Stephanie Gillespie, Ph.D.
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Engineering Professor Creates Rich Learning Environment Online
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As students transition to remote learning for the remainder of the semester, University of New Haven faculty and staff members are coming together to adopt new technologies and create virtual communities that provide students the support they need to meet their educational goals.
March 25, 2020
Jenna Sheffield, Ph.D. was recently hosting an online video conference to share feedback with one of her students when her toddler – whose daycare is now closed amid the coronavirus global pandemic – wandered into the room to say hi.
The University’s assistant provost for curriculum innovation and an assistant professor of English, Dr. Sheffield concedes that remote learning, which the University has put in place for all classes for the balance of the semester, can be challenging, but it does also create new, and equally meaningful, opportunities for students and faculty members to connect.
“There are ways in which this transition can serve to enhance instruction across the University as faculty learn new tools or consider different ways of presenting material,” she said. “It’s possible, too, that students will get to know their faculty members better. When my student met my child, I think it humanizes me for the student in a way that might make me seem more approachable.”
"One of the biggest things we can do is be available – either with office hours or quick email turnaround time. Be honest, present, and responsive." Jenna Sheffield, Ph.D.
Dr. Sheffield says that in remote learning, communication is crucial, stressing that students must be open about any challenges they face, any concerns they may have, or any obstacles they are facing outside of class. She stresses that faculty members share the same mission of supporting students, both as learners and as people.
Hosting a recent online training session for educators on teaching continuity and creating community, Dr. Sheffield offered advice to educators as they move their face-to-face courses online.
“One of the biggest things we can do is be available – either with office hours or quick email turnaround time,” she told participants. “Be honest, present, and responsive.”
Dr. Sheffield acknowledges that remote learning can present students with challenges, from childcare responsibilities to limited access to WiFi and other technology, and she is encouraging faculty to work with students.
“Faculty members must be as flexible as possible,” said Dr. Sheffield, who also serves as director of the University’s Writing Across the Curriculum program. “I think offering open office hours via Zoom, for example, is a great way to help address students’ concerns. It can also be helpful to survey students about their learning preferences. I think that will help faculty get a better sense of how to address students’ concerns in the first place.”
Dr. Sheffield believes the main challenge for those in the humanities is finding a way to create rich discussion about texts online, and that faculty members and students have access to creative options to do just that.
“Web annotation tools like Hypothesis are great for this because students can annotate the texts with one another,” she said. “Many humanities faculty also use discussion forums to engage students in conversations about course topics. It’s about asking good questions—just like in a face-to-face classroom.”
Remote learning presents specific challenges, in particular, for students taking laboratory courses, such as engineering students. Ron Harichandran, Ph.D., dean of the University’s Tagliatela School of Engineering and vice provost for research, says the University is implementing innovative solutions to ensure students are gaining the knowledge they need.
“We are looking into virtual environments where students can simulate experiments and analyze the data produced through the simulations,” he said. “Engineering software required for classes is available through servers that students can log into from home. We are taking every measure to ensure that students receive a quality educational experience during this unprecedented period.”
"I have been incredibly impressed by how faculty and staff are coming together to support student learning."Jenna Sheffield, Ph.D.
In some cases, faculty members are learning new technologies or overhauling their course structures. Many are incorporating online survey and polling tools, virtual lab resources, and Perusall, a tool for social reading and annotation.
Staff in areas such as IT have been helping faculty overcome technological and pedagogical challenges as they arise, and Dr. Sheffield says faculty members have been turning their lectures and lessons into online modules and learning new ways to offer engaging instruction online.
“I have been incredibly impressed by how faculty and staff are coming together to support student learning,” she said. “While we’re still in the early stages of making the transition, I am confident that our faculty are rising to the challenge of teaching online. The goal right now is really to create a community in the online-classroom environment, communicate regularly and clearly with students about any changes, and ensure students will be able to achieve the course outcomes.”
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