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Since the University of Maine System announced Wednesday that it will shift exclusively to online learning after spring break to fight the spread of coronavirus, professors at the flagship campus in Orono have been on a tight deadline to redesign their classes for remote instruction.
Students were directed to leave campus by March 22 in a systemwide announcement that came one day before the Maine CDC confirmed the first presumptive positive case in Maine of COVID-19, the coronavirus that has sickened thousands of people worldwide.
The decision, made in the interest of public health, has caused much confusion among some UMaine students who — in addition to expressing disappointment with the closure of dorms at all seven system campuses — are unsure of their academic future and do not think their classes will translate well to remote learning.
“I’m a music education major. All of our classes are participation-based,” senior Kelcey Thornton said. “There’s no way for us to continue doing the work online.”
“We have a lot of work to do to address individual students’ concerns, but we’ll be working very hard on that in the next two weeks,” Dan Demeritt, the university system’s spokesperson, said earlier this week.
In recognition of the difficulties posed by moving all classes to the internet, the university system is considering relaxing grading requirements, Chancellor Dannel Malloy said Thursday.
“We are very conscious of supporting our students through the academic transition coming up,” Malloy said in a message to system staff and students. “To mitigate the impact of COVID-19 disruptions through the transition, a pass/fail option is being considered for students enrolled in spring classes.”
UMaine professors have started planning for the transition by reaching out to students to figure out whether they will have access to technology wherever they will be located, but for the most part, students do not know what they will find on March 23 when classes start online.
Some professors, such as UMaine political science professor Rob Glover, have taught courses online before. He is surveying approximately 120 undergraduate students he teaches to find out how many of them will have access to the internet.
“This is a weird and unprecedented situation,” Glover said. “It is disruptive. There’s no way that it can’t be disruptive. It’s not what students signed on for. Some students don’t like online courses, so we have to adapt and be as flexible as we can.”
An on-campus resource UMaine professors have turned to is the university’s Center of Innovation in Teaching and Learning, which has published extensive guidelines on how to switch to online education.
“As you make plans to adapt your teaching strategies during a disruption, we recommend that you focus on what you want your students to achieve by the end of the semester,” the center’s website says. During a crisis, the guidelines say, professors may have to make changes to their course design, but each course’s overall goal should remain in place.
The center’s website answers questions about options for remote instruction, offering tools such as Blackboard (a content hosting website used widely by educational institutions), video conferencing softwares like Zoo and Google Drive.
But not all professors are familiar with tailoring coursework to online teaching, especially given that they only have a few days to do it.
“Normally the process of transitioning a course online, I start planning for that at least a semester out,” Glover said. “Some of the folks that are trying to switch things over and trying to get a handle on how to use the technology and how to use the platforms are overwhelmed.”
“There’s no way you can replicate perfectly the classroom environment using these online tools,” he said.
Things get even more complicated with fields of study that rely heavily on experiential learning, such as performing and visual arts.
Theater professor Amy Roeder said her voice and movement classes for theater will be much harder to move online compared with her intro to theater class.
“They have very little written work. It’s a lot of performance work,” she said. “They have to perform in front of me and in front of the rest of the class and the rest of the class has to provide feedback on it. It’s a pretty vital part of the course.”
In moving everything online — assuming her students have access to technology — students will miss out on the feedback from peers, she said.
However, Roeder said she hopes to make the best of the situation and use this opportunity to incorporate lessons that are very easy to translate to remote learning, like assigning students how to film audition tapes.
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