Category Archives: Online Teaching and Learning

Poster sessions: not just for Experimental Biology

At the University of Minnesota, we teach a large physiology lecture/lab class directed at nursing and other allied health focused students. Around week 12 or 13 of a 14-week semester, we host a lab exercise we call “Project Day.”  In this lab, students choose a learning objective, from one of the class sessions previously during the semester, and develop a way to teach this learning objective to their student peers.  Students can make a poster, a work of art or a model.  They can compose a song, write a poem or record a video.  The sky is the limit as long as the project relates to a course objective, emphasizes physiology rather than anatomy and demonstrates a good faith effort.

After more than 15 years of project days, I have experienced an amazing variety of topics and approaches.  I heard about the cardiac cycle in a song called “It’s how your heart works” sung by the Lady Lub Dubs.  Cookies can be primary and secondary active transport proteins and M & Ms can be Na and K ions.  A beaded bracelet can illustrate the phases of the menstrual cycle. Students can learn about renal physiology by playing a game called “Kidney Land.” Lady Gaga’s song, “Poker Face”, can be turned into a parody about the SRY gene. Pipe cleaners can be converted into contractile apparatus. Beer caps can be calcium ions.  The functions of the autonomic nervous system can be dramatized in a play in which Mr. Sympathetic and Mrs. Parasympathetic are in divorce court because they cannot agree on anything.

Over the years, what I have enjoyed the most were the poster presentations.  A song or a video can be a one-way performance but the posters spark interactions. Students stand by their posters during half the class, the TAs and the faculty circulate around the lab rooms.  At the half way point we call “Switch” and the second half of students present as the first presenters circulate. The beauty of project day is the conversations sparked by all those posters.  Conversations about the difference between negative and positive feedback, the difference between skeletal and smooth muscle, the difference between graded potentials and action potentials and the difference between steroid and peptide hormones.

During Project Day, the lab is brimming with enthusiastic questions.

·         Do both cardiac and skeletal muscles have troponin? 

·         Are gamma motor neurons involved in the stretch reflex?

·         Can you help me understand why norepinephrine stimulates the heart but inhibits the intestines?

·         When does the menstrual cycle go from negative feedback to positive feedback?

·         Why do you need a bigger stimulus during the relative refractory period?

·         Are you telling me that T3 works just like the steroids?  How did I not know that?

As I circulated through the lab, I often asked, “why did you choose this topic?”

Sometimes students would say, “I picked this topic because I already knew it and felt confident about it”.  Through my smile, I felt a twinge of sadness that the student decided to play it safe.  More often, a student would say, “Well because I didn’t understand it and I wanted to.”  Or they might say, “I got this wrong on the last exam and I want to make sure I get it right on the final.”

My next question was, “Do you understand it now?”  A beaming smile would show me their answer.

At the end of the lab, we ask the students to engage in a metacognition exercise.  After viewing the posters and other projects we ask, “Can you list three concepts that are still “muddy” for you?  Are there three concepts that you realize you need to study more for the final?”  We ask the students to write down those three concepts and then we ask them to promise that they will intentionally include those three concepts in their studying for the cumulative final exam.

During the Spring of 2020, we suddenly had to switch gears.  The students submitted videos or PowerPoint slides of their projects.  They were posted on the learning management site and students were invited to view them.  Unfortunately, Project Day was not the same. We were missing a vital component……….the conversation! 

What will we do this semester?  We are going to ask the students to make a poster and take a picture of it or craft a poster from one power point slide to present on Zoom (https://zoom.us/).  The students will be sent to breakout rooms and given the ability to share their posters.  TA will be assigned to break out rooms to coordinate the poster presentations of the students.  We are thinking about groups of 8-10 students.  With 5-minute presentations and 5 minutes of questions for each poster, it should take 40-50 minutes.  We will scramble the groups and have them present again. We will grade based on a simple rubric: did it address a learning objective, did it emphasize physiology, was it a good faith effort.

I can imagine that a poster session in zoom breakout sessions could lend themselves to a number of presentation types.  Students could present on famous physiologists, on their own lab work or on a pathophysiologic application of a physiologic concept.  Instructors could adjust their grading rubrics accordingly to meet their specific learning outcomes.

This activity would not have to be done synchronously either.  Students could record a 5-minute presentation of their poster using a software called Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com/). Students could upload their poster into Flipgrid, record their video and view the videos of others.   This software then permits students to post a video response or question.  Students could post a video, comment on 4 other videos and then return to record follow up videos, answering the questions of their peers about their own projects.  This would make a great final project in a lab or a class. 

Synchronous or asynchronous, the important element is that student poster sessions get students talking. As our friend Mary Pat Wenderoth often says, “The students who are doing the talking are the students who are doing the learning.” 

Lisa Carney Anderson is an Associate Professor and Director of Education in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. She completed her doctoral training in muscle physiology at the University of Minnesota. She directs the first year medical physiology course. She also teaches nurse anesthesia students, dental students and undergraduates. She is the 2012 recipient of the Didactic Instructor of the Year Award from the American Association of Nurse Anesthesia.  She co-authored a physiology workbook called Cells to Systems: Critical thinking exercises in Physiology, Kendall Hunt Press. Dr. Anderson’s teaching interests include encouraging active learning through retrieval and assessment of student reflection.  She serves on APS Teaching Section Steering Committee as Secretary.

Spring 2020*: The asterisk denotes community made all the difference.

Spring 2020 is often denoted with an asterisk.  The asterisk means different things to different people.  For many people it means, “Things will never be the same.”  COVID-19 has changed the venues from which we teach, but not our commitment to continually improve our teaching.  We have adapted our lectures, labs, and office hours to online platforms to keep students and ourselves safe.  I am no seer, but once classes moved online in mid-March I knew this would be a long haul from which I must learn and never forget.  After submitting final grades, I asked myself, “What have you learned?  Which practices will you continue to implement to create a better learning environment for students irrespective of world health status or platform?”  My asterisk on Spring 2020 is community.

