In Just Days, CSUN Professors Learn New Ways to Teach and Connect

A panel view of 12 CSUN journalism professors participating in a virtual Zoom meeting.

CSUN journalism professors participate in a virtual Zoom meeting. Photo courtesy of Linda Bowen.

Once CSUN professor and dance coordinator Paula Thomson processed and accepted that this is our new reality — which took some time, she said — she went about the challenging work of redesigning dance courses for online learning.

The shift to online learning took most of spring break in mid-March and continued after classes resumed. Thomson’s Perspectives in Dance class is meeting via Zoom and Canvas to finish assignments established at the beginning of the semester. Her intermediate ballet students are now watching and reviewing online ballet performances, participating in online ballet classes offered by international master ballet teachers, and meeting weekly via Zoom to monitor individual goals.

Revamping the dance production course is harder. At the end of this month, student dancers, choreographers and crew members were scheduled to put on a dance concert. Thomson said students who would have participated in this show will likely be incorporated into future performances, probably in the fall and next spring.

“I know that dance will continue after this pandemic is over and our dancers will be able to continue working towards reaching their dreams, including completing their degrees,” Thomson said.

Since CSUN leaders made the call in March to move to remote instruction just before spring break, faculty members across the university have been dealing with challenges similar to Thomson’s. Professors and their students have had to find creative solutions to ensure learning can continue, all while figuring out this new system on the fly. Many faculty members had never taught virtually before, and the speed of the transition was such that many of them had only days to prepare.

“When most people plan to teach online, they spend maybe a semester going to training classes and reading about best practices, and they invest in those skills,” said CSUN Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Mary Beth Walker. “There was just no time to do that in this situation. I have heard, for the most part, very positive results.”

All in this together

CSUN faculty are still ironing out wrinkles, of course. Some students and faculty have struggled with technology issues as well as course-specific barriers, in addition to the emotional weight that hampers focus. But the early reviews of CSUN’s forced experiment have been largely positive. A number of students have emailed their professors or contacted the president’s office to say how much they appreciate how their professors had gone out of their way to keep them informed and to make the current situation productive and effective. A significant majority of the students who reached out to CSUN on social media praised the university and their professors for their efforts.

Students, faculty and staff members have banded together to help each other. Professors with experience teaching online have been happy to share their knowledge with the virtual newcomers. CSUN’s Information Technology Group has worked tirelessly to provide training opportunities for faculty and to help get technology tools into the hands of students, Walker said. The university’s Faculty Development Group also has worked to provide many opportunities for faculty to learn how to use the available tools and give them ideas and tips that they can put into play immediately.

Walker said she expects such training on eLearning to continue into the summer.

Students in communication studies professor Aimee Carrillo Rowe’s COMS 440-Performance and Cultural Studies Criticism class recently shared research that connected their autobiographies to wider cultural understandings.

“Students are really wanting to connect,” she wrote in an email, specifically citing stories that students posted to a discussion forum as part of an assignment. “Maybe it makes us really appreciate each other. I miss them SO much, I could cry, honestly, and I did when I read their stories.”

Scott Newhouse, a professor in the Department of Finance, Financial Planning and Insurance who teaches FIN 446-Tax and Estate Planning, a class geared toward seniors majoring or minoring in financial planning, had experience using Zoom to meet with out-of-state clients for his work as a financial planner. Using the app to teach, he said, wasn’t much of a learning curve.

His department, and the CSUN David Nazarian College of Business and Economics as a whole, have also kept him updated on available resources. The Nazarian College already offered some programs completely online, which provided an invaluable experience for moving everything online.

“CSUN and the Nazarian College already knew the issues that professors might have, and that helped them adapt,” Newhouse said. “It basically meant that they knew where professors were going to have challenges and were able to get ahead of potential issues.”

Problem solving

There are still unresolved issues, but many professors expressed optimism that these can be worked out.

Chemistry professor Maosheng Miao is still figuring out the best way to test his students in Chem 102, a general chemistry course open to students of any major.

Most of his students have majors in the College of Science and Mathematics — about 70 percent are biology majors — and the course content involves a lot of math, said Miao, a computational chemist. Miao said his two most important challenges are keeping students engaged in lectures and discussions and effectively testing their learning results. He said he thinks a series of in-class quizzes can help solve both issues. He and his class have discussed the possibility of quizzes during each lecture, which would encourage students to stay focused.

But when he surveyed students about this approach, about 30 percent were concerned that they needed more time to review class materials before taking a quiz, so a compromise was developed: quizzes now test the contents of the previous one or two lectures.

“We have carried out one such test and the students are doing well,” Miao said. “After another one or two times, I will take another survey to see whether we will proceed.”

Department of Journalism Chair Linda Bowen said her faculty and students are finding solutions to the challenges presented by social distancing. Broadcast journalism has had to modify the most. Students produce and broadcast five radio news reports daily on KCSN 88.5 HD3. They are now doing two.

Two students, one for each newscast, come into the 88.5-FM studio to work on the newscast and are in communication with the news director, who is working out of her home studio. Students are following safety protocols, including social distancing, while in the campus studio.

Students are continuing to produce content for Valley View News and On Point, two television programs. However, to a much lesser and different degree. For example, students are doing “best-of” shows for Valley View News, and one or two are coming to the studio and lab to create new intros and “outros” for the weekly show. Throughout it all, Bowen said, students and staff are maintaining distance.

Print journalism already had a digital model in place, with students and faculty  working with communication and organization software like Microsoft Flow, Slack and Zoom, and publishing software like WordPress. All print editions have been suspended.

Bowen said the feedback she has received is that students are eager to learn and produce during this time.

“Journalists, this is what we do, right? We cover earthquakes and fires and pandemics and all of that,” Bowen said. “So, I think, for students to have the opportunity to do real journalism is critical to their understanding of the world and to be able to cope with what’s happening around them. The more good information we have, the better for all of us to decide how we’re going to react to something.”

Looking ahead

Walker said she anticipates students, faculty and others in the community will learn new and more efficient and effective ways of learning and communication.

She said she’s heard of organizations that formerly relied on cross-country travel for meetings; many of those will likely now be conducted remotely. Similarly, she said some CSUN courses could eventually adopt hybrid models of learning, with some work done remotely to provide more flexibility for students and professors.

“I don’t think that many of us would have signed up for an all-virtual world forever, but we can certainly get through this,” Walker said, “and probably learn a lot along the way.”

Though it was tough for dance professor Thomson not to mourn the in-person instruction lost by her students, she was able to find positives in this new reality.

CSUN students have a unique voice in the dance world, she said, and they will have important things to say after this pandemic.

“Art reflects our inner spirit, our inner resilience, our inner suffering. It can always infuse hope,” Thomson said. “Their talent and discipline will help them catch up. We really encourage our students because they have a very unique point of view; we want to find out what it is they’ve got to say.”

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