Professors reflect on adjustment to online, hybrid classes

Augustana University professors were faced with a decision this fall: teach in-person, teach online or teach using a hybrid model. Around 90 percent of Augie’s professors chose to teach either completely in-person or under a hyflex model, according to the university.

For those with preexisting health conditions that made them vulnerable, teaching online was the safest option.

With the majority of Augustana’s classes structured on-campus or in a hybrid approach, the university joins the 24 percent of higher education institutions across the United States that opted for flexible teaching methods this semester, according to tracking from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“In preparing to serve students on campus this fall, we are focused on how to responsibly adapt learning and living environments,” President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said in a statement about the university’s Viking Flex Plan.

Choosing the nontraditional route

As the pandemic raged on over the summer, professors had to decide how they wanted to teach their courses in the fall. For nursing professor Karla Abbott, psychology professor Anne Zell and education professor Celeste Uthe-Burow, the hybrid format took their safety concerns into consideration.

Abbott decided not to meet in-person on Mondays, citing concerns about students’ weekend plans. “Even though we’re socially distant and so careful with our weekend activities, it was just one extra way to at least keep students apart from one another until Wednesday,” Abbot said. “It thought that was just safer, and germs might die down by then.”

Zell, whose classes only meet with her once a week, was concerned about her large class sizes. “I have almost 30 people in each class, and it did not seem wise to have 30 people crammed into a room for 50 minutes, three times a week.”

Uthe-Burow’s classes meet in-person Mondays and Wednesdays and meet via Zoom on Fridays. She wanted to “best meet the needs of students” and prepare for a potential early move to online learning.

Professors who decided to teach completely online had to meet Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) criteria for immunocompromised persons. Communications professor Heather Bart, psychology professor Olivia Lima and English professor Darcie Rives-East all cited medical conditions as their reason for going virtual this semester.

“I miss everybody on campus, I really do, but until we figure this out, I have to be careful,” Rives-East said.

Adapting to technology

The Viking Flex Plan defines hybrid classes as a combination of in-person and virtual learning. The actual class structure has been left up to the discretion of the professors. Most hybrid classes at Augustana have involved in-person small discussions and presentations and online lectures. For online classes, content and interaction are via the Internet.

Although technology has enabled these nontraditional forms of teaching, professors said there are downsides to an online semester.

“Online lectures and video format is not my ideal,” Zell said. “It’s hard to capture the same energy of being with a group of people in a live setting online. There’s no point in denying there’s kind of that cost in making the switch.”

Uthe-Burow has focused on “providing the best experience” for her students, although teaching online demands creativity.

“I am consistently trying to think out of the box and come up with innovative ways to provide the information in an effective and engaging manner,” Uthe-Burow said. “Although this can be exhausting, I enjoy the challenge.”

Rives-East and Bart said they’ve been challenged by spending long hours on their computers.

“You can get tired,” Rives-East said.

“I have some personal issues from an accident that I had that’s a longer term problem with reading online,” Bart said. “Now that everything is online all the time, it’s slowing me down. I feel bad, because I really don’t want to disadvantage the students, but I also physically can’t get more done in a day.”

Working from home

Professors teaching from home have mixed their workspace with their living space. Many have tried their best to separate the two.

Bart said it was key for her to create a definite work area. “My kids are tired of hearing the joke, ‘Well, I’ve got to get to class. I got to go on my morning commute’ as I walk from the kitchen to my office with my coffee,” she said. “Getting to the point of feeling like I have a routine took longer to establish.”

Rives-East said while it’s been weird working from home, she doesn’t dress up or do her makeup anymore.

Missing in-person connections

After a semester of nontraditional teaching, many professors have found that while hybrid and online learning has kept them and their students more safe, it’s hard to replicate the engagement of a classroom.

For those teaching hybrid classes, the limited interaction with students hasn’t compared to a normal semester. Uthe-Burow said she likes to be face-to-face with students to best meet their needs. 

“Not being able to conduct activities with students due to physical distancing has really been an adjustment,” she said. “I think we learn so much from each other, so not being able to interact in the normal activities I plan has been disappointing.”

For those teaching completely online, the lack of connection is apparent.

“While I think the online world works — and for me, it’s the best way that I can adapt to the current situations — there’s also something about the physical space of a classroom that is a context for everyone,” Bart said. “I miss that context that allows us to put away some of those distractions and focus on things.”

Lima has struggled with getting feedback from students since she pre-records her lectures.

“If I’m in class and I’m giving a lecture or we’re doing an activity, I can see everybody’s face and see when there’s confusion or if they’re engaged,” she said. “I don’t have any of that right now. It does feel weird to be lecturing into a void.”

Rives-East said she’s struggled with the isolation and misses the casual conversations that happened on campus.

“Now you can’t really hang out in the halls,” she said. “It’s not quite how it was. Lots of office doors are closed. It’s just the disease itself is disrupting things like that.”

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