Monthly Archives: April 2020

A Sabbatical in Australia Cut Short and the Rapid Transition of Course Delivery of an Australian University due to the COVID-19 Global Pandemic
Emilio Badoer, PhD
Professor of Neuropharmacology
School of Health & Biomedical Science with the College of Science, Engineering & Health
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Bundoora (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)

Patricia A. Halpin, PhD
Associate Professor of Biological Science and Biotechnology & Visiting Associate Professor at RMIT University
Department of Life Sciences, University of New Hampshire at Manchester (Manchester, NH)

I was thrilled to spend my sabbatical performing education research at RMIT University in Australia during the spring semester of 2020. I met my collaborator Emilio Badoer at the APS ITL in 2016 and at that time we vowed to collaborate someday. I had a smooth flight to Melbourne AU and as we left the airport, I got my first view of the city covered in a smoky haze from the bushfires to the north1. The radio broadcast playing on the car stereo was alerting everyone to the tropical cyclones headed for the east coast and these would soon cause massive flooding in New South Wales. “Welcome to Australia” Emilio said, little did we know at the time that the worst was yet to come. The COVID-19 outbreak in China had caused Australia to close its borders on February 12,3 to foreign nationals who had left or transited through mainland China.  I arrived February 9 and the focus of my attention was the excitement and anticipation of starting our two research projects.  At my small college, my courses usually enroll 10-24 students, at RMIT our first study was working with a large nursing class (n =368) with the primary goal of using Twitter to engage them outside of class with the course content. 

The nursing cohort started two weeks prior to the start of the term, and in the third week, the students went on clinical placements for five weeks. This course is team-taught and Emilio taught during the first two-week period so that content was the focus of our research for this study. We designed the study to collect data using paper surveys to be distributed at face-to-face class meetings at the beginning and end of the term to ensure a high rate of survey completion. The second study performed with his Pharmacology of Therapeutics class (n=140) started on March 2 with one face-to-face meeting followed by four weeks of flipped teaching (FT). During the FT period, we would engage them on Twitter with course content and they would meet during weekly face-to-face Lectorial sessions for review during the usual scheduled class time.  Students completed the paper pre-survey in the first class meeting and the scheduled paper post-surveys were to be distributed during the final Lectorial sessions on March 19 and 20.  Then on Monday March 16th everything changed; Victoria declared a state of emergency to combat the COVID-19 pandemic4 and Qantas announced that they would cancel 90% of their international flights5, with the remaining flights cancelled on March 31. 

I was contacted by friends and family back home urging me to come home right away. RMIT announced the decision that learning would go online starting March 23. In the United States, colleges had previously announced that students heading home for spring break should stay home as their classes would be delivered online due to the COVID-19 concerns 6. The faculty at the US schools had spring break to prepare the transition of their course content for the new delivery mode. At RMIT, they had recently started their semester with no spring break normally scheduled and the only break on the horizon was the distant Easter holiday (April 10-13) long weekend. Our hopes for data collection were quickly dashed as during the last Lectorial sessions only a few students attended, and we would not be able to survey the nursing students in person when they returned from placements.

My focus shifted to leaving the country as soon as possible. The only way to change my airline ticket home was through a travel agent and my personal travel agent spent a total of 11.5 h on hold with Qantas over a two-day period to secure my ticket home. I left Australia with hordes of anxious Americans. The airports were overwhelmed as we formed long lines trying to check in and then go through security. Everyone had a story to tell of how they had to cut their trip short and then changed their tickets. In Los Angeles I was joined by more Americans who were coming from New Zealand. Many of the American travelers were undergraduates very disappointed that their universities had called them home and they were leaving their semester abroad adventures. We would all soon arrive home safely to a country living in a new reality.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the situation at universities evolved rapidly. In line with the Australian Government mandate, students were told that all new arrivals into the country must self-isolate for 14 days effective March 16. Public gatherings of over 500 people were no longer allowed. Although universities were specifically exempt from this requirement, RMIT University proactively cancelled or postponed any events that were not related to the core business of learning, teaching and research. It also foreshadowed a progressive transition to lectures being delivered online where possible.  The University also indicated that students would not be disadvantaged if they chose not to attend face-to-face classes during the week of March 16. In response to the rapid changes occurring internationally, on March 20, the Australian Government restricted all non-Australian citizens and non-Australian residents from entering the country.  While Australian Universities could remain open and operating it was clear that this would not last for long 7. In response, RMIT University mandated that from Monday March 23 lectures were to be made available online but tutorials and seminars and non-specialist workshops could continue face-to-face until March 30.