For Spring 2020 I was assigned three sections of an upper level exercise nutrition course and one section of basic exercise physiology.  Each was a critical course.  Kinesiology majors must pass exercise physiology before any other upper level kinesiology course; this was a new course for me.  The exercise nutrition course, which I taught the prior semester, includes an in-class presentation with a hefty point value; it also is the departmental assessment tool for communication skills.  Over the last several years the level of stress and anxiety among undergraduate students in my physiology courses has been progressively increasing, nearly choking their joy of learning.  Colleagues in other fields observe similar trends.  The majority of students taking physiology courses seek careers in health professions.  Given the competitive nature of the respective training programs, students are driven to earn that A.  Add to that the worry of paying for tuition, rent, food, books, computers, and transportation and complicated academic and social transitions from high school to college.  Their family expectations loom over them.  Some students are full-time students, but also full-time parents.  For first-generation college students these circumstances may bear even greater weight.  Thus, while preparing for Spring 2020 I decided to approach that semester with greater compassion for students.  This led to my forming a community of learners in each class a priority.  Ultimately, this helped me better meet the needs of my students during that first phase of the pandemic.

Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”  In preparing for Spring 2020, I identified aspects of each course that presented major challenges for students and represented sources of stress, anxiety, frustration, and discouragement.  I hoped to address those challenges and thereby, alleviate a source of stress.  Most exercise physiology students had not taken biology or basic physiology; thus, I had to teach them basic cell biology and basic physiology so they could better understand the significance of acute responses to exercise.  Based on my past experience teaching the exercise nutrition course, students needed more confidence speaking in public.  Furthermore, any given student might have known just two or three other students by name and were hesitant to speak in general.  I had to help them feel more at ease so they could talk and think out loud among their peer group.  We each want to belong to a community.  We value our individuality, but we are social beings.  Students must feel accepted and comfortable in class, so they can ask and answer questions within a small group or entire class.  A critical component of learning is not answering a question, but verbally defending that answer and exchanging ideas with others.  Many are afraid to answer incorrectly in front of others.  The classroom must be a safe place.  As the teacher, I am responsible for creating a sense of community.  While I did a great job getting to know my students’ names, faces and fun facts, I wasn’t helping students know each other.  For both courses I decided to include more activities that required students to talk directly to each other and become accustomed to speaking out loud.  With 20-25 students per class, it was feasible.  I would sacrifice class time and not be able to cover as much material.  So be it.  Students would master the fundamentals, learn to apply the knowledge, and have a shot at enjoying learning and becoming life-long learners.  Coming to class and learning might even become a reprieve from other stressors. 

How could I create community among unacquainted 20+ students?  Provide opportunity to interact as a class or in pairs or groups as often as possible.  I had to be persistent, kind, and patient.  The first day of classes I explained my intention was that students become familiar with each other, so that they were comfortable asking and answering questions and contributing to discussions.  This would facilitate learning and help me better gauge their understanding.  This also might help them find a study partner or even make a new friend.  I told them I made it a point to learn everyone’s name as soon as possible and would call on each student numerous times.  I made it clear that I know when people are shy; I promised to be kind and not call on them until they were ready.  Each day I arrived as early as possible and cheerfully greeted each student by their preferred name and asked open ended questions, e.g., ‘How are your other classes going?”  At least once a week, students worked in pairs to complete worksheets or quizzes; we would reconvene as a class and I would call on different pairs to answer.  I called on different pairs each time, so every group had chance to speak.  I encouraged them to work with different classmates for different in-class activities.  Initially, there was resistance, but I consistently commended them for their efforts.  Gradually, more students would proactively raise their hands to be called on, and it could get pretty loud.   

On the first day of the nutrition classes I also announced the presentation assignment and that we’d get started on it the 1st week of classes by forming pairs and by becoming accustomed to talking in front of the class.  To let them know that dread of public speaking is shared by all, I confessed to feeling nervous before every lecture; however, I love teaching and channel that nervous energy to keep the lectures upbeat.  I explained they might never get over the nervousness of public speaking, but they can learn nothing is wrong, being nervous is expected; it will become easier.  The trick is to start small.  So, at the start of every class period, one or two students would be asked to stand up, introduce themselves, and tell the class what they found most interesting from the last lecture.  The other students would give the presenter their undivided attention.  For shy students, I spoke directly but quietly to them before class and suggested that they could focus on me while they spoke.  After each introduction I cheerfully thanked students as positive re-enforcement.  These introductions also served to highlight what was covered in the last class.  Because each nutrition course class met 3 times a week for 50-minute sessions, students interacted frequently.  For the exercise physiology course, students worked in pairs to complete a ‘1-2-3 plus 1’ worksheet with questions on three key concepts from the previous lecture and one question on new material in the upcoming lecture.  They worked on questions for 5 minutes, and then I would call on different pairs to answer questions and explain sticking points for about 10 minutes.  It also was the transition into that day’s new material.  This class met twice per week for 80 minutes each session; thus, plenty of time remained even after the 15-minute Q&A.  They were grasping the integration of cellular mechanisms at the cellular and systems levels.  The time and effort to plan and execute these activities was well worth it.  Students were learning and enjoying class, as well as getting to know each other.  By late February communities had formed.  Each class had a friendly and inclusive feeling, and attendance was nearly perfect.  Even shy students began echoing my greetings or waving and smiling at classmates arriving to class.  Individual classes had their own running jokes.   

The week before Spring Break universities were discussing whether or not students would return to campuses after the break.  COVID-19 was here.  The Thursday and Friday before Spring Break were the last days I met with students in person.  I confirmed the rumors.  Students would not return to campus after the break, and all courses would be entirely online.  I clarified that I would present lectures ‘live’ at the regularly scheduled class times.  I opened the floor to discussion.  If I knew their concerns, I’d have a better chance at maintaining the sense of community.  Students were completely honest.  Seniors were sad, because graduation would be cancelled.  Students were hoping they could keep their jobs here in town to pay rent.  Athletes on scholarships worried that if the season were canceled they’d lose funding.  Others would be learning from their parents’ homes, which had no Internet access.  The most common concern was whether they would be as successful learning online.  They were worried about the lack of accountability.  One student feared he’d stop attending lectures and miss assignments; one reason he came to class was that I called him by name and talked to him every day.  Another student doubted I’d have any personality when giving online lectures; I took this as a challenge.  Students in the nutrition classes were worried about presentations, which were taking shape and now had to be presented somehow.  They were scared.  Now, I was scared for them – but had the wherewithal to not say that out loud.  One student outright asked, ‘Is this even gonna’ work?!”  I admitted it would be a challenge, in part because I had never taught an online class, and this was my first pandemic!  They laughed nervously.  What a relief to hear them laugh!  Then, I remembered my goal to practice compassion and let that guide me.  I calmly stated the following, “This is not an ideal situation, but we will make it work, and I mean WE.  I will do my best to not make this situation any more difficult than it has to be.  I will communicate with you regularly, so read my emails.  If you have any problems or questions you must let me know immediately, so to give me a better chance to help you.  It will be ok.”  That this was the last time I would see my students in person.  It was a sad day.

