UT Learns to Zoom
On the first day of online classes, faculty and students adjust to a new kind of classroom. Pajamas allowed.
by jesse fox mayshark • March 24, 2020
Nursing professor maria hurt, second from left, asks students to identify the errors in a written order for medication during her virtual class on Monday.
Maria Hurt’s students started showing up early for her 1:30 p.m. nursing class on Monday, hanging around and waiting for their professor.
More than 39,500 people participated in 2,500 Zoom meetings across the UT System yesterday.
They chatted and said hi to each other in the usual way of college students returning from spring break, but with one big difference: They weren’t in the same classroom or even in the same state. They were logging in from computers in houses and apartments scattered across the country.
“You know what, I hate Zoom,” one student sighed, her face flickering onto the screen as the popular meeting software identified her as the person speaking at that moment.
Like it or not, Zoom and other online tools like the educational software Canvas are the new academic reality for University of Tennessee students for the rest of the spring semester. Monday was the first day of systemwide online learning following last week’s break, and overall UT Knoxville officials reported a success.
“Today, more than 39,500 people joined almost 2,500 Zoom meetings across the UT System,” UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman posted online Monday afternoon. “While I’m sure there were some glitches, I’m incredibly proud of the dedication and hard work from everyone who made today successful.”
Those virtual classes were the result of harried work by faculty and staff to bring to life a promise made a mere two weeks ago when UT officials announced that all classes would move online after spring break.
Like many universities, UT has offered distance learning courses for years in some programs. But it has never tried to offer all of its courses online at once.
“What just happened over spring break was a heroic effort,” said Misty Anderson, a professor of English and past president of the UT Knoxville Faculty Senate. She said professors within and across departments traded ideas and approaches, with those experienced in distance learning sharing tips with colleagues who were just getting up to speed. The university’s office of Teaching and Learning Innovation also posted online resources.
Some professors are doing live instruction via Zoom, others are pre-recording lectures or slideshows. Hurt, a clinical assistant professor in UT’s College of Nursing, did both. She created a voiceover PowerPoint presentation covering some of Monday’s class material and sent it to students ahead of time to watch before class.
From Plan A to Plan B
Hurt had assisted in distance learning classes before, conducted over closed-circuit TV, and she had used the Zoom app for meetings, though not for instruction.
“It’s not all new to me,” she said in an interview Saturday as she was finishing preparations for her Monday classes. This semester she is teaching two sections of the same class, a clinical course for junior nursing majors, 123 students in all. Until yesterday, they met in classrooms on campus.
Hurt said when the announcement of the move online first came, she braced her students for it.
“I sent out an encouraging announcement to all my students saying, things are changing but we’re going to do this together,” she said.
She also reminded them that flexibility is an essential quality in their chosen field. “As a nurse, you’re going to have to have Plan A and Plan B and probably a Plan C,” Hurt said. “At some point, the wheels are going to come off.”
No wheels came off during her afternoon class yesterday. A few students reported problems here and there with internet connections and audio quality, but Hurt was able to present slides with academic material and assign group work with little technical difficulty.
She began the class with an extended discussion of the novel situation she and her students were all in. Hurt asked students to turn on their video, so she could see them, and mute their microphones except when they wanted to chime in on something. The students were mostly casually dressed, sitting at tables and desks in what appeared to be bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms. A few were eating. One had a cat in his lap.
“Whatever you need to do, folks, that’s healthy to cope with stress,” Hurt assured the group. “If it’s to stay in PJs all one day, that’s cool.” She herself wore pajamas during her morning session to help break the virtual ice; for the afternoon class, she added a blouse printed with images of cranes, which she explained to the students symbolize health and longevity in some Asian cultures.
Hurt talked about her own spring break, which she mostly spent working on her flower and vegetable garden. She asked the class what they had done on their breaks.
“I just kind of basically want to take the temperature of my students and how you guys are doing,” she said.
The students responded via the Zoom chat function, typing short messages announcing news both happy (two reported engagements) and less so (one lost her job as a clogger at a Pigeon Forge attraction because of the falloff in tourism). Several said they had had to cancel vacation plans, but others reported trips to Mexico and other destinations. They were now home or with family, since the UT campus is off limits for the rest of the semester.
Hurt then gave them a quick talk on the novel coronavirus and connected it to their studies.
“I'm not sure how many of you all know that I was in public health for a couple of years,” she said. “ And my job was to do just what we're doing now, which is to prepare for disaster.”
She urged the students to rely on sound, scientific resources about the virus, adding, “Please avoid Facebook or Tik Tok as valid sources of information.”
And then it was time for academics, with Hurt displaying slides showing information and soliciting answers to questions. Later in the class came the teamwork assignment — usually done on paper by students sitting at adjacent desks, but Monday conducted via a shared Google Document.
Pluses and Minuses
At the end of the class, Hurt reminded the students they have only one more class session this semester, since April will be given over to studying and testing.
“I’m really glad you all showed up,” she said. “Thank you for your attention, your diligence. Keep helping each other out.”
Her closing slide was an image of Spock from Star Trek, giving the “Live Long and Prosper” Vulcan salute.
In a conversation after the class, Hurt said she thought it had gone well although the digital remove created some built-in barriers.
In person, she said, “It’s much easier to read them, read their body language, engage them. You sense their energy much better.”
She said the Chat function was difficult to keep an eye on, with more than 60 students chiming in, while she was also conducting class. She could only view the screens of a small group of students at a time, so she rotated through them periodically to make sure they all seemed to be paying attention.
“For me personally, I like teaching in the flesh,” Hurt said. “But I wouldn’t mind a hybrid class,” with both in-person and remote sessions.
Anderson said different faculty will have different experiences during the coming weeks, depending on their subject areas and their familiarity with the technology.
She’s teaching a graduate seminar this semester in 17th and 18th century theater, and she already had all her materials loaded onto Canvas, the online “learning management system” used by both K-12 and college teachers.
Anderson envisions creative possibilities for the virtual classroom.
“In some cases where we would have read an essay by a literary critic, we’ll still read that essay, but maybe also have a Zoom meeting with that critic,” she said.
In a note to faculty Monday afternoon, R.J. Hinde, UT Knoxville’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, praised them for their resilience.
“In the future,” Hinde wrote, “we will look back on this period and remember that this is when our Volunteer values kept us together as a community even as we are temporarily spread across the state, the country, and beyond.”