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NewsApr 22, 2020

Professors embrace online learning

Although they miss their students, instructors are finding creative ways to teach virtually

Donna Halper sitting in her office in front of a computer
Associate Professor Donna Halper teaches an online course.

Lesley professors have approached the move to online classes, necessitated by the coronavirus, with a spirit of collaboration and ingenuity, even as they mourn the loss of face-to-face time with their students.

Although she is checking in with her students regularly, Professor Mary Dockray-Miller, a literature teacher in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, knows they would like to be on campus as much as she would like to hold classes in person again.

“The thing I like most about my job is my personal interactions with my students. I miss them a lot,” she said.

Faculty had just over a week to transition their curriculum online before classes resumed after an extended spring break. Some had little to no experience teaching virtually but willingly jumped into it with the help of more experienced professors.

Donna Halper, an associate professor of communications and media studies in the Humanities Division, has taken online courses but never taught them before.

“I’m very willing to engage in the adventure,” she said.

Soon after the announcement was made, Halper began reaching out to more experienced faculty.

“It is not a disgrace to admit you don’t know something,” she said. “I’m going to learn and I’ll become proficient at it and I still will probably prefer face-to-face, but that’s OK.”

For Halper, that uncertainty is not an altogether bad thing.

“It’s actually a very humbling reminder of what our students go through. They’re in places every day where they don’t know this material and it’s our job to deliver it.”

Stephanie Spadorcia, chair of teaching and learning in our Graduate School of Education, said most of the courses in her program already have online elements, and moving to an all-virtual model has brought with it several positives.

The online courses have created greater accessibility for students with learning challenges and hearing impairment, as prerecorded lectures can be rewound and reviewed as well as closed-captioned. These features benefit international students and English language learners as well, she said.

“The instructors are truly trying to think everything through in terms of the best learning experience and the best accessibility,” Spadorcia said.

Spadorcia said her faculty are eager to push the capabilities of online learning and to employ pandemic-era teaching into their courses once the stay-at-home order is over.

An accordian book with letterpress of trees and a book with a tree cut out in paper against a bright backdrop
Students in Sarah Hulsey's bookmaking course are transforming a piece made in the studio using supplies sent by Hulsey.

Professors are considering how they might hybridize their courses, alternating between online and face-to-face lectures, particularly for evening and weekend classes where most of the faculty and students travel long distances to meet in person.

Instructors in our College of Art and Design are also thinking creatively as they continue education for studio courses that are inherently hands-on.

When she learned classes would be online for the rest of the semester, adjunct professor Sarah Hulsey began assembling art supply kits to mail to her students, collected from her studio, friends, family, and fellow artists.

“People have a different range of tools available to them. I wanted them to have a base of things to work with,” said Hulsey.

Of the two classes she is teaching—letterpress and bookmaking—the former was less adaptable to an online setting, given students need a printing press and type to complete the original assignments. With the blessing of department chair Kate Castelli, Hulsey converted the letterpress class into a course on the investigation of text in contemporary art. Students will use the supplies she sent them and those they already have to create art that explores the ways text can be used politically, personally, and performatively.

Conducting critiques online won’t be as satisfying as it would in person, said Hulsey, but the revised coursework has been rewarding.

“It’s in the design of the courses that I’ve found new approaches I might not have otherwise and that the students are responding to well,” said Hulsey. “I can see integrating them into future studio classes.”

Screenshot of Ara Parker holding up a candle during an online class
Ara Parker lights a candle, as do many of her students, during online sessions to create a sense of calm.

The online format has also pushed Ara Parker, an assistant professor of expressive therapies in our Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, to consider how to create welcoming online spaces for her students. Something as simple as having students light candles in their respective homes during a live video chat has helped ease tensions.

“Students are naturally anxious right now,” said Parker. Along with many faculty, she regularly checks in on her students, and she has reassured them that faculty and students are figuring out this new dynamic together. “I think they’re excited with the potential.”