Along with colleges around the country, M State Wadena transitioned courses online for their spring semester, with 95% of the over 600 courses available for online completion, according to interim associate dean of academic and student affairs Stephanie Drange.
While students are completing their finals May 4-8, biology instructor Bill Evans and English instructor Jana Shepard shared how their classes transitioned online with discussions and online testing, the different social-emotional support students have needed during the COVID-19 pandemic and internet access challenges.
Shepard and Evans have taught courses online throughout this semester and in years prior, leaving each with one class to reformat through Desire2Learn, Zoom classes and computer lab simulations. Desire2Learn is a learning platform where students are placed into their courses and can access posted content such as asynchronous discussions and Zoom meeting links, according to Shepard.
The challenges came as students transitioned, however, with asynchronous communication and environment changes, according to Evans and Shepard. Students enrolled in online courses from the start of the semester might have used school computer labs, such as PSEO students or those with unreliable internet access, as Shepard said. To help meet some of these needs, the M State library and front desk remained open, virtual services were available during the week and on Saturday and an internet booster will be added in the parking lot, according to Drange.
With three classes previously online and one in-person at the Detroit Lakes campus, Shepard moved her Professional and Technical Writing course to Zoom during their standard course time. The course still starts with a lecture and students are then sent to Zoom breakout rooms, which Shepard moves between to answer questions as students discuss with one another while their worlds run around in the background.
“Fortunately, I suppose, this whole shift came about half-way through the semester so we already had about eight weeks of getting to know each other,” Shepard said.
The “student-first” approach continues in Evans’ three previously online courses and four in-person courses, all but one of which he has taught online before. Students are split into small discussion groups to continue learning the material while remaining connected, as Evans said. He also started using Respondus Lockdown for exams since test proctors are not possible in this time. Respondus Lockdown blocks out other internet access during the exam and can be used with the webcam feature to ensure students do not have other distractions, according to Evans.
“I really feel deeply for the students,” Evans said.
While a “robust” program of online courses were previously offered and students used D2L prior to the pandemic, according to Drange, students, staff and faculty have added stresses and worries, as Shepard and Evans said. Students already have a “tremendous” amount of stress and with concerns about the coronavirus, Shepard said she plays mom in a way by reassuring her students.
“I think probably the biggest thing … is that there’s a lot more stress with students and with me as well with this,” Shepard said. “There’s a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty that is present and even when you’re isolated in your own space, and maybe even it’s worse because you can think about it more, there’s this background stress that is there and so whether they realize it or not students feel that. And I think pretty much everyone feels that.”
The added concerns have also impacted people’s sleep patterns, health, anxiety and tension, according to Shepard. She said people need to have practices that help diffuse these feelings, from exercise to drinking less coffee.
While Evans has kept his office hours the same through Zoom, he aims to reply to students’ emails promptly rather than having them wait hours or a day. He said this has also impacted how mentally consuming his job is rather than leaving the campus and disconnecting for the day.
“I would say my days are more fragmented and … students they need that reassurance, they need that contact when they need it,” Evans said. “I just feel like I need to stay more connected with what’s going on.”
The student and instructor conversations over email, phone and Zoom have provided spaces for connection. Students might also be finding they actually learn best online, and departments across the college are collaborating more, according to Drange.
“I have seen a level of resilience and grittiness from students and faculty and staff across the board that no matter the challenge we’re going to meet this,” Drange said.