A panoramic image of Lakum Duckum
Lakum Duckum and campus are quiet this spring as the college moves to online learning. (Archive photo)

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Spring break looked different at Whitman College this year, as it did around the country — and the world.

During a time when faculty members would normally be digging into research, leading special trips or even just enjoying a break, instead they were learning new technology and migrating their courses to digital platforms.

President Kathleen MurrayIn response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, on March 12, 2020, President Kathleen Murray announced that Whitman would move to online learning for the remainder of spring semester. With classes restarting March 30, Whitman’s faculty and staff had only two weeks to move their material and prepare students — and themselves — for the unprecedented shift.

“I have never done any online teaching prior to this, so this is a new adventure for me,” said Gary Gemberling, a lecturer and conductor in the Department of Music. “I’m stepping outside my comfort zone and jumping right in.”

That attitude has been displayed across campus as faculty and staff work together to make online learning possible.

“It’s pretty inspiring to see so many people working so hard in such a passionate way to make this happen,” said David Sprunger, director of Institutional and Learning Technologies at Whitman. Sprunger and Professor Helen Kim, associate dean for Faculty Development, led the transition to online learning, along with the college’s academic division chairs.

The work included online webinars to train faculty members on the technology available, with a special emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility. While Whitman College has never offered online courses, some faculty brought online teaching experience with them from other institutions or organizations. They shared that expertise with the greater community, Kim said.

“We wanted faculty and staff to learn from people who are already on campus who may have had some experience with online teaching, or have used the platforms in their face-to-face classes enough that they could impart some good nuts and bolts for faculty. For many, this is all just totally brand new,” Kim said.

Sprunger and Kim also worked with their teams to create a “home base” of online learning resources for both faculty and students. These go-to resources provide answers to frequently asked questions and links to other tools to improve the online learning experience. 

Building in Flexibility

Taking a liberal arts education online is no easy feat, particularly one known for rigorous discussion and hands-on learning. But Kim said the team approached the effort with an eye toward flexibility. There is no “one size fits all” approach, and faculty are able to use the resources and tools that best fit the work, Kim said, whether that’s using the Canvas learning platform, hosting live classes via Zoom or Google Meet, or posting recorded lectures that allow students to complete material on their own time. Some faculty are even mailing materials to students’ homes. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that more hands-on courses don’t translate into a digital platform, and the college needed to allow faculty members to reinterpret learning goals and decide what’s possible.

“It’s very clear that the rules and opportunities in online learning often differ a lot from in-person learning, and we should be integrating what’s actually possible to do into our online classes in pedagogically sound ways,” Sprunger said.

For each division and subject, faculty have learned to take different approaches.

In the Department of Music, Gemberling has moved his 15 students taking trumpet lessons into Zoom conferences.

“I had two lessons this morning, and they seemed to go well,” Gemberling said Monday afternoon. “I have students in every time zone in the U.S. My approach will be to pick up where we left off before break, set goals for the remainder of the semester and beyond, and help prep them for their final playing exam.”

Gemberling said the department has worked to find students practice space, and he’s given out mutes they can use at home.

“We will work together to continue to grow as musicians and individuals as we incorporate a sense of flexibility and use the resources we do have available,” Gemberling said. “In the end, we will be better people and appreciate each other more.”

Changing Approach in Science

In biology, Assistant Professor Michael Coronado is using OBS (open broadcast software) to record lectures over PowerPoint presentations. The resulting presentation feels similar to an in-class lecture.

“I can also easily switch to a chalkboard display to draw pictures and figures. All this can happen while I am displaying my face/body on the slide so students can see my emphasis and facial expression,” Coronado said. 

But labs pose more of a challenge. Coronado is moving his lab sections to a case study/data analysis approach.

“Data analysis labs involve providing students with a data set they would have normally generated in lab that they will analyze and interpret,” he said. “These are important skills to learn in the sciences and can still be developed in this new online format.”

While it will work for him, he acknowledges it’s not doable for all his colleagues. That’s something the college acknowledges, but Kim and Sprunger said faculty and students have been flexible and understanding about the unprecedented space we’re in globally. Faculty are also being flexible about the amount of stress students are under as they try to complete the semester at a distance.

“Students are now all across the country/world and facing an extremely challenging situation with COVID-19,” Coronado said. “This will make taking courses even more challenging, because they will be balancing the new course material while also helping with family and dealing with sickness.”

In This Together

While many are mourning a loss of normalcy, canceled events and interrupted expectations of what college would look like, Whitman is working to provide as many resources as possible, both for the students who remain on campus and those who were able to go home. 

The Penrose Library launched a chat function allowing students to talk with a librarian seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s also pulling together other digital resources so student can digitally access full-text copies of materials.

Other student services are also going remote, including tutoring, academic coaching and disability support from the Academic Resource Center, and writing support from the Center fOr Writing and Speaking. The Student Engagement Center also continues to provide career and internship resources via digital conferencing.

The Welty Student Health Center and Counseling Center are also doing what they can to reach students remotely, with telehealth and teletherapy resources being made available where possible. The college also launched a daily newsletter, Whitman Today, to keep students, staff and faculty informed about changes and resources.

“I’m enormously grateful that we have Google Meet and Zoom meetings to help us continue our work, I genuinely look forward to the day when we can share the same physical space and have our conversations face to face,” President Kathy Murray said in a video message to launch the semester. “This return from spring break is unlike any other we’ve experienced at Whitman. … (But) I’m confident that we can live out our commitment to teaching and learning over these next seven weeks.”