University’s Department of Biology, the switch to online learning for students and faculty came swiftly in March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adapting to new ways of teaching and helping students through the transition became mission critical for Lander University faculty, he said.
“Having all classes online was new to everyone, even those of us who had experience in teaching online before,” Pilgrim said. “But it came down to attitude. 'Am I going to adjust and learn from this situation? Are we going to be flexible?’”
The answer to those questions was a resounding “yes,” said Lloyd Willis, director of Lander’s Center for Online and Innovative Learning (COIL).
“From what I’ve heard, our transition to fully online learning was much smoother than what many other institutions experienced,” said Willis, an associate professor of English. "Lander faculty and students immersed themselves with online learning. The stress that we experienced was from the immediacy of moving to online instruction, not a lack of expertise or technical capabilities.”
As Lander continues online learning during its two summer school sessions, the university has enhanced its faculty training courses for online learning so everyone should be prepared in advance if a temporary transition to full online instruction is needed when students return in the fall.
COIL’s new courses – "Online Teaching Certification 2020” and "eCore Instructor Training” – began in June for faculty. A third course, "Advanced Blackboard Tools: Training and Resources,” began July 1. Completion of these courses will enable faculty “to deliver full, rich online learning experiences that are on par with what we expect in our conventional classrooms,” Willis said.
Universities are eager for students to return to campus, but they know that the 2020-21 academic year comes with uncertainty, Willis said.
"We hope that our experience is 'normal,’ or as normal as possible under the new circumstances,” he said. "At the same time, we need to be prepared to return to online learning if circumstances compel us to do so, and to provide high-quality learning experiences for our students.”
Holisa Wharton, dean of the William Preston Turner School of Nursing, said online learning forced faculty, staff and students to be innovative.
"Online learning has exposed us to technological advances and new platforms for virtual meetings and instruction, such as Blackboard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams," Wharton said.
Already, the School of Nursing has plans in place for online learning when students return to campus. Classes with more than 50 students, for example, will be administered online to maintain social distancing. Faculty are completing COIL’s programs over the summer to ensure they can provide evidence-based, high-quality instruction, Wharton said.
“Our classrooms are being outfitted with audio/video capability to allow us to capture instruction and demonstrations for students who may be sick or in quarantine,” she said.
Clinical instruction, which is vital to nursing education, is being carefully examined for the fall. “The School of Nursing is waiting to hear if, and when, we will be allowed to return to hospitals and community care facilities for clinical instruction,” she said. “In the meantime, we are designing rigorous virtual simulation experiences to meet objectives once provided by direct patient care.”
The School of Nursing acquired the online program vSim for Nursing from Lippincott, which instills the skills for clinical success through realistic patient encounters. It is based on actual nursing scenarios students experience in a myriad of areas – from fundamental learning to medical-surgical, maternity, pediatric, gerontology, pharmacology, health assessment and mental health, Wharton said.
During the transition to online learning in spring 2020, Pilgrim and other science faculty faced the challenges of providing lab experiences online. For a biology lab course, his class focused on the techniques needed to complete the lab instruction, instead of the actual completion of the experiment. Students were able to watch YouTube and other videos, and then take the techniques learned and apply them to lab scenarios, he said.
Pilgrim said scientific lab kits can be made available for students if in-person classes have to transition to online learning again. “These give students the option of completing a lab class outside of the classroom and are a good option if needed," Pilgrim said.
Pilgrim found that many students, who previously believed that they would prefer online learning to traditional face-to-face instruction, came to value the in-person class experience. "Class time held them accountable. They were able to have better time management, and they realized that they took their classes for granted,” he said.
Just because students were off campus didn’t mean that they were without a "connection” to their instructors. Pilgrim and other faculty provided online office hours to assist students with questions. "Students missed regular office hours and tutoring,” said Pilgrim. "But we found ways to stay in touch. Communicating frequently and relentlessly with students was important because remote learning was new to them, too.”
Now, faculty and students have the shared experience of what it is like to have a "hybrid model” of education with in-class instruction and/or online learning, Pilgrim said. “We will make this work. We are better prepared.”
If Lander must return to online learning for a period of time during the upcoming academic year, Willis said administrators and staff are working to ensure that students will have the necessary technology and equipment needed for the switch, including loans of computers and webcams and access to high-speed internet.
“We are ready to adapt if necessary,” he said. “Our hybrid model will enable us to be nimble and flexible.”
The lessons and gains made with online learning in the spring will make the School of Nursing more resilient in the future, Wharton said.
"Faculty are eager to return to campus in the fall, but should the need arise, we are developing plans B, C and D," Wharton said.
Pilgrim said the transitions made during the spring semester underscored Lander’s commitment to student success.
"What you find among Lander faculty and staff is loyalty, Pilgrim said. "They very much want to provide the best experiences possible, and we will do what we can for our students.”