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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Western’s largest classes transition into remote quarter

Change has instructors teaching large groups asynchronously, changing curriculum

With the shift to a fully online quarter, students and professors are learning how to deal with the transition. Professors are handling large classes in different ways. // Photo by Alix Condit

By Kenneth Duncan

Environmental Studies: A Scientific Approach instructor Eli Loomis said that remote learning has made it difficult to determine the pace of the class, with 208 students currently enrolled in the course.

“In my classroom, I rely a lot on being able to gauge people’s engagement in real time as I go along in a lecture,” Loomis said. “I try really hard to adapt what works and abandon what doesn’t. Of course, online, the biggest challenge for me is that I don’t get that feedback.”

Previously, Loomis’ class was a 400-person lecture class taught in person. When Western announced the transition to online classes on March 19, the class was split into two online sections, with environmental sciences professor John Rybczyk instructing the second section.

Intro to Art of the Theatre instructor Mark Kuntz said teaching an online course has been more different than difficult, with online discussion boards allowing him to engage with the 117 students currently enrolled in the course.

“If I was standing in front of a group and we’d be in a discussion, there might be 30 people on a good day that would contribute,” Kuntz said. “Online, I get 120 people involved in the conversation. In a big class online, you don’t get to sneak away, sit in a corner, be quiet and take the exams.”

Both Loomis and Kuntz have made changes to their curriculum for the spring quarter, breaking content down into pre-recorded lectures and units with quizzes to determine a student’s progress to avoid large Zoom calls. Loomis said that change has left it difficult to interact with students.

“I rely on engaging people with the material for making decisions day to day,” Loomis said. “And now I just don’t have that. And so, it feels like I’m throwing messages in bottles into the ocean.”

According to WWU ClassFinder, there are 21 General Undergraduate Requirement classes with over 100 enrolled students, and only three with over 200. Western announced March 19, the spring quarter would be fully online, with the previously scheduled first week of the quarter to be dedicated to preparation for both students and faculty.

Loomis said that the late notice sent him scrambling to change his curriculum. 

“To me, that is such a short turnaround.” Loomis said. “A minimum level of structure to be able to offer at the start of a quarter is to be able to tell students, ‘This is what we’re going to cover.’ That’s kind of a lot to get together in a couple weeks.”

Art history major and first-year transfer student Grey Lee said their experience being taught asynchronously in large classes varies. They’re enrolled in both Visual Culture of Medieval Europe and Math Reasoning and Applications.

“The art history class feels like there’s a teacher only because we get so much communication from them and they’re teaching the class more synchronously,” Lee said. “But the math class at this point, I’ve stopped listening to the lectures entirely and I’m just going on the textbook for whatever homework is assigned.”

For newer students, asynchronous lecture classes have less opportunities for students to discuss the content, collaborate, and exchange notes. Lee said that this changes how students interact with the class.

“There’s no time to just hop in and talk to the teacher before or after class,” Lee said. “You don’t have the same human connection. You also don’t have a connection with classmates who might be able to help you out on quizzes, lecture notes and things like that if you don’t understand the content.”

Kuntz said that having experience in online teaching helped him transition to the quarter.

“I was pretty lucky because I had taught an online version of the course in the past,” Kuntz said. “But the shape was different because there were only 20 people instead of 120, so I did have to go back and change it. The course is actually a blend of what I normally teach and the online version.”

Despite the changes made to facilitate an online environment, the lack of connection with students led both Loomis and Kuntz to change how they forge relationships with their students. Loomis decided to record a weekly video of himself to provide students with a sense of who he is, while Kuntz created discussion posts that encourage critical thinking and semi-personal discussion.

Loomis said that if fall quarter is also taught remotely, more planning time would help instructors develop their curriculum.

“How I can show respect for the effort that goes into taking an online course is by putting a lot of effort into setting it up really well,” Loomis said. “Pouring in more planning time would help a lot.”

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