I took my students’ concerns into account and still made my priority community.  If I could maintain that sense of community, they would be more likely to login to lecture and learn. I kept it as simple, direct, and familiar as possible.  I already had been posting all lecture notes and materials on the university’s learning management system (LMS) and using the drop box for homework submissions.  Thus, I opted to use the real-time video conferencing tool in the LMS to deliver, record and save lectures and hold office hours.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  I established the practice of sending each individual class a weekly email on Sunday afternoon that listed the week’s lecture topics, specific links to each lecture and office hours, due dates for quizzes, upcoming exams, announcements, and miscellaneous reminders.  The very first email included step by step instruction for logging into the LMS video conferencing tool (which had been proofread and tested by a colleague), and I attached the revised syllabus.  I kept these emails as upbeat as possible.  On the class website, I also posted important announcements, along with links to the live and recorded lectures.  I kept the class website uncluttered and organized to make it easy for students to find what they needed.  In the middle of a pandemic, it was absolutely essential to keep my promise to my students and myself and not to make learning or teaching online any more difficult than necessary. 

I continued teaching the fundamentals and worked to maintain that sense of community.  I opened and logged into the virtual lecture room 10-15 minutes before lecture started and would allow students to do the same.  I would still greet them as they entered, asked them to turn on the video at least once, so I could see their faces and make sure they were doing ok.  They would also greet each other.  I encouraged them to ask questions or comment directly using their mics or in the chat message feature.  As I lectured, I kept track of questions and answers to my questions; I would address students by name just as I had in person.  They learned quickly that they could use the chat feature to communicate with each other, sometimes not about physiology or nutrition.  I didn’t mind.  I also knew they missed being on campus and seeing classmates and friends, and they were isolated.  For the exercise physiology course, we continued the practice of starting each lecture period with the 1-2-3 plus 1 worksheet and still spend about 15 minutes on that activity; the students really valued this activity.  Because the practice proved to facilitate learning, I posted these questions on the class website, but also emailed the class a copy the day before to be sure they had a copy – a 5-minute task to keep them engaged and coming to class.  For the nutrition class, I offered an extra credit assignment, ‘Who is this?’  For one class, I had a list of 10 walk-up songs from different students; students had to name the artist and tell me the full name of the student who claimed that as their ‘walk-up’ song.  Another class had to name the student learning online the farthest distance from campus and name the student whose birthplace was farthest from campus; they also had to list the exact city, state or country and distance in miles.  The third class had to list the first and last names of all graduating seniors in the class and their career goals.  For extra points, they all participated.  It was meant to encourage them to stay connected and think about something else. 

We had a share of glitches and mishaps, but my students stepped up to the plate.  The lack of equal access to the Internet could not be more painfully obvious.  One exercise physiology student informed me that his only access to the Internet was his cell phone.  He took the initiative to asked whether I would accept images of hand-written 1-2-3 worksheets sent to me by email.  He never missed an assignment and made arrangements to borrow a friend’s laptop for exams.  A nutrition student, I will call Brett was learning from home in a small town about 2 hours from the nearest ‘real’ town; his family home had no Internet and a poor mobile phone signal.  He emailed to explain that once his dad got paid he would buy the equipment and he would be online soon.  He was concerned about missed quizzes and the respective points and missed lectures.  What do you say to that?  When you know you have all the power, you must use that power to do good and not make anyone’s life harder than it has to be.  I re-opened quizzes and sent him links to the recorded lectures; he wasted no time catching up.  Then there was the matter of the nutrition presentations.  Another lifeline.  Students continued to work together, sending presentation files to each other and to me.  Students taught themselves to use Zoom, Google Slides, and the LMS video conference feature.  No one complained.  Multiple pairs wanted to present during the same session, so they could be an audience, lend moral support, and ask questions.  The presentations were impressive.  Students were so enthusiastic.  However, my favorite presentation was by Brett and ‘Josh’; they presented via the LMS conference feature.  Brett’s Internet cut out completely on second slide; he tried to reconnect to no avail.  I remained calm; they remained calm.  They decided Brett would call Josh; Josh would hold his cell phone to the mic on his computer so I could hear Brett narrate his part of the talk.  Teamwork!  Let your students inspire you.

I left time at the end of each lecture to offer encouraging words and reminders to stay safe and take care of themselves.  I also would state that I looked forward our next meeting.  As the semester was winding down end-of-lecture discussions and questions become more serious.  Across all classes the basic questions were similar.  “Will I graduate on time?  How will this impact my career plans?  Do you think this will be over by the Fall?  Do you think they’ll have a cure soon?”  There was no sugar coating this.  I would validate their concerns and offer my honest opinion in a kind-hearted manner.  My last virtual lecture was on a Friday in May.  I decided to name each graduating senior, so the class could congratulate and applaud for them.  A student asked me to give a commencement speech.  She was serious.  I remembered what my gut told me back in mid-March, and so I began.  “I cannot tell you how proud of how hard each of you has worked and how well you worked together.  Life is hard.  It’s ok to be scared.  You have risen to the occasion.  Keep rising.  Learn all you can from this situation.  You are meant to do great things, however subtle or grand.  You will fall and make mistakes.  You will need help along the way and must help others on their journey.  It has been a privilege to work with you.  I will think of you often and wish you well.”  Spring 2020*  *Helping my students form a community, an inclusive safe place to learn, think out loud, be wrong, correct mistakes, and help each other.  That is the practice I will continue to implement to create a better learning environment for students irrespective of world health status or platform. 

