Faculty and Students Take on the Challenges of Online Classes

By Anne E. Bromley

Mindful that not all of her students had equal access to the internet, Curry School associate professor Vivien Chabalengula chose to use more easily accessible tools to take her course online.

The following is an excerpt from a story originally published by UVA Today. Click here to read the full story.

"My students’ sense of urgency and motivation have skyrocketed.”

“I am in awe of how resilient these students are in the face of these unprecedented times.”

“I miss the joy of face-to-face teaching. Still, we’re a community.”

These are just a few of the comments University of Virginia professors recently conveyed as they proceed with teaching online. That doesn’t mean they haven’t had problems that recur, or that courses are the same in the virtual environment. Some have had to give up face-to-face activities that can’t be replaced right now.

When the University announced March 11 that all courses – more than 4,200 offered this semester – would be moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, some faculty members were ready to make the transition. Many others, however, had very little experience and could not imagine, at first, how their courses were going to function. Even some instructors who used online technology before still faced challenges with the changes they had to make.

They sought out help from the Center for Teaching Excellence, the College of Arts & Sciences’ A&S Learning Design & Technology group, the University Library, information technology teams, the Teaching Continuity website, and colleagues. Some are also getting ideas from their students.

“There’s no playbook for moving an entire academic enterprise online in a week,” Archie Holmes, vice provost for academic affairs, said April 1. “Our success to date can be attributed to the commitment and dedication of our IT teams, our pedagogical experts, and of course our faculty. Everyone has pulled together to make this the best experience possible for our students.”

In this sampling of teachers emailing about their experiences, they write that working with their students has yielded unexpected connections, and they are learning together – despite technical glitches, time zone differences and other challenges.

Vivien Chabalengula, “Teaching as a Profession”

The 75 students in Vivien Chabalengula’s introductory class, “Teaching as a Profession,” are a mix of undergraduates from several departments and schools. They are working from home all over the country, with others scattered in Europe, Asia and South America. In addition to different time zones, some of them don’t have reliable high-speed connectivity.

Chabalengula, an associate professor of education in the Curry School of Education and Human Development’s Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education, keeps track of the organizational details of her courses, as she had done before everything changed, with technology tools in the Curry Canvas Learning Management system. Now, she’s using more of the tools there, she said, because it ensures equal access for all her students taking her class.

“I had to make hard decisions on how to ensure equitable access to all learners. For instance, I had to minimize the use of Zoom for the whole class, but use it for small groupings,” Chabalengula said. Some students asked if they could also use other social media platforms they’re accustomed to using in their everyday lives for small group work, particularly FaceTime, Groupme and Snapchat.

“With the aforementioned tools, they are utilizing them creatively in ways that make our classes more personable, and they communicate with one another in similar ways as if we were face-to-face,” Chabalengula said.

The companion “field experience” course that took students into local schools had to be canceled due to all the school closings. ​Chabalengula, however, created an alternative assignment, asking students to reflect on how what they have learned in class can be applied to their own college learning experiences at UVA.

For small-group projects, in which they identify and analyze a current educational issue or problem, the students are creating them virtually. “In normal situations, groups would have presented their projects in front of their peers,” she said. She is having the students add voice-over and video along with PowerPoint presentations, in an attempt to have them mimic the way it would have been in real time, Chabalengula said.