ETSU faculty and staff worked 'tirelessly' to transition classes online

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Mar 27, 2020 at 11:03 PM

East Tennessee State University faculty and staff were hard at work last week transitioning all classes to an online format amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Last week, ETSU President Brian Noland announced plans to keep all classes online for the rest of the semester following spring break to limit traffic on campus. 

ETSU’s Center for Teaching Excellence and workers from ETSU’s Information Technology Services have been “all hands on deck” to make the transition, according to Amy Johnson, interim associate provost for faculty and director for the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“We have been hosting virtual office hours to help faulty, we organized some workshops and the folks in Academic Technology Support have been working to help faculty deal with any kind of technical issues they may be encountering as we’ve moved online,” she said a few days into the transition.

“To give you a sense of the magnitude we’re talking about, only about a third of our classes were already online, so about two-thirds of our classes needed to make a move,” she added. “Many of our faculty were spending a lot of time during spring break transitioning their courses so they could be up and ready to go for Monday’s online start.”

The university had just a matter of days to shift gears. Johnson said IT workers at ETSU had to work tirelessly to make that transition happen. 

“It required a great deal of programming, and a great deal of training and support,” she said, adding that university leaders like Karen King, vice provost for information technology, also played an integral role in the change. 

The shift required instructors to think outside of the box about how they would utilize classroom technologies like Zoom, a video conferencing program used at the university. 

“With the move to online, we really just had to think creatively about what kind of resources we can use,” she said.

The change also took working with students to get them the materials they need to work from home — things they usually had access to on campus.

“In digital media and computing, a lot of our students don’t have the software they need on their home computers,” Johnson said. “When we made the decision to close the computer labs, it was really important to get those students access to the technology.”

University tech leaders had to work with instructors to figure out how to facilitate the lab courses found in many of the university’s science programs and within the institution’s Nursing program, in particular.

“We have lots of science lab courses where their faculty are having to figure out how students can still accomplish those learning outcomes, so a lot of our faculty are using online resources to try to simulate labs,” she said. “In nursing, there’s been a lot of work around having students do simulations online rather than doing face-to-face clinical hours since our students haven’t been able to be in the clinics.”

But the transition wasn’t 100% seamless in other courses usually more conducive to online learning, like humanities courses. Some students and faculty have never had so much distance from one another at ETSU, which has made engagement a challenge over the past few days.

Johnson said the way in which each online class is conducted varies on a case-by-case basis. Whether teachers are doing live lectures or pre-recorded lectures differs, but most are encouraged to record their lectures for students who can’t get to those live meetings.

“Even for classes that have already been online, we haven’t ever really been in this situation where students have been sent home and where faculty are working from home. I think we’re all wrangling with this concept of the faculty at home and the students at home and what that means for each student,” she said, adding that accessibility is key. “Even in a class that’s mostly lecture-based, it’s been harder to think through what students are going to be able to do in the new normal that we’re living in.”

“I talked with one professor who had a student who didn’t have access to the internet, so they’re doing an old-school correspondence class with that student — sending them assignments, and that student will send them back in the mail,” she continued. “We’re just trying to take advantage of all the tools that we have.”

Though online’s been doable, Johnson still said she and other university leaders hope to see university operations return to normal. Whether the university continues online-only classes into the summer or even the fall still remains up in the air.

“I think we’ll be having those conversations in days to come, but I sure hope that we’re together in the fall back on campus because it’s a great time of year to welcome students back in August,” she said Wednesday. “I think a lot of us would be disappointed if we still start fall online.”

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