Alice Villalobos, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Education at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas.  She received her B.S.in biology from Loyola Marymount University and her Ph.D. in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of Medicine.  Her research interests are the comparative aspects of the physiology and stress biology of organic solute transport by choroid plexus.  She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in integrative systems physiology, nutrition and toxicology.  However, her most enjoyable teaching experience has been teaching first-graders about the heart and lungs!  Her educational interests focus on tools to enhance learning of challenging concepts in physiology for students at all levels.  She has been actively involved in social and educational programs to recruit and retain first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities in STEM. 
“Zoom” into data analysis with JupyterLab
Inimary Toby-Ogundeji, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Dallas

The use of JupyterLab notebook provides a user-friendly method for learning data analysis.  It is easy to work with and also provides a variety of datasets for direct use and case study data discussions.  One example follow-up task that can be used to extend this data analysis activity is performing logistic regression.  An example approach using Firth’s logistic regression method is provided here (https://bit.ly/31gb7vG).  JupyterLab provides a temporary workspace to accomplish basic tasks in R.  One consideration is that it doesn’t maintain the user’s data and/or work once they close the browser.  Analysis performed in JupyterLab cannot be saved to the virtual platform, however files from the work session can be exported out and saved externally.  For users wanting to have the capabilities of saving work sessions and transferring between JupyterLab sessions in a streamlined manner, they can establish a freely available account.

The activity described in this article highlight a user-friendly method to learn some basic data analysis skills.  It is ideal for students with little to no experience in Biostatistics, Bioinformatics or Data Science.  The article provides an opportunity for students to reflect and practice analysis of data collected from biological experiments within an online learning environment.  The activity is suitable for an instructor led session (using an app with screen sharing capabilities). This article provides basic knowledge about how to use R for simple data analysis using the JupyterLab virtual notebook platform.

The goal of this activity is to familiarize the user with the basic steps for importing a data file, retrieval of file contents and generating a histogram using R within a JupyterLab environment.  The workflow steps to accomplish these tasks are outlined below:

  • Access JupyterLab
  • Access “R”
  • Access datasets
  • Perform summary statistics
  • Data visualization

Workflow Step-by-Step instructions and screenshots from JupyterLab

1. Access JupyterLab
a. Login to JupyterLab here: https://mybinder.org/v2/gh/jupyterlab/jupyterlab-demo/try.jupyter.org?urlpath=lab

Home page of JupyterLab Notebook

2. Access “R”

a) Select the (+) symbol at the top left of the JupyterLab screen;

b) Select R

R Console

3. Access the dataset

a) Select the directory titled: “UPMC_cohort”;

b) Identify the filename “meta.csv”.

c) Type data<-read.csv(“meta.csv”,header=TRUE, stringsAsFactors-FALSE)

d) Click run

e) Type data

f) Click run

Dataset from “meta.csv”

4. Perform summary statistics (on variable Cigarette_Pack_Years)

a) Type str(data)

b) Click run

c) Type data$Cigarette_Pack_Years

d) Click run

e) Type summary (data$Cigarette_Pack_Years)

f) Click run

Datatypes for each variable in dataset
Summary statistics

5. Draw a histogram using the “hist” function

a) Type hist(data$Cigarette_Pack_Years, 100, main=”Use of Cigarette (in years)”, xlab=Cigarette Pack Years”, ylab”Frequency”)

b) Click run

Histogram

References:
JupyterLab- https://jupyterlab.readthedocs.io/en/latest/getting_started/overview.html

R programming- https://www.r-project.org/

Github- https://github.com/initoby/JupyterLab_R_basics/blob/master/PECOP

Dr. Toby holds a PhD in Biomedical Sciences (specialization in Organ Systems Biology) from Ohio State University, College of Medicine. Her postdoctoral training was in Functional Genomics at the FAA-Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City.  She is currently an Assistant Professor of Biology at University of Dallas.  She teaches several courses including: Human Biology, Bioinformatics and Biostatistics.  She enjoys mentoring undergraduate students and is an active member of The APS. Dr. Toby’s research program at UD is focused on cell signaling consequences that occur at the cellular/molecular interface of lung diseases. She is also leveraging the use of computational methods to assess immune sequencing and other types of high throughput sequencing data as a means to better understand lung diseases.

Evidence-based teaching: when evidence is not enough
Gregory J. Crowther, PhD
Everett Community College

On June 23, Dr. Chaya Gopalan of Southern Illinois University spoke at the APS Institute of Teaching and Learning on the topic of “The Flexibility of Using the Flipped Classroom as a Virtual Classroom During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The presentation was great — full of empirical data, practical tips, and audience participation.

One of the questions that arose was, assuming that one is flipping a class with video lectures, how long should those video lectures be? I can’t remember what Chaya said about this at the time, but many others used the chat window to weigh in. They mostly argued that shorter is better, with 10-12 minutes being a commonly prescribed upper limit.

The author droning on during a long video lecture.

I had heard this “shorter is better” mantra many times before, and believed that it was well-supported by the literature. Still, I had resisted any impulse to shorten my own videos. I was already generating one video per chapter per course — 50 videos per quarter in all. If I divided each video into four shorter videos, that would be 200 videos per quarter to manage. Couldn’t my students just hit “pause” and take breaks as needed?

Thus, the video-length issue was making me increasingly uncomfortable. I think of myself as an evidence-based teacher, yet I seemed unwilling to go where the evidence was pointing.

Having battled myself to an impasse, I decided to email Chaya. I wrote:

…If you — as an expert flipper who has read the literature and published your own papers on this — were to tell me, “Come on, Greg, the evidence is overwhelming — for the good of your students you just need to make your videos shorter — stop whining and do it!” then I probably would comply. So … what do you think?

Chaya declined to respond with an ultimatum, but she did note that her own videos vary greatly in length — from 8 minutes to an hour! A lot of this variation is topic-specific, she said; some “stories” need to be told as a single chunk, even if it takes longer to do so.

Chaya’s point about chunking the material according to natural breakpoints was exactly what I needed to hear. While the idea of shortening videos because “shorter is better” did not itself inspire me, the idea of finding those breakpoints and reorganizing the material accordingly seemed utterly worthwhile. Maybe this would help my students more easily track their progress within each chapter. And off I went — I was finally ready to shorten my videos!

So, what lessons can be extracted from this bout of navel-gazing?

The thing that jumps out at me is this: my long-held resistance to a fairly mild idea (“make your videos shorter!”) was suddenly overcome not by conclusive new research, but by a subtle shift in perspective. When Chaya made a particular point that happened to resonate with me, I now wanted to make the change that I had been guiltily avoiding for months.