On Sunday March 22 the State Government of Victoria (where the main RMIT University campus is based) mandated the shutdown of all non-essential activity from Tuesday March 24 to combat the spread of COVID-19 7. Immediately, RMIT University suspended all face-to-face learning and teaching activity on all its Australian campuses. Overnight, faculty became online teaching facilitators. Emilio produced and is continuing to produce new videos (15-30 minutes duration) covering the content normally delivered during the face-to-face large lecture session. Each week 3-5 videos are produced and uploaded onto Canvas (RMIT’s online learning management system) for the students. 

Unlike many of the US schools that are using Zoom, RMIT is using Collaborate Ultra within Canvas as its way of connecting with students on a weekly basis. Collaborate Ultra has the ability to create breakout groups and faculty can assign students to a specific breakout group or allow students to self-allocate to a specific breakout group. Emilio has allowed students to move between breakout groups to increase engagement. The only stipulation was to limit the group size usually to no more than six. Each student was originally registered to attend one small group Lectorial session that meets once per week for one hour and these groups have between 45-50 students each. The Lectorials were replaced by Collaborate Ultra sessions that were organized for the same times and dates as the normally scheduled small Lectorial sessions. The students and facilitators would all meet in the so-called “main room” where Emilio would outline the plans for the session. The main room session was conducted with Emilio’s video turned on so the students were ‘invited “into his home” and could feel connected with him. Dress code was also important. Emilio was conscious of wearing smart casual apparel as he would have worn had he been facing the students in a face-to-face session. In this way he attempted to simulate the normal pre-COVID-19 environment.

Following the introductory remarks outlining the tasks for the session, students were ‘sent’ to their breakout rooms to discuss and work on the first problem / task discussed in the main room. The analogy used by Emilio was that the breakout rooms were akin to the tables that were used in their collaborative teaching space in which he normally conducted the Lectorial sessions. Each table in that space accommodated approximately six students (hence the stipulation of no more than six in each breakout group). Emilio and another moderator ‘popped’ into each breakout room to guide and facilitate the students in their discussions. To date, the level of engagement and discussion amongst the students themselves generally appears to be much greater than that observed at face-to-face sessions which was a fantastic surprise. After a set time had elapsed, students re-assembled in the main room where the task was discussed with the whole class. This ensured that all students understood the requirements of the task and they had addressed all points that were needed to complete the task to the satisfactory standard. Next followed another task that differed from the first providing variety and maintaining the interest of the students.

Examples of tasks performed.

1 – Practice exam questions

A short answer question requiring a detailed response that would normally take at least 10 minutes in an exam environment to answer properly. Such questions were based on that week’s lecture (now video) course content and was contextualized in a scenario in which physiological/pathophysiological conditions were described and the pharmacological treatments needed to be discussed in terms of mechanisms of action, adverse effects, potential drug interactions or pharmacogenomic influences etc.

2 – Multiple choice questions – Quizzes

Emilio ran these using the Kahoot platform. By sharing his screen, Emilio could conduct such quizzes live providing instant feedback on student progress. This allowed Emilio to provide formative feedback, correct any misconceptions and discuss topics. Additionally, students were able to gauge their own learning progress. These tasks were performed in the main room with all participants.

3 – Completing sentences or matching answers

These could be done effectively in the breakout rooms, where a ‘lead’ student could utilize the whiteboard function in Collaborate Ultra which allowed all students in the group the opportunity to write on the whiteboard allowing discussion regarding the answers written.

4 – Filling in the gaps

Here Emilio would share his screen in which a diagram / figure / a schematic of a pathway etc. with labels/ information missing was provided and students were asked to screenshot the shared information. Then in breakout rooms, one student shared the captured screen shot with the group and the missing information was completed by the members of the group.

The Collaborate Ultra sessions were also utilized to provide students with a platform in which group work could be performed. With a lockdown in force and gatherings of groups forbidden, this utility was very important for enabling connection between students working on group projects. It also provided a sense of belonging within the student cohort.

In conclusion, with minimal preparation, a huge Australian University converted face-to-face teaching and learning to an online digital teaching and learning environment where working remotely was the new norm. It is almost inconceivable just a few short weeks ago that such a transformation could have happened in the timeframe that it did. It is a truly remarkable achievement.  


