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Toughest test: Faculty overcome challenges of teaching online

Woman working on computer

Illinois State students, faculty, and staff are adjusting to getting work done remotely and communicating electronically.

Anybody familiar with Illinois State knows the University’s motto is “gladly we learn and teach.” The commitment to do both with any level of gladness has been severely tested the past few weeks as all classes transitioned to an online format.

Necessitated to combat spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the move to distance learning was announced during spring break. It was extended one week to give ISU’s nearly 1,100 faculty members time to adjust plans for the remaining semester before classes resumed March 23.

That day will always be remembered by Dr. Claire Lamonica, M.A. ’83, D.A. ’96, who was one of many on campus holding their breath and bracing for glitches. As director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT), she knew the potential for problems.

Like others on the University’s administrative team, Lamonica was surprised by and grateful for how well the launch of classes went. The majority of teaching was done through video conferencing provided by Zoom. In the first week alone, there were 7,018 Zoom meetings with 65,732 participants engaged for a total of 2.4 million minutes.

“I am so very proud of our faculty. Everybody just came together, put their noses to the grindstone, and learned how to do this teaching to keep their students learning,” Lamonica said. “Our faculty have modeled to their students what it means to be a lifelong learner.”

CTLT played an integral role in helping professors become comfortable using technology to deliver material typically taught in a classroom. The center’s work began at the start of spring break with the scenario that some students may need online classes if quarantined. Efforts intensified exponentially when it was apparent the whole campus was making that transition.

“Our primary goal was to make sure that everybody had the resources they needed,” said Lamonica, who marshaled her 15 employees to start working on two web sites: REDBIRDS KEEP TEACHING and REDBIRDS KEEP LEARNING. The learning site provides students the support they need to ease frustrations, from establishing a stable internet connection to finding help if struggling with a class. The other resource answers for faculty practical questions such as how to use Zoom, with the opportunity to connect with 40 highly experienced online teachers ready to serve as mentors.

The peer outreach was essential, as Lamonica noted that only about 200 faculty have completed the center’s distance learning training sessions. She estimates that approximately 20 percent of those teaching at ISU deliver content online, although 99 percent of the courses are published in Reggienet. This means the tool is used to at least upload a syllabus and gradebook.

“Thankfully very few of our faculty were unfamiliar with Reggienet,” Lamonica said, noting the center created a site with basics about it and enrolled every faculty member to receive access. Some faculty have opted to use Reggienet more extensively for quizzes and class discussions. CTLT also sent out emails to make the campus community aware of the teaching and learning links.

Meanwhile the Administrative Technologies team worked with the University’s vendor to make certain Reggienet could handle the load without crashing, while faculty in disciplines that require lab work or access to equipment to finish projects devised a plan in departmental huddles. In Mennonite College of Nursing, for example, the need for students to complete hands-on clinical hours is being met using telehealth technology. Individuals play the role of patients who need to be assessed.

“People just really dug in across campus and we got it figured out,” said Lamonica, who is confident students will finish their spring semester strong. She is equally certain that all will be happy to resume the regular classroom routine, as Illinois State excels in providing a complete collegiate experience as a residential campus.

Until that day comes, learning and teaching continues with such an enthusiasm and commitment to excellence on the part of both faculty and students that Lamonica has begun using a new hashtag: #ItTakesACampus.