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A look at the transition to online learning at Shippensburg University
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A look at the transition to online learning at Shippensburg University

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Shippensburg University shutdown

On March 16, Shippensburg University President Laurie Carter announced that the university would be closed for the rest of the semester and teaching would move online.

Kara Laskowski had two days to empty her Dauphin Humanities Center office of everything she needed to remotely teach Shippensburg University students from home.

The human communications studies professor piled textbooks, notes, folders, students’ assignments, and even office plants into cardboard boxes to carry them down the hall and out the building to her parked blue Subaru Impreza hatchback. She made sure to bring a scanner to upload written feedback on assignments students turned in before spring break.

In a moment of humanity during one of those stressful days, Laskowski locked her keys in her office, Dauphin Humanities Center 108, and had to call campus police to let her back in.

On her final trip into the Dauphin building, Laskowski made one last round through the building. She climbed two flights of stairs to the third floor. As she walked down the 300 hallway, she passed DHC 307 — the room where her “HCS-385: Resolving conflict through communication” class met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

She said she couldn’t help but tear up as she left the building for the remainder of the semester.

University response

As the coronavirus closed in on Pennsylvanians, the state’s higher education institutions were among the first to respond. On March 11, days after Gov. Tom Wolf declared a state of disaster in response to the first cases of the coronavirus appearing in the state, SU officials announced students’ spring breaks would extend a week.

Two days later, the university suspended classes through April 11. On March 16, the day students originally intended to return to campus, SU President Laurie Carter broke the news through an email:

Shippensburg University shutdown

The Ceddia Union Building on the campus of Shippensburg University remains empty after the university closed its campus.

“Students, I am heartbroken for you. I understand how disappointing this must be for you not to be able to spend the rest of the semester on campus.”

The extension to spring break gave faculty time to prepare, but they had to work fast to move assignments, readings and discussion forums to Brightspace’s Desire2Learn learning management program. They also began using Zoom, a video-conferencing app, to deliver lectures and hold office hours. While all faculty had to face this transition together, there was no one-size-fits-all response.

Laskowski, the human communication studies department chair, said the process has been thoughtful, but also very fast — not a pace higher education typically follows.

Laskowski’s courses focus on teaching students interpersonal skills such as one-on-one personal communication, public speaking and conflict resolution. Because of concerns for accessibility and internet connection, Laskowski has limited how much she requires students to use Zoom, and does not require them to complete assignments at the same time.

Steven Burg, the history and philosophy department chair, said the mid-semester transition was shocking. Moving online was a monumental task that required collaboration within his department. As classes started back up, Burg said there was a sense of loss at not being able to have a face-to-face experience with the students.

“You realize how much of the students draw their enthusiasm for the subjects and materials in being in-person,” Burg said.

Labs online

This is not unique to Burg and Laskowski’s departments. Robin McCann, the chemistry department chair, said moving lectures online was the easy part.

McCann’s biggest hurdle was approaching laboratory courses. Chemistry professors teach labs to help students better understand material taught by professors during lectures. For many students, these are physical and technical skills they will need in the workforce.

Fortunately for them, students already had half a semester of that learning under their belts. For the remainder of the semester, students will have to watch videos of the faculty performing lab research, and write about observations they made during the videos. McCann hopes the chemistry faculty can cover missed content in future classes so every student affected can graduate having obtained all the necessary experience.

However, much like Laskowski and Burg, McCann says it is just not the same.

“My classrooms tend to be very give-and-take. My students’ questions help shape how I cover the material,” McCann said.

However, McCann said she used the opportunity to get creative with her teaching. She opened her “Chemistry: A cultural approach” class by discussing the chemical aspects of the coronavirus with her students as they were settling in.

“Why do you wash your hands? Why does social distancing work? What scientific data is factual?” McCann asked students.

The class continues to discuss the coronavirus developments in an optional online forum.

Shippensburg University shutdown

Shippensburg University is like a ghost town after the university closed its campus due to COVID-19 concerns.

While Laskowski, Burg and McCann managed to move most of their classes online, Steve Dolbin’s art courses prove difficult to teach. Dolbin’s drawing, print-making and 3-D design courses require access to materials, tools and presses available in the Huber Art Center for students to complete projects, which are a heavy portion of his classes.

Without access to those, Dolbin had to ask himself “What’s possible?” over spring break. And he had to make the painful realization that there was no way he could deliver the full experience online.