This was — for me, at least — a valuable reminder that, while evidence-based teaching is undoubtedly a good thing, behavior is rarely changed by evidence alone. There’s just no substitute for direct conversations in which open-minded people with shared values can stumble toward a common understanding of something.

It may be slightly heretical for me to say so, but I’ll take a good conversation over a peer-reviewed paper any day.

Greg Crowther teaches human anatomy and physiology at Everett Community College (north of Seattle). He is the co-creator of Test Question Templates, a framework for improving the alignment of biology learning activities and summative assessments.

Physiology Educators Community of Practice (PECOP) Webinar Series

The American Physiological Society (APS) is pleased to announce a new webinar series focused on our educator community. The monthly series includes live webinars focused on education best practices, synchronous and/or asynchronous teaching, establishing inclusive classrooms and publishing. Educator town halls will also be featured as we strive to support and engage the educator community throughout the year.

Starting this month, take advantage of the educator webinar series by visiting the events webpage on the APS website. Register for each webinar, learn about speakers and their talks today!

What to do on the First Day of Class: Insights From Physiology Educators?
July 23, 2020
12 p.m. EDT

Join in the discussion about how to greet students on the first day of class and set the tone for the rest of the course.

Speakers:

  • Barbara E. Goodman, PhD from the Sandford School of Medicine, University of South Dakota (Vermillion)
  • Dee Silverthorn, PhD from the University of Texas at Austin

A successful semester: Applying resilient and inclusive pedagogy to mitigate faculty and student stress
August 20, 2020
2 p.m. EDT

As we head into an uncertain academic year, spend an hour with us to consider strategies which will help you and your students navigate our changing academic, professional, and personal lives. Participants will work through pragmatic and concrete strategies they can transition into their own work to promote student learning and minimize stress.

Speakers:

  • Josef Brandauer, PhD from Gettysburg College (Penn.)
  • Katie Johnson, PhD from Trail Build, LLC (East Troy, Wisc.)

Writing & Reviewing for Advances
September 17, 2020
12 p.m. EDT

This session will be a chance to encourage all who have adapted their teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic to share their work. This topic also ties in to the Teaching Section featured topic for EB 2021.

Speaker:

  • Doug Everett, PhD from National Jewish Health (Denver, Colo.)

A Framework of College Student Buy-in to Evidence-Based Teaching Practices in STEM: The Roles of Trust and Growth Mindset
October 22, 2020
12 p.m. EST

This topic is relevant to building trust, which goes hand-in-hand with inclusion and diversity. Trust is essential for the different modalities of teaching which educators and students will experience in the fall.

 

Educators Town Hall
November 19, 2020
12 p.m. EST

A chance to talk about what happened during the fall semester and also plan for the upcoming year

Keeping the Connection Alive During Remote Instruction
Candace Receno, PhD
Assistant Professor, Exercise Science & Athletic Training
Ithaca College

As a first year Assistant Professor, making the shift to remote learning during COVID-19 was certainly a gamechanger. As many previous blog posts have highlighted, the way we needed to look at instruction changed and forced both students and faculty to rapidly adapt. There were so many things that needed to be considered when making the transition. How flexible can our students be, now that some have become primary caretakers or have fallen ill or need to seek employment? How do instructors tackle making significant changes to their course, now that they are also dealing with similar issues? How do both groups create and participate in a high-quality course experience with fewer resources and a very short amount of time to adjust? Many of the insightful blogs posted have really highlighted how to keep these considerations in mind in order to create online courses that still meet course objectives and foster a high-quality learning experience. I have learned so much through reading these posts, in addition to numerous resources provided to our community. Through integration of these resources into my own courses, I found myself also trying to think of ways that I could keep the courses inherently “me”. Engaging and connecting with students on a personal level has always been something that I found helpful to my own teaching, but becomes hard when the mode of communication has shifted. This can also be difficult when some classes must be delivered asynchronously, in an effort to accommodate the changing lifestyles of our students. Perhaps just as important to a high-quality learning experience as shifting our instruction methods, is finding new ways to create the human connection that is much easier developed with on-campus learning. Here, I highlight some of the methods I found to be successful in making sure that I was able to keep my students engaged in the course while miles apart. While these may sound like really simple ideas, I’ll admit that I didn’t realize how important they were to the student experience until I had reflective conversations with many students after the Spring semester. With times of uncertainty still ahead, I plan to continue using these methods in the future.

1. Staying online after the class has ended.

This is probably the simplest of the suggestions to integrate, but really seemed to make a difference in getting the students more comfortable opening up over the computer screen. For my synchronous courses, I always ended class time by reminding the students I would stay in the virtual classroom to answer any questions or just to chat. I found that once students realized I would be sticking around for a few minutes regardless of if anyone else stayed, they were more willing to hang around and ask questions they might not have felt comfortable asking in front of other students or e-mailing me about. This also gave me another opportunity to reflect on how I was constructing my online course materials. Hearing what points students needed extra clarification on forced me to consider how topics that were ordinarily well understood in the physical classroom needed to be shifted with remote instruction.

2. Integrating video/audio into online discussion boards.

I needed to teach asynchronously for a particular course where students had concerns about internet availability and meeting other personal obligations, which came with completely different issues from my synchronous course. Posting notes in addition to pre-recorded lectures allowed me to successfully get course material across, but it was still missing the personal component that is fostered via in class discussion. The use of discussion boards where both the students and I posed questions to one another helped with that. Importantly, I asked students to record their questions/answers for the discussion board via video or audio whenever possible. Students continually reported that it was nice to actually hear and see one another even though live sessions were not possible. Moreover, they described how it was nice to laugh and share with one another, as responses did not have to be rehearsed and could closely mimic what might have happened in the physical classroom. 

