Teaching During a Pandemic

On March 18, 2020, the traditional learning environment at Central, as we knew it, was flipped upside down as the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic caused worldwide shutdowns; as a result, all courses for the remainder of the spring semester were moved to a virtual format. Learning, teaching and working took on a whole new look for the entire Broncho community. Many faculty members were given one week to transition all of their instructional materials, assignments and exams online. Now that the spring semester is over and they begin to prepare for the upcoming fall semester, many professors are reflecting on what this experience has been like and how they plan to move forward.

“We really were not prepared at first, so there was a mixture of nervousness and surprises,” said Kanika Bhargava, Ph.D., associate professor in the nutrition and food science program.

“I was already familiar with teaching online, but during the extended break, I had to add a lot more content to stay connected with my students, other than just notes and resources.”

Speaking about the early days of the pandemic, Tom Hancock, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology reflected, “The entire process you’re thinking about what does this mean to me and my family? What does this mean to my students? What does this mean to my colleagues? And the university? There’s just so many different levels.”

Some faculty members, like Bhargava and Hancock, already were accustomed to teaching a few courses each semester online, but even with prior experience, this was unlike anything they had faced before. Bhargava’s nutrition and food science students had planned to present research posters at a program symposium in March, but that was quickly adjusted to a virtual format using an online discussion board.

“It was a challenge for me at first to try to explain to students how to change their poster project. The students already knew from the start of the semester they have to do it in a certain way, and then, on the spot, you have to tell them do it in a different way, so they had a lot of questions. You have to make them comfortable, and you need to prepare some guidelines for a new system you’re setting.”

And, in addition to transitioning learning resources online, Bhargava and her colleagues in the nutrition and food science program also were concerned about finding ways to keep material engaging for students in the same way it would have been in the classroom setting.

“The crisis forced us to think beyond our limits and be more creative at keeping students engaged and involved. We wanted to keep them enthusiastic for learning.”

She explained that national organizations in the food science industry began making videos and creating webinars for professors to share with students, which helped. Some even showed examples of how students could conduct their own lab projects at home with minimal supplies, or how to present a live, virtual lab experience for instructors, all of which she utilized.

But then, on top of continuing instruction, came the even tougher challenge: how to stay emotionally connected with students. Central prides itself on small class sizes that foster unique relationships between faculty and students, but when the pandemic hit, many missed the value of in-class discussions and relationships. In some cases, it made navigating these uncertain times even more difficult.

Students in Zoom

An example of a Zoom class during the 2020 UCO Prospective Teacher Academy.

Some classes still met virtually via Zoom or Webex, while others finished with online lectures and group discussion board chats. For faculty members, finding creative ways to stay connected with their students and remain supportive of them was a key piece to finishing the semester.

“One of the things that I really tried to do during this time is just mindfulness and having some compassion for students. More so than any other time in my 20 years of teaching I have had to understand that they are really going through some difficult stuff,” Hancock said.

“I am still working with a student who had COVID and actually spent two weeks in the ER. It’s extremely traumatizing.”

And with the sudden switch to online learning, other faculty members were worried about whether their students were going to be able to continue the semester at all.

“One thing that really came out in the beginning was I’m not hearing from some students, they’re not engaging in the content, and then being really worried about those students, are they okay?” said Scott Singleton, DPSY, associate professor in psychology.

“So, I finally put out an email saying, hey, I don’t care about the assignments. I’m just worried about you. Just let me know you’re around.”

As we navigate through the summer and prepare for the fall, we know the pandemic is likely far from over, but many are already asking themselves the question, “how do we move forward from this when life is back to normal?”

For Bhargava, Hancock and Singleton, they don’t think their teaching styles or course formats will ever return completely to their previous state. This has been an opportunity to grow and adapt and better navigate how they serve their students. Some even hope that it will shape how the university as a whole approaches online learning in the future. And, all agree this taught them new ways to understand and care for their students. They had a chance to reflect on how they connect with students, ensure that their objectives and learning outcomes were still being communicated and balance the mindfulness of the fear and uncertainty everyone is facing during the pandemic.

“I think this was a constructive kind of experience which taught us a lot and which we can always utilize in the future in teaching our students,” Bhargava reflected.

“We know how to deal with crisis, how to reach students who are in need. In the future, the normal life might be different, but we just have to learn from it and have to keep moving.”

Rachel is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for the UCO College of Education and Professional Studies.