How UTD professors are adapting to online classes

Emaan Bangash
Managing Editor

With the rest of the semester’s classes being moved online, professors at UTD have had to adjust their classwork to accommodate.

Kathy Lingo, a professor at the school of arts and humanities, said faculty were alerted through email by university officials before spring break to update their syllabi and get ready to make the switch to online courses. Lingo said that like many other professors, she was expecting the switch when it became known that COVID-19 was classified as a pandemic. She teaches improvisation and theatre courses, which mostly incorporate face-to-face interaction and in-person acting, but said they could still accomplish this through video calls and putting together recorded video performances.

“I don’t think anyone is truly prepared for what happened to us, but I became prepared pretty quickly,” Lingo said. “I’ve always been, what I like to call, an in-your-face person. I’ve always been in the classroom and very active with my students and I enjoy that so much. But FaceTime is very nice. We can do a lot of things live still, but I really do love being present with the students and so we’ll take it to FaceTime, we’ll take it to video recorded performances. We’ll do everything we can, but nothing, I don’t think in the long run will ever actually take the place of being in front of that student.”

Professors who mainly incorporate lectures in their courses are using Blackboard Collaborate, Microsoft Teams and other programs as well as recording their lectures to post on eLearning. Associate professor of physics Jason Slinker said he plans to use WebEx and have his PowerPoint slides displayed in real time for students to follow along if they choose and upload recorded versions of the lecture afterward. 

“The point is I don’t want a student that, all of a sudden if there’s a drop of the internet connection or whatnot, to miss the content,” Slinker said. “(For) some people, if you just simply don’t have a very reliable internet connection, then live web interfaces like this might not be the best interface that they can work with … I’m definitely prepared to keep adjusting as needed to help the students. The whole point of this is to help them learn better.”

Slinker said one of his biggest concerns is conducting exams without interface issues while ensuring the students themselves are taking the exam online, not someone posing as a student, although his exams are typically open-note and students are provided an equation sheet during the exam. He said Qualtrics was one software he considered using to conduct the exams, and methods to ensure student integrity during exams include asking for their NetID and randomizing the exam questions.

“The exams, of course, are going to need to be done quite carefully. I’m definitely following through carefully on that,” Slinker said. “That’s something we can take a little bit of tripping back and forth when it comes to the lecture.  For an exam, setting that up for a set period of time, that needs to be done smoothly and stably.”

Making the switch to online caused syllabus readjustments such as cancelling exams, assignments and changing the way coursework is turned in. Senior lecturer of BBS Salena Brody said one of her classes involved a service learning track, and those students had to switch to a different track because service learning was no longer viable. She said when the prospect of going online arose, she contacted several of her colleagues within BBS to discuss what to do to make the switch efficiently.

“Everyone participated and … just trying to figure this out to do something that was best for our students and feasible for us to put together in this very short time that we have to turn around our courses to be online,” Brody said. “ It’s really a big ask to get faculty to transform their courses in such a short amount of time, but everyone I think is rising to the challenge that I know.”

She said one of her concerns with switching to online courses was related to student accessibility and making sure students with accessibility concerns were accommodated. She said one of the first emails she received after the announcement was from a student with hearing issues concerned about captioning for the lectures, and she then had to learn how to include auto-captioning since this feature isn’t included in Blackboard Collaborate.  

“I had her and other students in mind when I was trying to figure out how to set up my courses.  That’s one thing that I think is going to be a real challenge as we do this roll out is making sure that our teaching is accessible,” Brody said. “I’m a little bit worried about some of our students and they’re going to need to access the material online and the next question is I hope that there’s enough support for those students in this new normal to be able to finish their coursework along with anyone who doesn’t have a laptop at home or a webcam.”

Lingo said if future class resumes on campus, she plans to incorporate the course material she’s using for her online classes in her regular coursework for the future such as using Ted Talks, online textbooks and databases featuring short videos on the topics her class discusses.

“I really think that you can look at things always in two ways, negatively and positively. And I’m human, of course, I complain and gripe and everything else, but once you have to accept something, you can either look at it as a misery or an opportunity,” Lingo said. “I looked at it as an opportunity and I really did find some very cool things that I’m excited about. I think they’re valuable.”

With the university shut down for the rest of the semester and campus operations being restricted to essential personnel only, professors are continuing to adjust to new challenges and unforeseen circumstances. Slinker said UTD’s response to the situation was one of the more straightforward university responses in communicating and devising a plan of action for campus response to COVID-19.

“We’re all responding to something that’s fairly unprecedented or at least the last time we had something anywhere close to this level of magnitude of the concern was before I think any of us were alive,” Slinker said. “For all of us it’s been a lot of questions of unknown and I think the university took, a fairly smart, decisive action that allowed first and foremost the safety of our students, and staff and faculty here at UT Dallas.”

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