1 Alexander, H and Moir N. (December 20, 2019). ‘The monster’: a short history of Australia’s biggest forest fire. Sydney Morning Herald Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

2 Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) (Jan. 30, 2020). Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

3 Travel Restrictions on China Due to COVID-19 (April 6, 2020). Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

4 Premier of Victoria, State of Emergency Declared in Victoria Over COVID-19. (March 16, 2020) Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

5 Qantas and Jetstar slash 90 per cent of international flights due to corona virus (March 16, 2020). Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

6 Hartocollis A. (March 11, 2020). ‘An Eviction Notice’: Chaos After Colleges Tell Students to Stay Away. The New York Times. Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

7 Worthington B (March 22, 2020). Coronavirus crackdown to force mass closures of pubs, clubs, churches and indoor sporting venues. Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from

Professor Badoer has held numerous teaching and learning leadership roles including many years as the Program Coordinator for the undergraduate Pharmaceutical Sciences Program at RMIT University in Bundoora AU and he coordinates several courses. He is an innovative instructor that enjoys the interactions with students and teaching scholarship. He has also taught pharmacology and physiology at Melbourne and Monash Universities. In addition, he supervises several postgraduate students, Honours students and Postdoctoral Fellows.

Patricia A. Halpin is an Associate Professor in the Life Sciences Department at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester (UNHM). Patricia received her MS and Ph.D. in Physiology at the University of Connecticut. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth Medical School. After completion of her postdoc she started a family and taught as an adjunct at several NH colleges. She then became a Lecturer at UNHM before becoming an Assistant Professor. She teaches Principles of Biology, Endocrinology, Cell Biology, Animal Physiology, Global Science Explorations and Senior Seminar to undergraduates. She has been a member of APS since 1994 and is currently on the APS Education committee and is active in the Teaching Section. She has participated in Physiology Understanding (PhUn) week at the elementary school level in the US and Australia. She has presented her work on PhUn week, Using Twitter for Science Discussions, and Embedding Professional Skills into Science curriculum at the Experimental Biology meeting and the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning.

Challenges of migrating online amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Ida T. Fonkoue, Ph.D.
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Renal Division
Emory University School of Medicine

Ramon A. Fonkoue, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, French and Cultural Studies
Michigan Technological University

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a total and sudden reshaping of the academic landscape across the country, with hundreds of institutions moving administration entirely online and shifting to online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester or for both spring and summer. This sudden transition with practically no time to prepare has major implications for students and faculty alike, and poses serious challenges to a smooth transition as well as effective online teaching on such a large scale. Out of these challenges, two issues in particular are examined here: 

By Phil Hill, licensed under CC-BY. See URL in references.
  • the disparity in resources and preparedness for effective online teaching 
  • the implications of the migration to virtual classrooms for diversity and inclusion

Disparity in resources and preparedness for effective online teaching

Teaching an online course requires just as much, if not more, time and energy as traditional classroom courses. It also requires specific IT skills to be effective. Some teachers have managed to achieve great success engaging students online. However, many challenges remain for the average teacher. While online teaching has now been embraced by all higher education institutions and the number of classes offered online has seen a steady growth over the years, it should be noted that until now, instructors and students had the choice between brick and mortar classes and virtual ones. Each could then choose based on their personal preferences and/or circumstances. What makes the recent changes so impactful and consequential is that no choice is left to instructors or students, as the move to online classes is a mandate from the higher administration. Whether one is willing, prepared or ready is irrelevant. It is from this perspective that the question of the preparedness to migrate online is worth examining. 

With academic units ordered to move classes online, instructors who had remained indifferent to the growing trend of online teaching have had a difficult reckoning. They have had to hastily move to online delivery, often with a steep learning curve. This challenge has been compounded in some cases by the technology gap for instructors who haven’t kept their IT skills up to date as well as the school’s preparedness to support online teaching. But even instructors who had some familiarity with learning management systems (LMS) and online delivery have faced their share of challenges. We will only mention two sources of these difficulties: 

  • First, students’ expectations in a context of exclusive online teaching are different from when most online classes took place in the summer, and were attractive to students because of convenience and flexibility. With online classes becoming the norm, students in some universities are taking steps to demand that school administrators pay more attention to quality of instruction and maintain high standards to preserve teaching effectiveness. 
  • Second, instructors can no longer use LMS resources just for the flexibility and benefits they afforded, such as in blended classes or flipped classes. Moving everything online thus requires extra work even for LMS enthusiasts.

