The academic migration to distance learning

As the spring semester got underway and news of the coronavirus became more ominous, Diana Cheshire began making plans. As director of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching, Learning and Distance Education, Cheshire oversees the college’s learning management system and conducts training for both faculty and students on how to promote active learning in both face-to-face and online environments. Her team also provides training and reviews online courses to ensure they meet national standards for excellence. With the onerous task of migrating 1,400 face-to-face courses to the distance learning environment, Cheshire and her team had their work cut out for them.

“We were still on campus teaching when we started rolling out training on how to migrate to distance learning. After we moved off campus, we conducted all of our trainings via Zoom,” said Cheshire. “We’ve now held over 10,000 different types of training or support sessions with faculty and students to get them up to speed with how to teach and learn online.”

As Cheshire’s team worked with students and faculty, they amassed an arsenal of web resources to create a dynamic learning experience for students, even in the face of a pandemic. “Our mission is to promote excellence in teaching to enhance student learning,” said Cheshire. “Our center provides leadership and support for innovation and best practices in teaching on all platforms, including face-to-face and online.”

Cheshire is in her third year at The Citadel. She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics education with cognates in instructional systems technology and educational psychology from Indiana University at Bloomington. Her research is in instructional design and technology, assessment, reform, mathematics education and computer-mediated learning. She also has a background in user experience and user interface design. In her current role, she applies these skills daily.

While not without minor hiccups, the migration of the college’s face-to-face classes to distance learning was a success. “I tend to be an optimist,” said Cheshire. “We knew that in migrating 1,400 courses online, there would be challenges. Many people were concerned that the internet would go down, that our learning management system would crash because of the number of users worldwide. In the end, we didn’t experience any of those problems. I am very proud of our faculty and students and how they adapted,” said Cheshire.

The biggest hurdle was not the technology but, in fact, the lack of technology—students who did not have laptops or internet access. As those students were identified, the college’s Information Technology Services department loaned them laptops and provided internet hotspots.

Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Simon Ghanat, who specializes in geotechnical earthquake engineering, found that teaching online enabled him to promote active learning in his classes.

“I think the environment promotes more student-centered learning than it did before because you have a variety of online tools that appeal to a different learning style,” said Ghanat. “Some students are shy. They don’t want to talk in class, but when they’re online, in discussion rooms, or writing emails—they’re actually telling me what’s on their mind.”

In a sophomore mechanical engineering class, Ghanat found that his students performed slightly better in an online format this summer than they did in face-to-face classes in the summers of 2018 and 2019.

“I used the same exam this time, and the syllabus was basically the same. The book is the same—everything is the same,” said Ghanat. “I looked at the results of the first exam this summer versus last summer and the summer before. The other two classes were face to face, and this one was online, and my online students out-performed my face-to-face students by 4%.”

While Ghanat’s success story is heartening, there were some students who struggled with the transition during the pandemic. The college has modified each student’s transcript to include a message indicating the unique circumstances that may have had an impact on student performance for the spring semester.

Online learning, Ghanat said, requires a greater commitment for students to be successful because online learning requires students to be active learners, but also, he says, requires a greater commitment from instructors too. “To come up with a one-hour lesson, you’ve got to spend a lot of time to make sure everything goes right, make sure you don’t say too much, make sure the visuals are correct, make sure videos, if you’re using them, are correct. There’s a lot involved.”

When she trains faculty and students, Cheshire tries to prepare them for the extra investment in time. “The perception is that everything is easier online, that you can get a degree online without very much work, but that’s just not true,” she said. “We tell students that it is more work and that it may feel like you are doing a lot more reading, or that the learning appears to be more independent. You also have to be very self- motivated and have the ability to manage your time well.

With classroom sessions held virtually on Zoom, peer teaching assignments that require students to learn material and teach it to their classmates, breakout sessions on chat boards requiring teamwork and active participation, and immediate feedback through email and texting, Ghanat has expanded his teaching style. “I love teaching,” he said, “and this experience has offered me a great opportunity to think about my teaching. It’s given me great ideas and techniques to implement later on in my traditional classes.”