In lieu of providing in-person feedback on projects, Dolbin gives advice in response to photos students send him of projects. While he can give the best tips he can to students, some things in art require nuance, he said. The sensitivity behind a pen drawing a line, or the brutality with which to strike wood when carving, makes all the difference in a piece of art, Dolbin said.

That is a nuance that has been lost over online courses.

Additionally, Dolbin now teaches technique through videos uploaded online. He critiques students’ work through photos they send him, but dislikes evaluating three-dimensional sculptures when all he has to judge is a two-dimensional representation, especially when he cannot physically talk to students.

“I’m not gonna fail them. How can I fail them in a world pandemic?” Dolbin said. “[I have] no clue what they are going through.”

No-credit option

Dolbin’s words echo SU’s decision to allow students to take classes for a “no credit” option, which lets them fail a course without lowering their grade-point average.

However, like other professors, Dolbin feels the essence of teaching has left classes.

“The eye contact, the way you use your voice, the way you gesture. Good teachers have an element of performance,” Dolbin said. “That is just gone.”

While their classes differ in transition and material, something these professors agree on is that the concern is, from the start, for the students.

“Students are on one hand resilient, yet on the other highly stressed,” Laskowski said. “The sense I get is resignation.”

Lauren Clay, a third-year senior geographic information systems major, is the kind of student who likes taking online courses in the down-time between semesters.

“[But] in the school year, I really enjoy having a personal relationship with professors. I like when they know my name and know that I’m a good student,” Clay said.

Clay said the changes affected all her classes, but her capstone class, which will give Clay materials to show potential employers once she leaves the university, was the most impacted by the changes. Clay said the interactions between geography/earth science professor Scott Dryzga and his students are pivotal for students to understand course material.

“We do not have that dynamic anymore,” Clay said, citing the lack of immediate accessibility a classroom environment provides.

But not all is bad.

“It’s really preparing us for those individual problem-solving scenarios,” Clay said. “Dr. Dryzga has adapted the best. ... When I say he is the best professor, I mean that he is the best. He will do anything for [us] to succeed.”

Meanwhile, sophomore Ashley Ivanoff had just transferred to SU from HACC for the spring semester. She could barely contain her excitement for her first semester away from home, but a few weeks into her college experience, the pandemic sent her back to the U.S. Army War College and the Carlisle Barracks, where she lives with her family.

Ivanoff is a human communications major who takes Laskowski’s conflict resolutions class. Projects have turned into papers, while workshops have turned into discussion board posts. She also had difficulty transitioning from school to home. While at school, she could go to the Ezra Memorial Library on campus to study. Now, her living space has become her study space.

It’s not all grades, though. Ivanoff said that when she visited her professors office hours, the professors were as concerned with students’ well-being as they were with their learning.

“Professors, like anyone else, are trying to connect with their students,” Ivanoff said. “I think this has been difficult for them. They’re trying their best to maintain a sense of normalcy for students.”

Shippensburg University shutdown

The Ceddia Union Building on the campus of Shippensburg University remains empty after the university closed its campus.

Always online?

Students and professors across the nation have had to make peace with the terms the universe has imposed on them. However, Dolbin voiced concerns about how permanent this transition could be for some schools across the country.

“Someone looking at dollar signs can use this to justify moving everything online,” Dolbin said. “I don’t think kids go to school for that experience.”

Laskowski and Burg echoed their colleague, saying the experience is nowhere near the same.

“I can teach students who sign up for online learning, but it just takes the spontaneity and human connection away,” Laskowski said. “I think everyone is collectively realizing, 'Oh no.' This is so much harder than I think people anticipated or knew it would be.”

“This whole experience has, at the same time, heightened our sense of appreciation for what we do in the face-to-face environment,” Burg said. “Not having that does change the quality and what we can do in terms of teaching.”

In light of the coronavirus, SU’s May commencement has been postponed without a rescheduled date. According to the university website, SU will deliver all courses, activities and events online, and it has not yet announced a change in plans for the fall 2020 semester.

“Online learning cannot replace what we have done, and the relationships and the interactions we have in our classroom,” Laskowski said. “I miss them. I miss hearing their voices, seeing their faces."

Jonathan Bergmueller is a freelancer for The Sentinel and a senior communication/journalism major at Shippensburg University. 


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