For students, there have been some interesting lessons. Until now, it was assumed that Generation Z students (raised in the boom of the internet and social media) we have in our classes have tech skills in their DNA and would be well equipped and ready to migrate online. Surprisingly, this hasn’t been the case across the board, and these first weeks have revealed real discrepancies in student IT equipment with varying consequences for online classes. Equipment failure and problems with access to high speed internet emerge as the most serious difficulties on the students’ side. Furthermore, online learning requires independence and often more self-discipline and self-motivation. Most online courses are not taught in real time, and there are often no set times for classes. While this flexibility makes online classes attractive, it can also be a drawback for students who procrastinate and are unable to follow the course pace. If left to themselves, only the most responsible students will preserve their chances of performing well. On this last point, one unexpected issue has been students who have virtually disappeared from their classes since the migration of courses online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The current transition has thus presented major challenges for teachers and students alike. 

Implications of the migration to virtual classrooms for diversity and inclusion

The second issue we think deserves attention is the way in which educational institutions’ commitment to diversity and inclusion would play out in virtual classes. While they are now among the professed core values of all colleges and universities across the country, implementing diversity and inclusion in an online environment presents a different set of challenges for both instructors and students. In traditional classrooms, the commitment to diversity and inclusion typically translates into the following:

  • A diversity and inclusion statement from the school must be included in the course syllabus.
  • Instructors must remind students a few rules at the beginning of the course, including: recognition that the classroom is an environment where diversity is acknowledged and valued; tolerance of and respect for diversity of views in the classroom.
  • Sensitivity to and respect for diversity (gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.).
  • Students are asked to be courteous and respectful of different opinions.

In moving into a virtual environment, instructors have to think about the challenges of virtual classrooms and their potential impact on diversity and inclusion. For instance, the faceless nature of course participation and asynchronous delivery may make it easier for participants to disregard or neglect diversity and inclusion rules. Teachers need to reflect on ways to ensure that the virtual space of online classes remains an environment that fosters diversity and inclusion. One drawback of online classes is the potential impact of the relative anonymity on social engagement. In a traditional classroom, participants are constrained by the physical presence of their peers in the confined space of the classroom. The closed physical space of the classroom, combined with the instructor’s authority and peer pressure contribute to fostering discipline. Reflecting on the way online teaching impacts the instructor, one faculty noted: “I didn’t realize how much I rely on walking around the room and making eye contact with students to keep them engaged.” As an online teacher, one lacks the ability to connect physically with students, to read emotional cues and body language that might inform about the individuality of a student. Moreover, a good grasp of the diversity in the classroom and of students’ learning abilities is needed to plan instruction, and give each of them the opportunity to learn and succeed.

Drawing from the above considerations, here are some key questions that instructors should consider as they migrate online: What skills do instructors need to properly address diversity and inclusion online? How do instructors include diversity and inclusion requirements in online course design? How to create an inclusive online classroom? How do instructors attend to diverse students’ needs during instruction? How do they monitor behaviors and enforce diversity and inclusion rules during instruction?

While the migration might have been abrupt, instructors need not seek perfection in moving their courses online. As in traditional classes, what matters the most, from the student’s point of view, is constant communication, clear directions and support from their teachers. Students understand the challenges we all face. They also understand the rules in virtual classes, provided we emphasize them.


Hill, Phil (2020), Massive Increase in LMS and Synchronous Video Usage Due to COVID-19. PhilonEdTech.

Greeno, Nathan (2020), Prepare to Move Online (in a Hurry). Inside Higher Ed.

McMurtrie, Beth (2020), The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dr Ida Fonkoué is a post-doctoral fellow at Emory University School of Medicine in the Laboratory of Dr Jeanie Park. She trained under Dr Jason Carter at Michigan Technological University, where she graduated with a PhD in Biological Sciences in December 2016. She teaches renal physiology classes and lead small groups in the School of Medicine. Her long-term research goal is to understand how the sympathetic nervous system, the vasculature and inflammation interplay to contribute to the high cardiovascular disease risk of patients living with chronic stress, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Ramon A Fonkoué is an Associate Professor of French and Cultural Studies and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. He is also a Visiting Scholar in the department of French and Italian at Emory University. He has been teaching online for 9 years and has experience with blended, flipped and full online classes.