Professors prepare classes for online learning

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Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern’s Zoom portal for students and faculty. The University will now hold classes virtually via the video-conference platform Zoom following campus closures due to COVID-19.

Evan Robinson-Johnson, Daily Senior Staffer

In a new era of remote learning, Communication Prof. Jeffery Hancock is now teaching dance to students around the world, without a studio.

Without access to Northwestern’s studio and stage resources for his two courses, Dance 130: Music Theatre Dance and Dance 235: Music Theatre Choreography, Hancock said he plans to focus more heavily on personal movement and daily diligence — students will be expected to practice a 20-minute routine daily. Dance 235 now has a new name, Music Theatre Choreography: Tight Spaces.

Hancock is planning to use Zoom as a substitute for in-person classes and said lectures will be recorded for students who can’t make the scheduled time. Hancock said adaptability and flexibility are key parts of any choreography, and he’s hopeful his students will be able to adapt to this new form of learning.

“One thing movement does for me and everyone I’ve taught is it has a calming and a centering effect,” Hancock said. “There’s something meditative about these processes.”

This week, as Spring Quarter classes begin, professors and students are turning to Zoom for remote online learning due to the spread of COVID-19. Some professors said they felt prepared for the transition online while others used tools provided by Northwestern IT services — such as training sessions, equipment and software — to completely reimagine their courses. Some of the more hands-on courses, including dozens of Bienen courses, have been canceled altogether.

[Read more about how to use Zoom]

Weinberg Prof. John Mordacq has been recording his lectures for the past five years but said he’s adapting the lab portion of his Biology 222: Investigative Lab class since students no longer have access to campus resources.

Instead of conducting the experiments themselves, students will work in groups on shareable Google Documents to devise a procedure which Mordacq will then test on Zoom — “like a cooking show,” he said. His students will then analyze the results the same way they would in the classroom.

Biology 222 completes the sequence of lab work required for students looking to apply to medical school. Mordacq said students have already familiarized themselves with lab equipment over the previous two quarters, so he doesn’t expect large changes to curriculum.

Mordacq also said students and faculty will need more patience and leniency this quarter, acknowledging that his own WiFi connection was recently unstable. At this time, Mordacq is still planning to hold lab sessions synchronously at the scheduled time. Attendance will be mandatory, he said, even for international students in different time zones.

Many professors have debated between synchronous methods, like a Zoom conference call, and asynchronous methods, like a series of prerecorded lectures. While some say synchronous calls allow for the greatest amount of student interaction and create a sense of normalcy, they can be particularly difficult for students in different time zones or with unreliable internet connections.

“I worry about students who don’t have the right bandwidth,” said Communication Prof. Linda Gates. Her course, Theatre 170: Voice for Performance, has become much more difficult to teach, she said, adding she feels “terrified, but determined.”

Typically, Gates works very closely with students, making minor adjustments to posture and breathing as the students practice performances for theater, television and film. She said two freshmen have decided to postpone the class for another quarter, but since the course is only offered every other year, that’s not an option for juniors and seniors.

Northwestern announced earlier in March that Spring Break would be extended one week, allowing for more time to make curricular adjustments. Some professors said they’ve used the additional time to talk to their students, gauging concerns around scheduling and access in order to better prepare their courses.

Medill Prof. Mei-Ling Hopgood said she’s been in “very close contact” with her students. One of her courses, Journalism 301-1: Journalism in Practice, was designed to give students international reporting experience during Spring Break. Hopgood’s section originally planned to report in China, but after the coronavirus outbreak, they made new plans to travel to Spain. Then, when all Spring Break programs were canceled, the class was stuck at home.

“Now we’re looking at how to do remote reporting, collecting info and documents when we’re limited,” Hopgood said. “Much of that we were already doing since our sources are abroad.”

Hopgood said she’s still optimizing the course, trying to make accessibility a priority. She’s also planning to host a series of guest speakers throughout the quarter in an effort to keep the Zoom classes engaging. Hopgood emphasized that the wellness of students and their families should be the top priority during this time of crisis.

“Every day is a new carnival ride and we are all being asked to adjust to things we never could have anticipated,” she said.

Even before the mandatory Pass/No Pass grading policy was announced, many professors expressed that they will be more lenient with assignments this quarter. The University’s remote instruction hub encourages professors to consider flexible exam options such as essays or shorter quizzes.

On concerns that such changes might lead to less engagement from students, many professors were optimistic.

“I hope that students won’t sink to D level work, and that the caliber of NU students will prevail,” said Communication Prof. Clayton Brown. He added that by requiring participation in a Canvas discussion page this quarter he might actually see more engagement than usual.

Even with the accommodations that professors are making, the student experience this quarter will be unlike any other. Students won’t have access to University libraries, labs, recreation centers and other resources, and Zoom will be the new substitute for direct, in-person relationships.

“I’m so used to having a physical group of 16 students, and some of them are freshman, so it’s the beginning of a long relationship,” Gates said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

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