In preparation for a quarter of “distance learning,” the University has organized a series of webinars for spring quarter instructors to assist them in transitioning their curricula online. The webinars cover how to use technologies such as Zoom and Canvas effectively, and offer advice to instructors on how to adjust their teaching strategies to take advantage of an online format.
The Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) runs the trainings, which have been offered live every day of the week over spring break, according to the University. Instructors can also access the trainings as recordings on UChicago’s “Teaching Remotely” webpage.
Kimberly Kenny, Senior Lecturer in Norwegian Studies, said that she found the series helpful as she prepares to teach remotely.
“[The instructors] were knowledgeable, [and] didn’t make anyone feel foolish who were asking questions that were maybe very basic,” Kenny told The Maroon. “They took great care to not make this just about the technical, but about how to address our concerns, student concerns, about lost community, about what was really at stake here.”
In one video, ITS instructor Mohammad Ahmed walks faculty through how to use Zoom video conferencing software, including how to schedule meetings and how to use features such as the virtual whiteboard, breakout rooms, and polls. Ahmed suggested integrating Zoom into the existing Canvas system in order to enable an easier transition and more options for communicating with students.
“We’ve been told that Zoom meetings can’t replicate the three-hour discussion course that we would normally have, so we’ll need to scale back those meetings, because most people can’t pay attention that well or interact in the same way online,” said professor Vu Tran, Director of Undergraduate Studies for Creative Writing.
Additionally, some students might not have access to a reliable, high-speed Internet connection or a place to study, or might be in international time zones and so cannot attend synchronous sessions (classes taking place at the appointed time in Chicago). Ahmed recommended combining shorter live class sessions over Zoom with prerecorded lectures and Canvas discussions. The webinar also addressed student stress and psychological wellness in the midst of a pandemic, advising faculty to clearly communicate expectations for participation and workload, and to be flexible on deadlines.
“The three rules we were given on this by Cecilia Lo from the central IT office that works with teaching, especially with this kind of emergency, were 'be kind, be flexible, keep it simple,' said professor James Chandler, chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. “We’ll probably try to observe all three of those.”
In a separate video training, Joseph Lampert of the Chicago Center for Teaching told faculty to mix formats depending on the goal of a class rather than relying on one format alone.
University spokesman Gerald McSwiggan told The Maroon that approximately 1,300 faculty and TAs have participated in trainings so far. In addition, division heads and department chairs have taken the lead in organizing workshops and collecting resources on remote teaching in order to help their faculty members recalibrate their courses.
For some departments, the transition to distance learning will be easier than for others.
Many language classes have already developed some tools for online teaching.
"The pedagogy online had already been developed for several years because Cattherine Bauman—who's director of the Language Center—has established for all foreign language instruction new proficiency standards," Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations chair Donald Harper told The Maroon. “And that includes online examinations.”
Other faculty members are less accustomed to teaching with technology.
“I think for some faculty, this is really going to be hard,” said professor Daisy Delogu, chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. “One person wrote to me saying, 'this is brand new for us and we hope the students will be patient with us.' I think they’re really trying to prepare as well, knowing that nobody really knows what they’re doing, and they’re trying to make it work in the best way.”
Throughout the quarter, staff from the office of Academic Technology Solutions, the Language Center, the University’s Chicago Center for Teaching, and designated staff within departments will all be available to help faculty translate their classroom teaching into a remote format.
“It’s always good to feel like there are people there who can answer your questions, who are ready to help,” Kenny said. “I had felt that way from the first moment when the first decision started to come down about what was going to happen.”