All hands on deck: Transitioning Emory College to remote teaching

By Mary Loftus | Emory Report | April 7, 2020

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Together, remotely: Students in Christine Ristaino’s Italian class meet via Zoom. Emory College staff helped more than 500 faculty members transition their classes to remote learning.

The announcement March 11 was simple and to the point: “Effective immediately, Emory University will extend spring break for students until Sunday, March 22, 2020, and transition to remote learning for graduate and undergraduate classes on Monday, March 23, 2020.”  

The actual transition, however, would be a mass undertaking for Emory College: More than 500 faculty members from a broad array of disciplines had less than two weeks to move from a classroom setting to remote learning for 6,000 undergraduates, now scattered across the country and the world. 

Sara Jackson Wade, senior associate director of summer programs for Emory College, including Emory College online and the Emory pre-college program, was prepared. On March 5, she and Emory College lead web developer Brian Williams, along with marketing specialist Donna Morgan — with a sense of what was to come — had quickly built out a website to assist faculty with Academic Continuity and Remote Teaching Resources.

“Brian has done an incredible job,” Wade says. “I had content I wanted to put up on the website, and he has made it beautiful and navigable, polished and professional. I don’t believe we have ever met face-to-face but I feel like I know him well now. Strange time, but those are the silver linings.”

“They were way ahead of the curve,” says Beverly Cox Clark, director of Emory College communications. “Sara also worked one-on-one with faculty and departments to get them prepared and continues to provide support.” 

Sally Gouzoules, associate dean for International and Summer Programs, says Wade has been “working with teams across the university, and they have all relied upon her expertise to get things up and functional. The reason we’re not in crisis is, simply put, Sara Wade. I’ve never seen anyone rocket up to new levels of responsibility so quickly and with such unflappable poise.”

Wade is quick to say it was a team effort and that she was fortunate enough to be well positioned to lead the charge.

“Five years ago, we started offering online courses for the college, which was an initiative that I oversaw,” she says. “Primarily it was for online courses we offered during the summer, and there was a comprehensive program we put faculty through — they had a year to develop a course, as well as an eight-week training program developed and run by Leah Chuchran, the College’s instructional designer, and we offered support during that time.”

By January, COVID-19 was on their radar. “The part of our office that handles study abroad programs had been deep in the weeds with coronavirus since the beginning of the year, deciding when to bring students home from China and Italy, then all the overseas sites,” Wade says.

“Very soon afterward, the conversation turned to helping our faculty now,” Wade says. 

Teaching in new formats 

Partnering with Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and Library and Information Technology Services, crash courses were offered in how to use available remote-teaching technologies, such as Zoom and Canvas. Instructional workshops were recorded for wider availability.

The priority was to help all faculty make an emergency transition to remote learning. “We had about 60 faculty in the College who had previously completed our training,” Wade says. “And another couple of dozen who had taught online at other institutions.”

The faculty had less than two weeks to make their remote courses a reality. Many who had previous online teaching experience instantly become peer consultants, helping others in their departments.

“I have been very lucky, in that my experience has been relatively smooth,” says Elizabeth Kim, a lecturer in Emory College’s Department of Psychology who is currently teaching Psychology 205 (child development) to 58 students remotely and Psychology 760 (graduate practicum) to nine students.

“This is primarily because I had taken the Emory College Online Teaching Strategies course and had some course materials already prepared as a result. It’s been nice to take what I’ve learned and share that with my colleagues as we rapidly transitioned to online instruction.”

Christine Ristaino, senior lecturer in Italian, says she enjoys teaching online. “It feels as though you can almost read your students’ minds because they can write in the chat box and you can seamlessly work their questions into what you teach as they ask them,” she says. “I also love that it feels as though I’m visiting them and having a nice chat at their house. This helps me to get to know them better. On the other hand, I would like to be there for my students in person during this difficult time, so that’s hard.” 

“I feel like faculty have done an amazing job, pivoting so quickly,” Wade says. “Faculty have to step back and decide what methods and tools are best for their courses, taking into account the size of the class, the type of material they need to communicate and the format they are most comfortable teaching in.”

In a remote teaching “week one” pulse survey, 85% of Emory College faculty agreed that they had been provided the right tools and resources to be effective while teaching online. “And we are continuing to work with faculty who need additional support,” Wade says.

Focusing on students’ needs

Understanding must also be extended to students who can’t attend synchronous classes because of time zone differences or limited access to technology. “Students are not penalized if they can’t connect,” Wade says. “Faculty members record and post their classes. There is quite a bit of flex.” 

Kristin Phillips, a senior lecturer in anthropology, says she considers what health or financial difficulties her students might be grappling with alongside their coursework, and if they have the technological access to make it work.

“I appreciated the communications coming to faculty from the College to be as human as possible in this re-design,” she says. “The victories feel really good. I've tried to tighten the learning expectations for the class and also the assignment structures. The participation, both written and in Zoom class, has been really engaged and students are coming well-prepared.” 

Emory College is assisting faculty who teach graduate classes as well. Jim Hoesterey, associate director of the graduate Division of Religion, says the support has been invaluable. 

“The students have many frustrations at this point, but Zoom has offered, perhaps ironically, a sort of human connection in online class, and especially during office hours, where ‘Emory Together’ feels like much more than a slogan,” he says.

Most challenging, Wade says, are performance and studio classes like art, music and dance, and lab-based courses. “But I will say, faculty members are making it work, figuring out creative solutions and really interesting integration.”

“I’ve worked longer hours over the past month than I probably ever have, and I’m tired,” says Wade, who also has three children at home — ages 5, 8 and 10 — that she is home schooling around work projects. “For a situation I wish none of us have had to experience, it has also been one of the most encouraging and fulfilling times I’ve ever had professionally. 

“I’ve never been more impressed by Emory. It’s inspiring to watch everyone do what needs to be done. Just quick, nimble responses to whatever comes up, with a real focus on students.”