Educational Technology Team Eases University’s Transition to ELearning
Although the physical campus at The University of Texas at Dallas had to be closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the faculty, working behind the scenes, quickly made the transition to online teaching so that students could finish their semesters’ work seamlessly.
Darren Crone, assistant provost for educational technology services, headed a team of a dozen and a half staff who ensured that faculty had everything they needed to gear up for online teaching. They began offering training classes for faculty in March, when the possibility arose that the University might have to move to remote learning. Instructional designers on his team switched over to training and support to get the job done.
“I took a deep breath, but I’ll be honest: We had planned for this. We didn’t have to slap it together at the last minute,” Crone said “The biggest hurdle was convincing people to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
With the help of colleagues in the Faculty Senate, the need for virtual instruction soon gained traction. By the time the University’s classrooms finally moved online, Crone’s team had trained 1,500 non-unique attendees and was able to continue training during the extended two-week spring break.
“I cannot say enough about the UTD community. Everyone has stepped up.”
Darren Crone, assistant provost for educational technology services
Crone and his team helped faculty use tools such as Blackboard Collaborate to record lectures and participate in online meetings and training. Students are able to view class lectures at times that are convenient for them, regardless of the time zone in which they are working.
“We gave faculty a variety of interactive products, but they don’t have to use every tool. If they’re just comfortable with PowerPoint slides, that’s fine,” Crone said. “We try to keep it simple. Our goal is to get students over the finish line.”
Crone praised the collaborative efforts of the Office of Information Technology and faculty colleagues for getting everyone on board with online learning, which will continue through the summer term.
“I cannot say enough about the UTD community. Everyone has stepped up,” Crone said.
Dr. Jessica Murphy, dean of undergraduate education, said her experience in helping faculty with virtual learning was mostly conceptual in pre-COVID days.
“I honestly did not know what to expect. I think I was nervous. But in the first few days, I was so impressed,” Murphy said.
Faculty members have told her that entire classes showed up during regular class times, even though that was not necessary.
“I think the students were craving the structure and connection they were used to,” Murphy said. “This speaks to the strength of our students, who are really aware and really care.”
Murphy, who is also a professor of literary studies and the Mary McDermott Cook Chair for Undergraduate Education, said the Graduation Help Desk assisted faculty with reaching out to students they had not heard from and making sure they had the resources they needed to complete the semester.
Some UT Dallas faculty members went over and above the essentials of online learning to keep students engaged while they worked remotely.
Tech Talks, Tutorials
Dr. Jey Veerasamy, associate professor of instruction in computer science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, put together online tech lectures to give students who were homebound something to do during the second week of spring break.
He assembled tech talks and tutorials by UT Dallas engineering and computer science faculty as well as faculty in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. He also tapped global experts whose topics centered on data science and artificial intelligence, biology, cybersecurity, creative coding, game development and the “internet of things.”
“It worked flawlessly. Using the Webex Training tool, organizers could mute all attendees so that the presenter was not interrupted by accidental background noise,” Veerasamy said.
About 50 to 60 attendees showed up online the first day, though participation varied based on topic. Most attendees were UT Dallas students, but a few professionals and high school students also joined the sessions, Veerasamy said.
Veerasamy, who is also director of the UT Dallas Center for Computer Science Education & Outreach, adapted coding tutoring to an online format for area school children through the K-12 outreach program. Computer science graduate students teach most sessions, which include helping elementary students learn coding using Lego-style building blocks and teaching middle school students hands-on coding with free-form typing. Nearly 50 families have signed up for the sessions for their homebound children.
“Students who use these tools do extremely well when they reach high school and take AP [Advanced Placement] computer science courses that use Java. Without such preparation, typical high school students spend a lot more time learning coding, tend to rush through the material and get frustrated with the learning experience,” Veerasamy said.
Earning ‘Gold’ Points
Dr. Anvar Zakhidov, professor of physics, offered opportunities before and after class, as well as by chat mode during class, for students to ask questions.
“They feel involvement in this live real-time conversation, and I communicate to them additional comments,” Zakhidov said.
He and his teaching assistant, Stan Cherepanov, who is also a physics doctoral student, used Webex conferencing to stay online and take additional questions after class. They also engaged students 20 minutes before class started by giving them daily “gold tasks” involving physics problems to solve for extra points.
“Many students become interested in trying to solve those puzzling tasks and earn a piece of ‘gold’ that will increase their grades by one point,” Zakhidov said.
Dr. Carie King, clinical professor of communication and associate director of rhetoric in the School of Arts and Humanities, spent 30 minutes reading a book to the young child of one of her students to give the student a study break. King, who completed her doctoral degree as a single parent, said she can relate to the struggles of students who have families of their own.
“Our students need more time right now. I needed the break, too,” King wrote on Twitter.
King also wanted to help students who say they struggle with loneliness or depression and has sent emails to let them know she’s thinking of them. During one class video conference, she helped students get to know one another by having them introduce their children and pets.
“We had a good bonding time, trying out the technology and getting to know each other. They are struggling with the stress of schoolwork and the added isolation of COVID,” King said.
“In a time like this, faculty are one of the mainstays of a student’s life. We can walk alongside our students by being available. We are not mental health experts; we are not counselors. But as mentors and fellow humans, we know the struggles of life and scholarship,” King said.
Faculty scheduled to teach this summer can contact the educational technology services staff to assist with course setup in eLearning.
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].