3. Holding several office hours, varying in day and time.

Disclaimer: This may be harder to implement for some individuals because with COVID-19 comes a host of additional responsibilities and stresses that need to be attended to. But, if possible even for one day, I highly recommend it. The traditional times for which we hold office hours may not be feasible when we take into account the added responsibilities of needing to stay at home. So, why not hold office hours at different times that lend themselves to our new schedules? I found that holding office hours much later than I normally would resulted in many more students coming to them. Moreover, similar to my first suggestion, I made sure that students knew I’d be in the meeting room for my virtual hours regardless of if students signed up or not. Previously, I had always had an “open door policy” where students knew they could stop by my office without prior notice as long as my door was physically open. The new virtual office hours I held helped to mimic that. By having drastically different hours on different days, I tried to make sure that students could stop in whenever suited them. An important memory that stuck with me about this particular method was an instance when I was available at 7 pm on a Tuesday night. I had a student who showed up just wanting to talk, and stated, “I figured I wasn’t bothering you since you were on here anyway.”  Prior to COVID-19, she often stopped in to talk about how things were going. Through our virtual conversation, I learned that this student wasn’t seeking any help related to the class, but just wanted to talk because it helped things feel “normal” again. Even if you can’t hold a large variety of office hours, I truly think that doing something that helps mimic the ways you previously interacted with your students is so helpful during this time.

4. Holding “unofficial” hours.

This was a tip that I originally learned from a colleague, and adapted to fit my own subject matter. This colleague would host “unofficial”  hours, where she would sporadically e-mail students to let them know she would be in an online meeting room partaking in some fun activity. For example, on a random weeknight, she e-mailed students and said they could join in on her quest to make enchiladas. Several students took her up on that offer, and she used it as a time for the class to come together without any defined learning expectations. This gave her students the opportunity to connect as they would have previously, in a class that was now asynchronous during remote learning. She began to take sessions one step further, and would ask her students to describe ingredients in her cooking sessions in the context of her speech language pathology lectures. In an effort to take her advice and put my own spin on it, I began asking students to join me when I would participate in online workouts. It became a great way to have students connect with their classmates using an activity that we all had some interest in. With students in my pathophysiology course, I’d sneak in questions about how students felt after participating in a particular exercise and how this might impact the clinical populations they work with, giving me a way to reiterate what they had learned in a real-world context. 

In my experience, a large part in keeping students engaged was understanding that the human component to a course has the potential to impact student learning irrespective of how well we can pivot our course formats to meet remote instruction needs. No matter how it’s done, showing the students that you are still on the other side of that WiFi signal is an important consideration for all of us. I hope that my experience helps to identify other ways you might do this, and I’d appreciate you sharing your own ways to cultivate the student-instructor relationships via online methods.

Candace Receno is an assistant professor in the Exercise Science & Athletic Training department at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. She earned her PhD in Science Education from Syracuse University and served as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Biological Sciences department at Le Moyne College for two years. Candace just completed her first year as an Assistant Professor at Ithaca College, where her undergraduate and graduate courses include Advanced Exercise Physiology, Cardiopulmonary Assessment for Exercise, Pathophysiology, and Foundations of Human Performance and Wellness. She also hopes to continue engaging undergraduates in research related to exercise performance in special populations.

Shifting course expectations as well as the mode of delivery during the spring 2020 COVID-19 pandemic
Kristen L.W. Walton, PhD
Biology Department
Missouri Western State University

COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) is caused by infection with SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus-2).  Current evidence suggests that this zoonotic coronavirus originated in China in late 20191, and it subsequently spread rapidly across the globe, causing significant morbidity and mortality.  To help contain the spread of this virus, many countries have implemented policies and orders aimed at reducing contact between people.  The terms “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” have been rapidly imbued in our culture. Indeed, a Google Trends search shows a significant surge in searches for “social distancing” between the week of March 1-7, 2020 and the week of March 29-April 4, 20202.  In the United States, to help mitigate the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a few colleges and universities began to announce in early March that they would be suspending face-to-face classes and shifting to all-online instruction, and soon most postgraduate institutions in the USA followed suit, including my institution.

In early March, as the situation became recognized as increasingly urgent by the higher education institutions in our region, the administration at my institution, Missouri Western State University (MWSU), made a decision to extend spring break by one week, through March 22.  Then, in the middle of that second week of spring break, the university administration announced that MWSU would cancel all face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester, and students would have several options regarding their grades for the spring 2020 semester3.  Higher education institutions across the USA have grappled with how to handle grades in this unprecedented time.  Students who did not sign up for online classes are finishing their face-to-face courses, in many if not most cases, as hastily-constructed online versions.  Many institutions have chosen to make all classes pass/fail, others have opted to keep letter grades as the only option, and still others, including MWSU, have given students flexible options to choose a pass/fail option or a letter grade.  The MWSU administration also gave faculty flexibility in determining whether to create a “culminating experience” for students who elected to complete their courses. This could mean anything from reducing the amount of content and/or assessments, changing the format of assessments (for example, a final paper in lieu of a final exam), or essentially continuing as originally planned but with online course delivery and assessments.  This flexibility for faculty was intended to recognize that some types of classes are more amenable than others to a shift to online delivery.  Students whose midterm grade was a C or higher could elect to choose the “credit” (pass) grade option for the course if they chose not to complete the culminating experience; students who chose to complete the culminating experience earned a letter grade based on their course grade at the end of the semester.  To increase flexibility for students, this option was available to students up until the last day of classes, April 24.  The deadline for a withdrawal from the class was also extended to April 24.

For me, as a biology faculty member, the flexibility allowed by our administration in how to structure the last five weeks of my classes led to a lot of thought about my courses and how to best achieve the course objectives for each of them.  I spent many hours considering this, discussing options with my colleagues in a socially distant manner, through emails and our first Zoom department meeting, a somewhat difficult transition for our close-knit group of faculty used to frequent in-person conversations.  I also spent time reading a flurry of articles and blog posts about the importance of being understanding of the major disruption to our students’ lives and college experience4; the importance of recognizing the difficulty in creating a high-quality online course experience with a few days’ notice5; and, not to be overlooked, the importance of tending to one’s own needs, both professional and personal, in this high-stress time.  

