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Education

After an extended spring break, UAA faculty and students settle in to learning at a distance

  • Author: Caleigh Jensen
  • Updated: March 30
  • Published March 30

A moose walks across the UAA campus on March 13, 2020. University of Alaska announced that most UA courses will be offered using alternate delivery method starting March 23, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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With stress over the short-notice change and a determination to teach, University of Alaska Anchorage faculty are adjusting to the COVID-19-induced challenge of moving their courses online.

UAA students and faculty returned to class March 23 after an extended second week of spring break. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen announced the university system would halt most in-person classes for the rest of the semester. The decision affected more than 20,000 students and more than 6,500 employees across the UA system.

Teaching through online delivery methods is the only way to continue most courses until the semester ends the last week of April.

For Riza Brown, an assistant professor of culinary arts, this meant canceling one of her classes that uses Lucy's restaurant on campus as a real-world lab.

“There is no substitute for real guests with real problems and a real sense of urgency. We didn't want to shortchange the students on this experience, so they'll need to retake the class next semester,” Brown said.

Brown summed up the process of restructuring her face-to-face classes in one word: stressful.

“Having one week to complete this monumental task of moving three, potentially four, classes online was akin to juggling while a bomb ticked in the background,” Brown said. “That’s a little dramatic, but I feel entitled to being a little dramatic right now.”

While she is disappointed that one of her four classes can’t continue this semester, Brown has “become quite good at teasing out the silver linings in every situation,” she said.

“I view this as an opportunity not only to continue teaching students the subjects they signed up for but to teach them about responding in unprecedented situations like this,” Brown said.

Corrie Whitmore, an assistant professor of health science and program coordinator for the Bachelor of Health Science program, was faced with an additional challenge in moving her class online: Since she traveled to Texas and Mexico during spring break, Whitmore now must quarantine herself and her family at home for 14 days.

“Something I’m sure other students can relate to — I’m quarantined with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old,” Whitmore said. “Part of the reason I was able to concentrate so fully on my job when I was at work was that my kids were at daycare. My work life has changed pretty dramatically.”

Christina Swayney, a UAA senior, is in the same boat as Whitmore. Swayney has a 4-year-old son at home and says the switch to online classes can make it challenging to complete her coursework.

“My kid is so curious and spirited that he always wants to be doing something with me, which I love, but it can be difficult to get work in. When I was going to school in-person, I would just do (homework) in between classes or after school right away,” she said.

Whitmore chose to make her online class available whenever students want to watch it.

“I feel like there are so many demands on my students’ times and they’re in multiple time zones. I’m trying to let my class become one with more flexibility around it,” she said.

Whitmore said she understands that all the precautions the university is taking are necessary.

“I think that online learning is different, but it’s not better or worse,” Whitmore said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile one. Flattening the curve is worth the inconvenience that we’re enduring right now.”

Marsha Olson, a term instructor of communication, converted all four of her classes into an online format. She said the biggest challenges were the logistics of losing a week of instruction from the extended spring break and changing deadlines, as well as missing out on in-class interaction.

“I really enjoy and rely on seeing my students face-to-face and being able to gauge where they’re at, not only in terms of their learning, but emotionally,” Olson said. “That’s been hard because I don’t get that immediate feedback and I really enjoy that. It’s part of why I love teaching.”

Olson adapted her teaching style to include the technology many students are most familiar with — social media. Olson updates her Instagram story daily, informing her classes of new deadlines, providing comment boxes for students to leave their questions and suggestions and posting photos of cows for a daily dose of “quality cow content.”

“I’ve had a professional Instagram over the past few years that I haven’t done much on, but this is a really good opportunity to use that and meet students where they are,” she said.

Joey Carreon, a senior journalism major, is one of Olson’s students. In the midst of worrying about his family’s health, Carreon said he found comfort in Olson’s frequent communication.

“I think professor Olson has pulled out all the stops,” he said. “She has reaffirmed and reassured all of us that we’re going to be OK in terms of her class and there’s nothing for us to worry about. She always asks how we’re doing (via Instagram stories) and that really means a lot to me. None of my other professors have done that.”

Olson feels that after a week of instruction, she and her students’ schedules are finally getting back on track.

“I wanted to remain as consistent as possible. I think that in the face of uncertainty, it’s always good to have some things that are really stable,” Olson said. “I feel like all of my classes are now in a place where they know what to do this week. It’s given me a sense of relief.”

Jennifer Stone, an English professor, also feels that all three of her newly online classes have successfully adapted to the changes. She was comforted to see her students again after the two-week break.

“I feel relieved. I was able to see my students and see that they’re OK. I was really worried about everyone,” Stone said. “I feel like last week was really chaotic, and this week it’s paying off because I can see that everyone is OK and still able to do school despite the chaos.”

While she felt overwhelmed when she read the initial email from Johnsen announcing the changes to the university, Stone said she now has a new outlook.

“It’s just a wild experience. In Alaska, this is another traumatic event that’s been piled up on multiple events — the earthquake, building fires, the budget crisis. I feel like we’re definitely having our resilience tested as Alaskans,” Stone said.

Caleigh Jensen is a journalism and public communications major at UAA. She is also executive editor The Northern Light, the university’s student-run newspaper.

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