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COVID-19, Spring 2020: How a newly discovered virus changed the entire teaching process within two weeks


Writer(s): Cheryl Pierce


Spring 2020 at Purdue University was anything but typical. January and February started like any other spring semester with campus lecture halls filled with students and Mackey filled with fans. Then in the span of two weeks, everything on campus changed from in-person to remote learning.  Within these two weeks of early March, campuses all over the United States needed to find an aggressive plan to flatten the curve of a fast-approaching, unknown virus. The chain reactions, dispersion, density, waves, and curves that were suddenly on everyone’s mind involved this new illness, at the time known as coronavirus. 

What is now known as COVID-19 was reaching the United States and very little was known about how the virus spreads, how patients react to the virus, and how deadly it may become.  Given these unknown factors, Purdue University decided the best plan was to move to remote learning to protect students, staff, faculty, and the community.  Purdue University faculty suddenly needed to move courses to an online learning environment and the Department of Physics and Astronomy (PhysAstro) of the College of Science worked together with the Purdue College of Science and Purdue community to make this unprecedented change happen.

Some changes happened smoother than expected.  Academic advising, for instance, worked well according to Janice Thomaz, Undergraduate Academic Advisor for PhysAstro, because the students were accustomed to some online activity from advising.

“The switch to online advising was a smooth one as we had all the note taking, electronic audit sheets and registration process already online,” says Thomaz.  “The adjustment was changing the required face-to-face advising appointment to another environment like Zoom, WebEx, Skype etc. Students have adapted well to this mode of communication.”

She also added that the students worked together within PhysAstro to stay in touch.  Feelings of isolation are an issue for students while working remotely, so these students came up with a solution.

“In May, the undergraduates developed a Discord Server call the Physics Hangout where they can talk/chat with anyone in their cohort, from other cohorts, as well as to the two advisors,” she says. “This server is meant to be a space for all the physics majors on Purdue's campus to come together and stay in touch. This forum is meant to be a fun and stream-lined method of communication.”

Some PhysAstro courses are unique in that they serve a high volume of students.  For instance, some courses have 800 students and others have labs that require hands-on components for learning.

Dr. Andrzej (Andrew) Lewicki, Assistant to the Head of PhysAstro, is involved with two courses (PHYS 220 and PHYS 221) that boast large enrollments, 800 and 410 students respectively.  They are introductory physics courses for students who do not need engineering physics.  Technology is key to making lecture classes of this size successful.  Purdue University helps instructors learn, implement, and use software systems in order to make the urgent change possible.  PHYS 220 and PHYS 221 used BoilerCast software to record and post the lectures and recitations online as well as Brightspace software for students to submit lab reports.  Since students were already submitting homework and prelaboratory questions online for the two courses, this transition wasn’t much of an issue.

“Labs were the biggest challenge,” Says Lewicki.  “Obviously, students were not able to make measurements and collect data. Instead, I created online conceptual questions directly related to the physics included in the lab experiments. Lab TAs graded these conceptual questions instead of grading lab reports.  That online model was changed for the summer and fall semesters. We provide sample data for students who then create lab reports that are similar to the lab reports for on-campus classes. Next, students submit these lab reports on Brightspace for grading.”

For other classrooms, large and small, there were issues that required constant adjustments to be successful once they were moved to an online environment.  Key to a successful move to remote learning in this short time frame was a professor’s ability to adapt to the challenges.  Efficiency in labs were hard to maintain in a remote setting because professors and TAs couldn’t do things like sketch an idea quickly on a whiteboard to help a student master a concept. 

Because of the sudden switch to remote learning, many challenges arose that were not anticipated. Professor Danny Milisavljevic (pictured above) has taught Physics for nearly three years at Purdue University.  In the Spring of 2020, he was also teaching Physics 220 which had approximately 600 students. 

“Students were spread in time zones across the world, from Hawaii to China,” says Milisavljevic. “Many students were in rural areas and had weak internet. One student went to a McDonalds to use the WIFI to complete an exam. Storm activity sometimes knocked out power and prevented students from completing assignments.”

The biggest challenge was what Milisavljevic described as an “’email explosion’.  Initially I was course coordinator and taught one of three sections. During the transition it made most sense for me to record video lectures for all sections, and at that point all students saw me as their one connection to the course. Compound this with the challenges of doing everything online (tests, office hours, exams, discussion boards), my email inbox increased in size dramatically.  We used a shared course email address that could be managed by a team, but students were still compelled to write to me individually. I made it a priority to attend to each and every email.”

Even with these challenges, some issues that were anticipated worked better than expected.  Milisavljevic said the online exam worked well due to so much effort going into accommodating students and preparing multiple versions of the exams. Video lectures also were seemingly well received.  How a professor chose to record lectures was up to each professor, so that were variant models all over the university.  Key for Milisavljevic was trying to inject a bit of fun and spontaneity into the recordings.

“I chose to come into the building to record lectures because I felt it important to continue incorporating demonstrations. Students really appreciated this.  I recorded lectures using BoilerCast. Essentially, I pretended that students were in the classroom and attempted to teach like I normally would, bad jokes and all,” says Milisavljevic. “I purchased 'gag' items like an ‘instant audience’ device that could play noises like clapping, groaning, and rim-shots. I also purchased a big button that when pressed exclaimed ‘awesome!’ in fifteen different ways and voices.  The other lecturer recorded videos that provided supplementary material to the main lecture. This allowed time to dive more deeply into concepts and key questions brought up during online discussion. My TA also recorded recitations. This provided a lot of content for students to choose between.”

How the students adapted to these sudden changes and isolation was a concern for professors and advisors.  According to Milisavljevic, students handled the transition well.  They were sympathetic to the challenges introduced by online learning and were patient when things went wrong.  Purdue will have both in-person classes for Fall 2020 and instructors are approaching this with extreme caution and extra preparations in order to protect Purdue students and prepare for whatever circumstances may arise.

“I am eager to get back into the Physics building and teach in front of students,” says Milisavljevic.  “However, I balance that with the reality that COVID-19 continues to be a problem in the U.S., and that historically pandemics have second waves that are more deadly in the fall/winter. I'm ready to attempt returning to campus in the fall, but I'm also prepared to rapidly adjust back into a completely remote format.”

David Huckleberry, Coordinator of Digital Instruction, plays an instrumental role in making sure the students and faculty have the tools they need to succeed.  According to Lewicki, Huckleberry’s technical support for all physics and astronomy online courses was essential to the success of the transfer from in-person to remote learning and continues to be a great resource.

“I felt the Spring transition went as smoothly as possible, for an emergency move.,” says Huckleberry. “I have been designing courses for online for many years, so I wasn't concerned with the ‘how’ of the move, it was just a matter of having the conversations with the faculty and determining what they desired students to do in an activity that was previously face to face, and fit that to the closest ed-tech tool to achieve that asynchronously.  Obviously some things were just not possible, but I think we made some very effective transitions. There were some hurdles laid down that were out of our control in terms of exams, but through some creativity we landed on some solutions that worked well.  The students deserve a big thanks as well, because without their adaptivity, it would have been much worse. But that’s what Boilermakers do, we adapt and overcome.”

Purdue University has implemented an aggressive campaign for the safety of the Purdue Community.  They have bought an entire mile of Plexiglas to serve as barriers where close-proximity is needed.  Students, faculty, and staff will be required to wear masks, get flu shots, get tested for COVID-19, and socially distance from one another.  A Protect Purdue website has been created and will be constantly updated to ensure the safety of the Purdue Community.  Members of the Purdue University community are urged to check this website routinely to learn of any updates about COVID-19.

Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020 5:58 PM

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