Going online on the fly: Faculty adjust to teaching, supporting from afar

// College of Engineering

Photo of Steve Loheide

Steve Loheide, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has drawn on his previous experience teaching online during the shift to online instruction for rest of the spring 2020 semester. Photo: Renee Meiller.

While preparing for his first class following the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s spring break—or as was the case in 2020, the first class after a rapid worldwide leap to online education amid the global coronavirus pandemic—Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Steve Loheide tried to cover all bases.

He sent his 18 students—a mix of advanced undergraduates and graduate students—enrolled in Civil/Geological Engineering 612: Ecohydrology a survey to ask if they had access to a computer, a webcam and microphone, reliable Wi-Fi, and an adequate study space for attending class virtually. He inquired about their health and whether they had any concerns going into this new way of learning (and living). Loheide also created a place on the course webpage on Canvas, UW-Madison’s learning management system, for students to submit anonymous feedback for the rest of the semester.

Photo of Barry Van Veen
Barry Van Veen

But with instructors and students scattered around the world and oftentimes working from reconfigured spaces, it’s hard to plan for all scenarios—like a 12-year-old practicing piano in the middle of class directly above your unheated basement-turned-office, as Loheide experienced on the first Tuesday morning of pandemic-induced online instruction.

“These aren’t normal times,” he says.

The new normal arrived in a whirlwind.

When UW-Madison announced plans on March 11 to shift to alternate delivery of courses—initially temporarily, then through the end of the spring 2020 semester—College of Engineering faculty had their own homework: converting all their in-person classes to an online format without substantially sacrificing the quality of education.

And they had less than two weeks to do it.

In the run-up to the return of classes on March 23, faculty and staff across the college worked feverishly to shift more than 1,000 courses, lab sections, independent studies and seminars to online formats.

Many instructors, like Loheide, are using digital tools like Blackboard Collaborate to maintain real-time interaction with—and among—students while lecturing. Others are recording and producing videos that allow students around the world to attend class when their schedules allow. Some had teaching assistants record lab experiments to demonstrate data collection using on-campus equipment before facilities fully closed. Others are using online simulations to mimic hands-on experiences as best they can.

“People have dropped everything that they would otherwise have been doing—research and everything—to support the instructional mission of our department and of the campus,” says Barry Van Veen, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor in electrical and computer engineering. “It’s been really inspiring to see that level of commitment.”

Photo of Carla Michini
Carla Michini

Van Veen’s class, ECE 203: Signals, Information and Computation, is one of nearly a dozen in the department that were already delivered in an active-learning format, where students watch lectures ahead of in-person sessions and then work on problems in groups.

Now, Van Veen is using Microsoft Teams to facilitate that group work. He’s assigned groups based on where the students sat in their classroom on the fourth floor of Wendt Commons in an effort to maintain some level of comfort and continuity, all while hoping the application itself can withstand the simultaneous activity of 135 students. Like Loheide, Van Veen is leaning on previous experience teaching online.

But remote instruction is a new challenge for plenty of faculty, including Carla Michini, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering. Wary of potential technical snafus disrupting live lectures for her mathematical proof-heavy course, ISyE 525: Linear Optimization, she’s opted to record and then edit together split-screen videos that show her slides, math work from her iPad screen, and her speaking. It’s a labor-intensive process, and she says she misses the excitement of talking to a live audience.

“I like to ask questions and interact with them,” says Michini, who’s using “in-class” quizzes that students must complete before her virtual office hours to ensure regular attendance. “I try to ask questions in the video, but then I answer the questions myself.”

That absence of natural feedback—the feel for how a class is going—is a teaching hurdle. So, too, is the loss of the minutes before and after class, prime times for faculty to check in and connect with students. Justin Boutilier, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, has set up a Slack channel for his ISyE 417: Health Systems Engineering class to provide a conduit for less formal communications.

Photo of Giri Venkataramanan
Giri Venkataramanan

Some faculty are incorporating the unprecedented circumstances into their courses. Vicki Bier, a professor of industrial and systems engineering who’s studied pandemic preparedness, shifted her syllabus for ISyE 516: Introduction to Decision Analysis and inserted a lecture on a pandemic planning project she previously completed for the Wisconsin Department of Health.

Giri Venkataramanan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, has modified the traditionally open-ended final project for ECE 210: Introductory Experience in Electrical Engineering. After sending his students home with lab kits in tow, he created a design of an electronic controller for a simplified ventilator. The first-year students are replicating the design on their own and then presenting their mock-ups to their classmates during their lab sessions via Blackboard Collaborate.

“It’s really a pleasure and a joy to see these students, freshman students, being able to do this on their own,” says Venkataramanan, adding the experience is prompting him to reimagine the project in future semesters. “I want to give them more ownership and control in what they’re doing.”

Kip Ludwig, an associate professor of biomedical engineering who’s teaching a special topics course called Medical Design and Manufacturing, is discussing the implications for medical device companies and encouraging his students to explore emerging COVID-19 research papers and assess their data.

“We’ve kind of embraced this as an opportunity—because these things happen—to plug the students into a real-world situation and then use the online fashion of it. Medical devices are all about a global economy,” says Ludwig. “A lot of this stuff is being done virtually—you have Webexes and things like that—so to learn how to present, to learn how to participate in those forums is a unique thing in a global economy.”

And yet, while following the pandemic news can be instructive for students, it can also induce stress and overwhelm the mind. Van Veen is hopeful the routine of class and coursework can serve as an antidote of sorts, providing structure, a focal point and a sense of purpose amid a time of drastic change.

“Learning is something that makes us human at the very fundamental level,” says Van Veen. “Giving people the opportunity to still be human and learn and even if the circumstances are different, I really hope that that’s a positive influence.”

Author: Tom Ziemer