March 27, 2020
A week in, LTU proves nimble in shift to online-only classes
Lawrence Technological University’s buildings may be closed, but the education of thousands of students is humming along online.
In a week, LTU’s eLearning Services office and faculty moved nearly 700 courses to an online format. Approximately 350 faculty members made the move.
How was this done? “With very little sleep,” said Lynn Miller-Wietecha, LTU’s director of eLearning Services, with a laugh. But seriously: “The biggest thing is that our faculty didn’t miss a beat. Even those who were not big fans of teaching online have stepped up.”
Miller-Wietecha, who has directed LTU’s online learning programs since 2011, said LTU’s laptop program, which gives every undergraduate student a top-of-the-line laptop computer and all software required for their courses, also played a key role.
LTU announced during its spring break week March 9-13 that it would extend that break a week, and move to online education March 23. Online classes will continue through the end of the semester May 15, and LTU’s scheduled May 9 Commencement was postponed to December.
“The faculty have done an amazing job,” Miller-Wietecha said. “We already had a fairly good percentage who were comfortable with online teaching techniques and tools. But the rest of them have been tremendous in working with us in learning those techniques and have become comfortable with the tools. Most of our classes are going on in Zoom as regularly scheduled, and faculty members are recording their lectures for students ot watch later.” Assignments and exams have also moved online.
But what about laboratory classes, so important to a technological school like LTU? Students can’t run a chemistry experiment from home. During that extended spring break, Miller-Wietecha said,: “Our Media Services and Media Production departments dropped everything they were doing, met with faculty in the labs, and video recorded faculty performing labs.” Examples: Associate Professor Yawen Li, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering building tiny machinery for biological analysis in a class on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), or a first-year chemistry experiment.
"You want students to learn how to do the procedure in the lab, and second, learn how to analyze the results,” Miller-Wietecha said. “We’re trying to come as close to executing those elements as we can.”
As for architecture, Miller-Wietecha said, “we’ve been running architecture programs online for years. Our entire Master of Architecture program is online.” The only thing that’s changed is, now the undergraduates are too.
As for those with connectivity programs, she said, the university has been working with internet service providers to work out extending service and providing hotspots for all students and faculty.
Overall, she said, “Faculty who have not used LTU technology tools have been thrown into it with very little time to become comfortable with it, and the faculty has risen to the challenge. The laptop program really helped, but we also had many faculty who were already comfortable with teaching online to serve as guides for their colleagues who may have been less ready.”
One of those is Andrew Gerhart, professor in LTU’s A. Leon Linton Department of Mechanical, Robotic, and Industrial Engineering. Gerhart described himself as “a digital resister… I just got a smartphone a year ago.”
But once the decision to move online was made, during LTU’s extended spring break, Gerhart contacted his students about using the Zoom videoconferencing app for classes, and practiced with LTU physics professor Scott Schneider on the technologies. “With the capabilities of Canvas (LTU’s online learning software) and the capabilities of Zoom built into Canvas, and knowing everybody already had the same computer, it was amazing how quick and easy it was,” he said.
Gerhart is teaching two courses online this semester, a standard junior-level fluid mechanics course that’s all lectures, and a final-semester senior science lab. “The lecture course took some thought, but doing the class periods live in Zoom, and being able to share my screen and use Power Point slides and white boards, no problem,” Gerhart said.
He was worried the lab would be harder, but he set up a camera and did the experiment while students watched remotely—metal plates monitored for temperature that are heated and cooled, and students collect the data and measure rates of heat transfer.
“I ran the experiment while they were watching on Zoom and posted the data on Canvas,” Gerhart said. “When I asked them afterward, the students actually said in certain ways it was better (than being in the lab). Instead of multiple people standing around, they had a direct view from my camera, so they could all see, and their view was really good.” Students in the class are also broken up into teams of four, who got their own private Zoom breakout rooms for discussion.
Overall, Gerhart said, “It’s not exactly the same, but it was surprisingly seamless. It’s really kind of been a fun adventure if you approach it with the right mindset.”
Bahman Mirshab, dean of the LTU College of Business and Information Technology, said for business classes, “the move online has been virtually seamless. There were only a few of our faculty who had no experience teaching online, and the instructions we received from eLearning allowed them to move flawlessly. One good thing to come out of all this is that now all the faculty knows they can use this technology to enhance their classes.”
Karl Daubmann, dean of LTU’s College of Architecture and Design, said that “the LTU laptop program is a huge part of our success. I’m talking to colleagues at other institutions where students don’t have computers or don’t have software and they’ve had major challenges. With us, we have a group of students, and we say, go to this area on the screen, and click this button, and we’re all talking about the same thing., It makes it so much easier.”
Daubmann noted that architects and engineers have long been accustomed to remote work and collaboration. As far back as 2010, when he worked for BluHomes, a prefabricated housing company, “I led a design team that was 1/3 in Boston, 1/3 in Michigan, and 1/3 in California.”
And, Daubmann said, LTU faculty has been using Zoom to keep in touch personally as well as professionally. “A group of faculty had a cocktail over Zoom last Thursday. We’ve never done that in person before… We’re doing a faculty search right now using these tools.” What faculty members are discovering, he said, is that “if you’re a good teacher, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a classroom or online.”
Philip Plowright, a professor of architecture who teaches classes ranging from freshman-year design to advanced graduate courses, also said “the laptop program helps so much—everybody’s got the proper hardware and tools…I took 100 first year students online Monday, with six faculty, and there wasn’t a single glitch.”
LTU’s Master of Architecture program has been online since 2010, and Plowright said “it’s part of our accreditation that we have to prove that the online and in-person experiences are exactly the same. We told the students that there will be zero change to the expectations of the class, whether you’re in a classroom or online. All we did was change modalities. You’re still in class, you have to be fully present, you can still raise your hand and ask questions.”
In some ways, Plowright said, online classes are superior. “There are advantages in flexibility and documentation. In our graduate program, every single session with every single student and every single class is recorded and made available to the student, so they can go back and watch a class from three weeks ago or five weeks ago and make sure they’re on track. At no point is it inferior to being in a physical space.”
Plus, he said, with students required to turn their laptop cameras on, “there’s more accountability. You can’t have a student sleepin’ in the back. In a classroom you might miss that. You won’t online.”
Physics professor Schneider said he had already been doing some class work online, with physics and astronomy presentations students could watch at their convenience, followed by meetings to discuss the lectures. Now, he said, those discussions are on Zoom. The only drawback? “It doesn’t have the immediacy,” Schneider said. But overall, he said: “I think it’s going well. I think we as a school are relatively agile. We did need that second week of spring break to get everyone up to speed.”
Still, Schneider said: “I’ll be very happy to go back to students in the classroom.”