Virtual learning is now the norm at Fairfield’s universities
FAIRFIELD — The 21st century has landed in Fairfield’s universities with both feet.
The old and familiar college class, with its professors lecturing from notes made on legal pads or writing on whiteboards and students sitting side-by-side has disappeared.
What’s left, said Steven Michels, associate provost at Sacred Heart University, is much like trying to repair an airplane in mid flight.
That is how Michels described transitioning to virtual learning while the spring semester was already underway. He said an online component had already been used in some classes — but inconsistently.
“Some faculty were making heavy use of different technology,” Michels said. “Some were making light or virtually no use. So that’s been the big challenge. Not figuring out how to do it, but just trying to figure out where everybody is and the best way to do it.”
Sacred Heart University and Fairfield University have now transitioned to teaching all their classes online during the national coronavirus pandemic. Virtual learning started at SHU and Fairfield University on March 11 and 16, respectively.
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At Fairfield University, political science professors Aaron Weinstein and Gayle Alberda said that other than posting things on Blackboard, an online educational service used by many colleges, most of his students’ learning happened in the physical classroom.
“We are just dealing with the subject material that I gave them and that they read,” Weinstein said. “From everything that I’ve seen, they’ve done a wonderful job at integrating (online learning). I have not seen any change in the quality of the work. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Weinstein said he has been using Zoom, a video conferencing application, to lead lessons where students can break into into smaller groups for discussion.
Alberda said she also had been using Zoom to meet for class. She said students have been very engaged, asking good questions and even asking to continue talking when class is supposed to be over.
She said both students and staff seem to be taking the changes in stride.
“One of the reasons why that is, in my opinion, is because the university, the senior administration, has been good at keeping everyone informed of what’s going on,” Alberda said. “At least at Fairfield, it’s almost been a means of camaraderie.”
Michels, who teaches a class on critical thinking to freshmen at Sacred Heart, said first-year students were not allowed to take online classes before the pandemic because the university wanted them in the classroom.
“We made the decision over the weekend that we’re expanding the set of courses that (we) will allow to be taken pass/fail,” Michels said.
Michels also said the university is trying to promote alternate ways to deliver content to students before they get into the classroom for a much more efficient use of class time.
One of the alternative ways was podcasts, he said — what Alberda and Weinstein are doing together at Fairfield University to supplement their lessons. The two have created a podcast, “Plugging in to Politics,” that aims to provide students with material that applies to things happening in the real world, Weinstein said.
Michels said that classes offered in the fall will be far better because of the university’s new virtual learning experiences.
“Coming out on the other end, it’s going to be a much more engaging and dynamic experience for students,” Michels said, although he admitted that the transition has been rough. “There’s something to be said for using technology in a way that puts students more in touch with each other.”
“Long term, this is just an opportunity for us to do more,” Michels said.