Depending on one’s personal situation, a faculty member could also be dealing with changes in family schedules and responsibilities due to children who were suddenly not attending school or day care.  Illness could strike any of us or our friends and family members, certainly adding to the stress and anxiety experiences.  Partners could be furloughed as businesses shuttered their doors due to the pandemic.  While some academics touted their ability to be highly productive during the quarantine and even cited the invention of calculus by Sir Isaac Newton during the black plague as inspiration, others pointed out that quarantine is not universally a time when one can focus solely on work and scientific discovery.  This is true for me, on a personal level.  I have two elementary school-aged children whose school closed a week after my university suspended face-to-face classes.  I have had sole responsibility for child care and helping them with their school work at home, while also moving my classes online and maintaining other work responsibilities.  Many of the students in my classes are non-traditional and have similar child care and “home school” responsibilities.  Others have financial stress due to job layoffs, or, conversely, increased work stress and time demands for those working in the health care field.  Another concern is that many of our students have poor access to broadband internet and technology to access class materials online.  Several of my students emailed me during the transition stating that they were using only a smartphone to access course materials and had no access to a laptop or desktop computer, printer, or other technology, and no high-speed internet.

Consideration of my students’ access to technology, stress, and other burdens, as well as the other factors described above led me to make different choices for each of my three classes this spring.  For my honors colloquium, titled, ironically enough, Plagues That Changed the World, my co-instructor and I decided not to try to coordinate the student-led presentations that were scheduled for the last 6 weeks of the semester and instead only required a final paper.  Seven of 13 undergraduates in this course chose the credit grade based on their midterm grade, and did not complete this rather minimal culminating experience. For my upper-division biology majors course, Molecular Basis of Disease, which is a capstone-type elective course that is not a prerequisite for any other classes, I chose to culminate the lab portion by keeping a scheduled lab quiz, but not attempt to recreate the planned five-week group research project.  For the lecture portion of that class, students who elected to complete the culminating experience wrote a literature review article as originally planned and were given one online exam instead of two in-class exams.  Even with this reduced workload, 6 of the 15 undergraduates enrolled in the course chose to take a credit grade and did not complete the course.  My third course this spring, Pathophysiology, is primarily populated by pre-nursing majors and population health majors, with a few pre-health-professions biology majors.  It would not have been appropriate to drop content or assessments of content knowledge from this course, because the overwhelming majority of students in the course needed to learn that content for success in later coursework.  As it happens, I have taught this lecture-only course in an online format in the summer for several years, so transitioning it to an online delivery mode was relatively easy, with a few exceptions: increased modes of accessing the material, and exams.  I have structured the all-online previous version of that class to be asynchronous, based on knowledge of my student population, many of whom work full time while also taking classes.  I felt that was still the best choice in these uncertain times.  However, in addition to posting video lectures, I downloaded the audio-only podcasts and posted them separately for students who did not have regular high-speed internet access or were working solely from a smartphone with a small screen.  I also made additional course notes available.  

As for the exams, I have always required proctored exams in the online version of this course, and structured them similarly to the written exams taken by students in the traditional, face-to-face version of the course.  Proctored online exams would not have been feasible in the COVID-19-induced chaos that ensued in late March and early April, as some of my students were moving home many states away, finding themselves under self-quarantine, caring for family members, etc., and I myself had schedule considerations to juggle with children and their school work and Zoom meetings which competed for our limited bandwidth home internet.  I tried to strike a balance between several considerations:  best practices for online unproctored exams, such as making them open-book and not easily Google-able; the format and level of rigor students were used to from the first two written, face-to-face exams; and being mindful of unequal access to technology among my students.  In this class, 81 of 86 undergraduates completed the culminating experience, a high proportion driven largely by the requirement of their specific majors for a letter grade in this required course.

As I write this, I still have several papers to grade and final course grades to enter.  I can say with certainty, however, that the choices for assessments and content coverage that I made for my Pathophysiology course did not appear to substantially disadvantage the majority of students, and the course grade distribution will be noticeably higher than usual, aside from the small number of students who did not complete the course.  Several of my colleagues have observed similar increases in their course grades this semester.  In that course, I erred on the side of leniency with the exams, but since I could not in good conscience drop content from that course – pre-nursing students still need to have learned about diseases of the digestive tract, even if COVID-19 interrupted their semester! – I am comfortable that they will at least have a reasonable degree of preparation for their subsequent courses.  For my other two courses, grades will not be higher and in some cases students submitted work that was of lower quality than I expected from their work earlier in the semester.  I strongly suspect that many students who chose to complete those courses did not have the focus or the ability to do so as well as they would have in the face-to-face courses.  I do not have survey data to help clarify what the students were thinking, but I suspect the students who needed the letter grade for subsequent coursework approached this altered, online part of the semester differently from those who were only taking an elective where a credit grade would suffice or a GPA issue was not anticipated.  Informal feedback from all three of my classes included several students commenting about how they did not sign up for online classes because they prefer traditional-format classes, comments about family issues (helping children with school work, moving back home because of job loss, stressful quarantine situations), and comments about missing deadlines because of work or other outside responsibilities.

Although I still need to submit my final course grades for the spring 2020 semester, the summer session is already looming.  My institution chose a few weeks ago to offer only 100% online summer classes, so my usual summer online Pathophysiology class will need to have exam structure revamped away from the written, proctored format that I have previously used.  In addition, many institutions including my own are having discussions about the fall semester.  At this time, we just don’t know what the COVID-19 situation will be in late August.  We have been told to prepare for something unusual, whether it will be a fully online semester, a restructured semester with two or three shorter block sessions, or some other plan.  In preparing for that, I will be considering these questions for each of my classes:

1. How can the course learning objectives best be accomplished in an altered course format?

2. What are the best ways to transition a heavily hands-on lab course to an online or shortened course format?

3. What are the needs of the student population in this course?

4. What is the appropriate balance between flexibility versus maintaining appropriate expectations in the course?

Considering the course goals and learning objectives is a critical component of any course design or transition to a different format, and the course may need to change if the different format is not amenable to the original goals and learning objectives.  In this time of forced transitions to altered course structures and the impacts of COVID-19 mitigation strategies on us and our students, choices might be different from the choices we would otherwise make. It’s also important for faculty, administrators, and students to recognize that different types of courses may be more or less easy to convert to an all-online format.  And while online instruction can be excellent and perhaps this experience will encourage broader use of certain online course components in future face-to-face classes for many faculty, it is not the “college experience” that many students expect and there is speculation among higher education administrators that enrollments will be down this fall, adding to the financial distress that many universities and colleges are already experiencing. Although I have read some opinion pieces that higher education should use this spring as a springboard to shift to more online courses permanently, I would argue that it’s also important to recognize that a large proportion of our students and faculty, myself included, strongly prefer those face-to-face classes and hope to return to them as soon as we can.  I am certain that as a global community of physiology educators we will continue to interact and support each other as we navigate all of the upcoming transitions.

