Maintaining a positive learning community during COVID-19

May 6, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic has required a shift to virtual education, Nelson Institute faculty and staff have been working hard to move courses online while maintaining a sense of community. The quick shift brought about challenges for students and instructors, but both have been finding ways to create learning opportunities and meaningful engagement in an ever-changing time.

“I’ve been really impressed to see the entire Nelson community come together to help each other during this time,” said Holly Gibbs, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “It’s been inspiring to see the resiliency.”

Gibbs is currently teaching an undergraduate course that includes near 80 students as well as a graduate class that includes 10 students. Both have had to shift to online instruction methods.

“For the graduate course, we have tried to keep the structure the same,” said Gibbs, who meets with the class via a live webinar tool. “For the undergraduate course, we are recording the lectures ahead of time. We decided this would be the best method after surveying students. Through the survey we learned that more than half of the students had left Madison and would be in different time zones, so we determined that recording the lectures would be the best option for everyone. Additionally, we recorded the lectures in a variety of ways using tools like PowerPoint and Kaltura to accommodate various internet speeds and students’ access to technology.”

While instructors have noted that most students have access to computers or internet-linked devices, the quality and reliability of the devices, and their internet connections, vary widely. To address this need, the University of Wisconsin-Madison put together a computer loan program before campus was closed, which dealt with part of the problem. While the computer program offered aid, reliable internet connections continue to present some challenges for students.

For Gibbs and her students, there have been both positives and negatives to virtual education. Gibbs says that one positive is that this situation has required her to think very critically about her course content and consider what assignments and learning tools can help to convey the content in the clearest and most compelling way, and which could be cut to keep expectations reasonable. While this has been a positive exercise for Gibbs, she was disappointed to have to remove some of the community partnership and learning aspects from her courses. For example, she shared that the undergraduate class would normally spend about a quarter of their time working on a community service learning project, but with social distancing guidelines, the focus has had to shift.

“We miss the social connections and that magic that happens when we connect as a community,” said Gibbs.

Nelson Institute faculty associate, Rob Beattie shared in Gibbs’ disappointment regarding the loss of community time. Beattie, who teaches the graduate course Environmental Studies 979 as well as the Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP) seminar and the Careers in the Environment course, relies heavily on community interactions as a part of his teaching.

“The CESP seminar is very community oriented and student driven,” Beattie said. “It is designed to teach students about professional development and community engagement. In any given semester about one-third of our students are working with community organizations as part of our class, and many of our class sessions are designed and delivered by teams of students.”

Beattie shared that likewise, “the Careers in the Environment class was designed to give students face-to-face practice developing professional skills such as networking, job hunting, resume writing, and graduate school applications. In addition to these practical skill-training sessions, each class had a visit from a pair of guests (usually one faculty member and one alum) who described what it was like to work in a particular field and how they prepared academically.”

While Beattie admits it is a loss to not have the in-person interaction, he has been finding ways to fulfill the community aspect of these courses through virtual methods.

“For the Careers in the Environment class, remote participation by our academic and alumni partners turned out to be pretty easy and seamless,” said Beattie. “This suggests that we can reach beyond the Madison area in future versions of this class to involve alumni from around the United States and the world. This could give students an even better sense of the breadth of careers that our alumni pursue.”

Beattie said that through all the positive and negatives of this changing time, he remains committed giving students the same training he would have given them in person.

“My most important goal in each of my undergraduate classes was to keep a sense of continuity for the students, and to make sure that we were giving them the best experience we could under the circumstances,” Beattie said. “In my CESP class, which features student team presentations for the last four weeks of class, this meant giving students virtual spaces to practice their online presentation skills and giving them the freedom to use the technology available to them however they wanted.

Overall, I’m most proud of the students for stepping up and adapting to a situation that they never wanted or planned for. They are really the ones who deserve our praise - under really extreme circumstances they were able to make these classes work and work reasonably well.”

Image courtesy of Holly Gibbs