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Remote Learning Begins with Successes, Surprises

March 25, 2020
The Well
Screenshot of students in online class with their elbows pointed out.

A screenshot from Associate Professor Chad Heartwood’s Photojournalism Projects class greet each other with elbow bumps on the first day of remote learning.

A look at how Carolina’s faculty and students are responding to remote teaching and learning in the first few days.

In an unprecedented move, Carolina faculty began teaching remotely this week, re-starting courses suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our faculty have worked tirelessly to ensure that 96 percent of our courses are available,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in a video message to campus. “Thanks to that work, we’ll be able to continue learning and growing together.”

For many, #VirtualFDOC did feel like the first day of class, one full of successes, surprises, some bumps and lots of learning.

Internet love

A Twitter screenshot shows John Orth in a pre-recorded lecture with a Pinocchio doll in the front row.

A little nervous about giving his first online lecture live, John Orth, William Rand Kenan Professor of Law, decided to pre-record it. He addressed his video talk to the only “person” in the empty classroom, a Pinocchio doll that he set in the front row.

“I’m social distancing for this man and this man only,” said Law School student Montana Vaughn, in a Tweet that garnered more than 1.2 million likes.

The new reality is virtual

Beginning Wednesday, Hussman School of Journalism and Media Associate Professor Steven King’s 28 students will don the Oculus Go Virtual Reality headsets he mailed them and convene in a virtual space in the Reese Innovation Lab. To inspire them and provide instructions for headsets, he created a short video filmed in his backyard.

Video Screenshot of person and virtual reality room
Screenshot of a video produced by Steven King preparing his students for class which will use virtual technology for the remainder of the semester.

Steven King tests his technology in preparation to teach his classes remotely.

As he prepared to teach his classes remotely, he shared photos on Instagram and Twitter, as he tested his own technology and set up a workspace with virtual reality (VR) headsets, laptops and monitors.

“I am working from the kitchen bar with three boys running around so that is not ideal,” said King, who is chief innovation officer of the Reese Innovation Lab.

His advice for his fellow faculty: Engage your students with questions and polls. Students should consume content outside of class time and use in-class time for discussions. King also provided a few tips on working with remote teams: Communicate early and often; assume positive intent; and make the best use of tools like Slack, Zoom, Google Cloud and others.

Online chat

Max Lazar, a doctoral candidate and graduate teaching fellow in religious studies, decided he wanted his Zoom classes to be in real time to provide a sense of routine and community. He has more than 30 students in each of his classes, Jewish History in Modern Times and Confronting Antisemitism, part of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Countering Hate initiative.

“I’ve always really felt as an educator that you should foster some sense of community among your students, encourage them to know each other’s names,” Lazar said.

Before going virtual, he did this for his Jewish History class each week by putting up a slide in the classroom for “Chatty Wednesday.” Instead of looking at their phones, students could discuss random conversation starters such as “Are the Beatles overrated, underrated or on point?” or “What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the last six months?”

Lazar plans to try the same technique on Zoom, letting the students interact informally before dividing into virtual breakout rooms for discussions on the day’s lesson.

Up close and personal

Ackland Art Museum shared 3-D models.

No social distancing necessary for viewing the 3-D models of sculptures that the Ackland Art Museum staff created to share the museum’s new and existing resources online.  Zoom in as close as you like and rotate the artwork with your mouse or trackpad. Click on the numbered circles to learn fascinating facts about each piece.

Keeping coursework accessible

Combo model. That’s what Brandon Bayne, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, calls his revamped History of Religion in America course.

Before Carolina moved to remote learning, Bayne polled his 120 students and found almost 20 percent of them had limited-to-no access to high-speed internet. So, he’s combining synchronous and asynchronous teaching.

On their own time, students will watch a PBS series on religion in America and review narrated PowerPoint posts. Bayne and two graduate assistants will hold discussions that students can join live or access in recorded format later.

Bayne’s students are in diverse situations. Some are in places like India, Singapore and Brazil. Some have stable internet access at home, while others rely on cell phones. Some are taking classes while sharing two rooms with five siblings or are staying on a friend’s couch.

“That made it clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to simply run it the same way as the normal class,” he said.

Bayne created an adjusted syllabus, extolling a humane approach and unity as the students and he learn together.

Bayne’s adjusted syllabus has five main principles.

What did Bayne learn the first day?

“You can drive yourself crazy editing a 20-minute lecture that you created,” he said. “You could spend five hours. Your own voice and vocal tics can drive you nuts. I’m going to have to tell myself to just record it, make sure the sound is good and send it out. I think that will be true for a lot of educators who are used to controlling our presentation.”

Virtual elbow bumps

Associate Professor Chad Heartwood’s Photojournalism Projects students greeted each other a little differently on the first day of class after Spring Break: with ‘elbow bumps’ via remote video.

But they had to rethink more than their greeting. “I had to totally reinvent the class because I can’t ethically ask them to go out into the community and potentially expose themselves or others to the virus,” Heartwood said.

So for a class that would normally have students roving with their cameras, Heartwood encouraged them to turn inward. He structured the remainder of the year around “creative process,” with students examining each layer of that process. This week’s theme is “where do ideas come from?” For the final project of the class, each student will use any media of their choice to document their pandemic experience.


Physics students choose their own adventure

Parallel Light Ray
This image of a parallel light ray is one example of how students can “read” lab instruments without physically being in the lab.

Physics students don’t have the ability to touch their lab equipment to run experiments or analyze data in remote courses. Instead, their instructors designed a “choose your own adventure” style lab to allow students to make mistakes and solve problems, much as they would in the classroom.

After the first day, Teaching Associate Professor Duane Deardorff declared the experiments a tentative success: “Attendance in the remote labs is the same as it normally would be for an on-campus lab,” he said.

About face

The music department was so excited about its first remote meeting Monday, it tweeted a screenshot of the participants. “We had our first staff meeting via Zoom today, and boy was it great to see everyone’s smiling faces!” the tweet read.

The department also provided curated Spotify playlists featuring music by faculty, students and alumni.

Art and ‘active learning’

digital art history class dashboard capture with medieval artwork
The dashboard for Dorothy Verkerk’s virtual art class.

In the Department of Art and Art History, Associate Professor Dorothy Verkerk revisited a course she developed over a decade ago for distance learning through Carolina’s Friday Center for Continuing Education.

The Friday Center gave her access to the course framework, and she updated that foundation for her History of Western Art and Architecture course, which has 79 students.

The dashboard for Dorothy Verkerk’s virtual art class.

With lots of emails, some students having a bit of trouble adjusting from traditional lecture to what Verkerk calls “active learning on their part,” the first day was a little bumpy. Students, she said, will get used to requirements such as staying up to date on readings, visiting art museum websites like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, listening to a podcast, participating in a discussion forum and building a short portfolio.

“We’ve got things ironed out now,” she said. “So I’m hoping that it will chug along smoothly.”

Zoom call fashions

Khalilah R. Johnson, assistant professor in allied health and @OccScienceBae, shared a video clip of a Tik Tok fashion show to inspire her fellow lecturers not to lead remote classes in just sweats or PJs.

“New week and new instruction methods call for new #Zoom call fashions!” she tweeted. “Slay the week, y’all.”

Thanks from the Chancellor

In addition to thanking faculty, Guskiewicz expressed gratitude to “the many individuals across our community who have worked to ensure that we are able to continue fulfilling our mission of teaching, research and service.”

That includes the information technology workers across campus who are supporting students and faculty during the remote learning effort.

“Carolina is, at its heart, its people,” he said. “We will get through this together as we continue our mission of teaching, research and service in new ways.”

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