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UMaine professors discuss challenges of remote learning

On March 11, the University of Maine System officials announced that courses would transition to remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester. In addition to the housing, dining and employment changes that many students have experienced, many UMaine faculty members faced the new challenge of teaching courses entirely online. While many teachers had already been using online resources like Blackboard, very few had been teaching their courses exclusively via the internet. The transition has proven a difficult challenge, but UMaine’s faculty have risen to meet it.

Julia McGuire co-teaches a biology course as well as supervises 100-level and 200-level biology labs at UMaine.

“Immediately, [I] was overwhelmed,” McGuire stated. “[I] buckled down and worked together with [the] BIO 100/200 team to come up with a plan to help our students reach the outcomes of the course.”

McGuire shared that she and the rest of the BIO 100/200 team had to completely redesign the BIO 100 labs due to their reliance upon certain lab equipment and materials that students were not anticipated to have at home. She shared that she and her faculty team worked backward from the outcomes and the skills that the students were expected to achieve and created a new lab curriculum that students can do asynchronously over the remainder of the semester.

For McGuire’s BIO 200 course, there was one lab in the curriculum that was already adaptable to asynchronous learning. Fortunately, McGuire saw an opportunity for another lab in the course to learn about COVID-19, which went along with the course’s animal-focused lectures.

Nory Jones, a professor of management information systems at UMaine, stated that there was some modification done to her course curriculums.

“The teams substituted virtual teamwork to complete assignments rather than doing [team projects] in the classroom,” Jones said.

Additionally, exams for her courses were moved to Blackboard, rather than being completed in person.

McGuire described the transition from conventional learning to remote learning in less than two weeks as “an enormous challenge.” Many courses rely on collaborative efforts, and transitioning that coordination to a remote environment proved to be challenging.

“[For my courses the transition] required coordination of two courses across three instructors, one lab coordinator, 12 teachers-assistants, six Maine Learning Assistants (MLAs), one work-study student, and around 500 students,” McGuire said.

Jones stated that the most challenging part of the transition for her would be finding ways to make up for the loss of in-person interactions that occurred in classes for activities like case-studies and team projects.

“Many of my colleagues and I use an active learning, experiential approach, which is difficult to provide remotely,” Jones said.

Jones added that with a positive attitude to take on these new challenges and approaches, she feels as though this could actually be a different, but excellent, learning experience. She feels that being adaptive and finding innovative approaches to conduct remote learning is a great skill, especially in the business world.

“[I hope that] there is also greater respect and appreciation for our incredible UMaine Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) staff,” McGuire said. “They have been instrumental in making this shift online possible and helping keep it focused on a compassionate approach to student learning in this crisis.”

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