Building the foundations for virtual instruction

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

Photo of Steve Loheide

Steve Loheide

The shift to remote instruction brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has been as much a learning experience for teachers across the United States as it has been for students.

Steve Loheide, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is part of a group of hydrology experts at several universities who are working to ensure faculty in the field can build upon lessons learned during spring and summer 2020. The National Science Foundation is funding the group’s work through a $49,611 RAPID grant that’s set to last through spring 2021. Loheide says the project focuses on increased access to infrastructure for distance education in the hydrologic sciences.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forced this huge and instantaneous shift to online teaching at universities in the U.S. and globally,” he says. “Faculty weren’t entirely prepared for it and did the best that they could in the spring.”

Faculty with previous online teaching experience have worked to help those without. In the College of Engineering, Loheide emerged as a leader for online instruction as UW-Madison shifted to remote learning in the spring. As the pandemic dragged out through the summer, Loheide says, the focus shifted from triaging to getting through the “new normal” to building foundations for a long-term community of practice.

“We don’t want the huge effort that people at all these universities are putting in to be a one-time thing,” he says. “We’re trying to build resources to have this community of practice to share what we’re doing—essentially pooling those resources for everyone to use.”

For example, professors at one university might be developing tools that model research processes for students to use in simulations. Sharing those types of tools and practices, Loheide says, can alleviate others’ need to build them from scratch and ultimately provide a stronger learning experience for students.

Sharing expertise in a virtual space is an idea Loheide is already familiar with through his participation in the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI) virtual university. UW-Madison is in its fourth year with the program and now is adopting it after three pilot years. The virtual university program focuses on high-level, specialized graduate student training and encourages universities to work together in sharing their faculty expertise.

“If you think about the research that graduate and doctoral students are pursuing, it’s very, very specialized,” Loheide says. “It’s in these very niche fields where we push the boundaries of knowledge. Not every university has specialists in every area of hydrology, nor do they have enough resources to hire faculty in all those areas, so we collaborate.”

Loheide is one of nine professors participating in the program this fall. Each offers a one-credit module in their area of expertise and students pick three for the semester. Students who participate in the program get to learn directly from experts who are shaping the field, even if they’re not at the same university. It is, Loheide says, a way for students to receive groundbreaking instruction before the knowledge even makes its way into textbooks. The program helps students network with faculty and peer students across the country.

CUAHSI’s virtual university has, for professors like Loheide, made the shift to virtual learning easier and enabled them to help their colleagues make the leap. CUAHSI is funded by the NSF and is a collaborating partner in the RAPID grant. Loheide believes that experience and the work being done now to build a strong community of practice will ultimately make for better instruction in the post-pandemic future, whatever that may look like.

“I think everyone will be rethinking the way we teach and some of the tools we develop will stick with us,” Loheide says. “We’ll get better and more effective, and we’ll find ways to integrate them into our teaching, even when we don’t have to do big portions of it online.”

Author: Alex Holloway