References:

Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The species Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus: classifying 2019-nCoV and naming it SARS-CoV-2. Nat Microbiol. 2020;5:536–44.

Google Trends, search term “social distancing”. URL  https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?geo=US&q=social%20distancing  , accessed April 30, 2020.

Missouri Western State University COVID-19 information. URL https://www.missouriwestern.edu/covid-19/keep-learning/ , accessed April 30, 2020.

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. “Please do a bad job of putting your classes online” URL https://anygoodthing.com/2020/03/12/please-do-a-bad-job-of-putting-your-courses-online/ , accessed April 30, 2020. 

Darby, F.  5 Low-tech, time-saving ways to teach online during COVID-19.  The Chronicle of Higher Education  URL  https://www.chronicle.com/article/5-Low-Tech-Time-Saving-Ways/248519  accessed April 30, 2020.

Kristen Walton is a Professor in the Biology Department at Missouri Western State University.  She earned her PhD in Physiology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2001 and was a SPIRE (Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education) Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2001-2006.   In 2006, she began her current position at Missouri Western State University, a primarily undergraduate institution.  She has taught a variety of undergraduate courses including animal physiology, pathophysiology, immunology, molecular basis of disease, introductory cell biology, public health microbiology, and human anatomy & physiology.  Her research interests are in intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease, and in discipline-based education research.

Evolution of Teaching Physiology and Accommodating Social Distancing
Andrew M. Roberts, M.S., Ph.D., FAPS
Associate Professor
Department of Physiology
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Louisville, KY

Our graduate physiology courses at the University of Louisville School of Medicine evolved from a lecture-based format supplemented by recitation sessions and modules for each topic.  Students work in groups to identify learning issues and discuss concepts needed to understand and solve assigned questions.  They present their findings to the class and respond to questions from faculty and students.  We found this to be an important forum whereby students gain experience applying their physiological knowledge. 

An additional step that fostered student understanding was problem-based learning modules where student groups discussed and answered exam type questions.  For the “pre-test” component, each group discussed and chose their answers together.  This was followed by a “post-test” with different but, similar questions answered by each student individually.  Our metrics clearly indicated students’ ability to apply their knowledge increased significantly.

Another component which bolstered student performance and encouraged use of multiple resources for information was online quiz questions for each learning module.  Questions were made available on “Blackboard” and answered according to a schedule.  Students received notification whether they answered correctly and could change their answer choices within an allotted time.  Team-based learning with activities that encouraged students to incorporate multiple information sources improved students’ grasp of physiological concepts and mechanisms.

In summary, we developed ways to effectively engage our students who have diverse educational backgrounds and learning preferences.  It is important to note that the classroom environment, with face to face instruction, provides the opportunity to teach and motivate students through interactions with faculty members and fellow students.  However, other types of activities work well to augment and encourage student learning.

In the last year, our faculty has been discussing the possibility and usefulness of supplementing our program with online course options that could enhance students’ academic backgrounds whether they were on or off campus.  Online learning has become prevalent as another teaching tool for a diverse student group and accommodates a variety of learning preferences.  It offers flexibility whether used to supplement a “classroom” physiology course, or course taught exclusively online.  Over the last year, our experience with online learning platforms indicated instructors could teach to an entire class simultaneously. 

Students can be divided into discussion groups for problem-based learning and instructors can virtually interact by “joining” the groups.  In addition, the platforms allow everyone to be seen and to be heard.  Furthermore, it is easy to link slide as well as video presentations and record class sessions.  Traditionally, we posted lecture notes and supplemental material on “Blackboard” for students to read before class and provided access to recorded lectures.  There also is a forum for students to interact with each other and faculty members. 

Educational methods are ever changing and can go forward and back again.  With this in mind, online learning is not necessarily a replacement for face-to-face learning but, can be an additional learning tool.  Even faculty less familiar with online learning have found the latest learning platforms to be relatively easy to use and actually to enhance their teaching styles.  A key ingredient to the success of our program, is having designated faculty members and staff available as teaching resources!  With the necessity for implementing social distancing during the COVID- 19 pandemic, online learning and video conferencing allowed us to continue and sustain our courses and academic program during this difficult time hopefully without jeopardizing student lifelong learning.

Andrew M. Roberts, MS, PhD, FAPS is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky.  He received his PhD in Physiology at New York Medical College and completed a postdoctoral training program in heart and vascular diseases, as well as, a Parker B. Francis Fellowship in Pulmonary Research at the University of California, San Francisco at the Cardiovascular Research Institute.  His research focuses on cardiopulmonary regulatory mechanisms with an emphasis on neural control, microcirculation, and effects of local endogenous factors.  Current studies include microvascular responses altered by inflammatory diseases and conditions, which can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome.  Additional studies include obstructive sleep apnea.  He teaches physiology to graduate, medical, and dental students and has served as a course director as well as having taught allied health students.

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.  

References

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 https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/the-monster-a-short-history-of-australia-s-biggest-forest-fire-20191218-p53l4y.html

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 https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-01-2020-statement-on-the-second-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)

3 Travel Restrictions on China Due to COVID-19 (April 6, 2020). Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/travel-restrictions-china-due-covid-19

4 Premier of Victoria, State of Emergency Declared in Victoria Over COVID-19. (March 16, 2020) Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/state-of-emergency-declared-in-victoria-over-covid-19/

5 Qantas and Jetstar slash 90 per cent of international flights due to corona virus (March 16, 2020). Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-17/qantas-coronavirus-cuts-capacity-by-90-per-cent/12062328

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  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/us/colleges-cancel-classes-coronavirus.html

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 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-22/major-coronavirus-crackdown-to-close-churches-pubs-clubs/12079610

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.

References

Hill, Phil (2020), Massive Increase in LMS and Synchronous Video Usage Due to COVID-19. PhilonEdTech. https://philonedtech.com/massive-increase-in-lms-and-synchronous-video-usage-due-to-covid-19/

Greeno, Nathan (2020), Prepare to Move Online (in a Hurry). Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/10/prepare-move-online-continuity-planning-coronavirus-and-beyond-opinion


McMurtrie, Beth (2020), The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Coronavirus-Has-Pushed/248299

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.