Whitman faculty call on creativity and innovation to bring online learning to life
Ranked as the best liberal arts college in the Northwest, Whitman College is famed for its challenging academics, deep community engagement and the way it uniquely empowers students to create their best life.
And that’s thanks in large part to Whitman’s renowned faculty and the supportive relationships they build with their students.
But last spring, when COVID-19 forced the college to move to online learning, professors had to ask: How do we translate Whitman’s robust academic programming, community-building and close connections to a virtual format?
The answer: You rely on the very skills that liberal arts colleges teach. You elicit creativity, critical thinking and the ability to adapt and think on your feet as the world shifts around you.
Taking a liberal arts education—that’s known for rigorous discussion and hands-on learning—and moving it online is no easy feat. In the spring, Professor Helen Kim, associate dean for Faculty Development, and David Sprunger, director of Institutional and Learning Technologies, led that effort, and they did it with an eye toward flexibility.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to online teaching, Kim said. Faculty members are encouraged to use the resources and tools that best fit their work, whether that’s using the college’s online learning platform, hosting live classes via Zoom or Google Meet, or posting recorded lectures so students can view them on their own time.
For courses that are traditionally hands-on, the challenges were even greater, and the college needed to allow professors 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.
In biology, Assistant Professor Michael Coronado used OBS (open broadcast software) to record lectures over PowerPoint presentations. He also taught his colleagues how to use the software. 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. For the spring semester, Coronado moved 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.
Lab Work via Video
Associate Professor Dalia Biswas took a different approach for her organic chemistry labs. Biswas recorded her experiments, turning each three-hour lab class into a 15-minute video. The experiment videos were accompanied by a 40-minute pre-lab lecture held via Zoom and an online quiz and protocol video that were posted online. Her videos showed how to set up the protocol—what glassware to use and why, what chemicals to use, how to measure them and how to add them.
“I documented every single thing I could,” said Biswas. Her daughter, a senior in college who also had to move to online learning, assisted with filming, as did Visiting Associate Professor Ruth Russo, who also taught organic chemistry in the spring.
After watching the video, the students had to complete an in-depth conclusion sheet and do post-experiment data analysis. Biswas crafted the sheets to encourage the students to carefully observe the steps in the video.
Watching an online video of a lab isn’t the same as doing it yourself, Biswas acknowledged. But she hopes that the exposure to the process and skills will be a solid base that students can build on in later, more advanced labs.
“The big problem is they’re not in the lab—so they’re watching everything. I don’t know how much that translates into actual skills. It’s like cooking: If you watch a cooking show, versus doing it in the kitchen,” Biswas said. “You can kind of see what to do, and get an idea. But having a bit more practice is essential to fine-tune your skill set.”
Biswas served on the college’s subcommittee for online teaching and learning, and shared what she learned about filming labs with her colleagues, as well as how she set up her courses on the college’s learning platform.
When it comes to online learning, Whitman students who were surveyed said they appreciate faculty being there for them, having clear course organization and communication, Biswas said. “Students are getting loads of things from all over the place. At least we can organize the information in a way that’s easy.”
Filming labs and editing together the videos takes an enormous amount of time. Biswas said each lab took her probably 20 hours to put together.
Over the summer, Associate Professors Marion Götz and Mark Juhasz filmed labs for their organic chemistry courses—preparing for online learning in the fall.
“You’ve got to make sure that every step is visible as you’re working with your hands,” Götz said.
And while she agreed that watching lab work isn’t as effective as doing it yourself, she also heard from many students in the spring who appreciated video labs.
“My students said that sometimes you just need to pause a video, if your head is getting too full and you find yourself no longer paying attention, and rewind it and watch it one more time,” Götz said.
Rocks in the Mail? Why Not?
Some things just can’t be replicated on a screen. That’s where Geology faculty and staff stepped up to give students hands-on learning. Professor Kirsten Nicolaysen, Professor Pat Spencer, Associate Professor Nick Bader and Geology Technician Elliot Broze ’12 gathered hundreds of pounds of samples over the summer to create rock and mineral kits for geology students, from those in introductory classes to more advanced courses, for Fall semester.
As part of this effort, Nicolaysen spent time in Wyoming, with academic colleagues from the University of Montana and Montana State University, “to collect world-class samples of rare rock that speak to Earth’s earliest history,” she said. With direction on the teaching goals, Broze worked for about a month solid assembling the kits, ensuring each student got a quality set of material.
“A lot of these minerals look different depending on various tiny condition changes that happened when they were formed,” said Broze, who has a master’s degree in geology. “A lot of the work was trying to get similar sets.”
Nicolaysen also wanted her students in GEOL 405: Volcanoes and the Solid Earth to be able to examine their samples under a microscope, as they would if they were on campus. But there was one problem—the microscopes cost upwards of $8,000 each. So, beginning in June, Nicolaysen set her sights on a microscope solution that could be built from less expensive components. Because of her innovative approach, students received all the materials they needed to create their own home lab microscope of sorts, as well as glass-mounted slides of thin rocks and physical samples.
All these details took time, sourcing, testing and tenacity, but it was a win for students, according to the team. “It’s a really good replication of what we normally would have done,” said Nicolaysen, who has since created a presentation for the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers to share how low-tech “microscopes” can be an effective and economical teaching solution.
Leaning Into Online Teaching
Theresa DiPasquale, Gregory M. Cowan Professor of English Language & Literature, understands the disappointment her students are facing.
“I’m one of the people who really wants very desperately to teach in person,” said DiPasquale, who has been teaching for nearly 30 years. But despite never having taught online before, she embraced the new format to the benefit of her students.
“With the respect to the online switch, her class was the best,” said Nammy Kasaraneni, a senior and physics major from San Jose, California, who was enrolled in DiPasquale’s 200-level special topics literature course, called Many Magicks. “She started talking about how we would be exploring the ‘magic’ of technology,” Kasaraneni said.
Like her colleagues in the sciences, DiPasquale found that prepping her online courses was deceptively time-consuming.
To make it easier on students, DiPasquale adjusted the syllabus to reduce works that were hard for students to access and leaned more heavily on her expertise in Renaissance literature.
The positive impact of DiPasquale’s approach showed up in her course evaluations, with one student writing: “I thought the amount of expertise that was brought to the course was one of those rare moments in college where everything just lines up perfectly. By far the most fun class I have taken at Whitman. What a joy.”
Making Online Learning Accessible
From the beginning of online learning, Whitman faculty and staff worked diligently to make sure the education students received was not just excellent, but also accessible. That meant providing laptops for those who didn’t have them, connecting students with resources for free internet and ensuring that video or audio materials were captioned, and that documents could be read by screen-readers and other assistive devices.
“There was great attention to creating accessible documents or converting documents so that they were accessible,” said Antonia Keithahn, assistant director of Disability Support Services. “It was neat to see a lightbulb moment for those who didn’t understand some elements of digital accessibility before.”
Keithahn works with students who need accommodations in the classroom because of documented learning or physical disabilities. That could mean extra time for testing, or the assistance of note-takers. In online learning, some challenges are easier to fix than others. Captioning and creating accessible documents is easy. Helping a student work through an anxiety disorder during a pandemic is harder.
“Some students really were able to demonstrate their interest, their engagement and their deep ponderings in an online space in ways they might not have been able to in the classroom,” Keithahn said. “For others, it was just the opposite.”
A Tech-Bright Future
Keithahn is excited to see how the heightened awareness of accessibility issues and how students engage differently in physical and virtual spaces changes the way faculty approach their classes.
“I’m really hopeful that people are able to see ways in which this can really be a positive and can increase the types of engagement that students have,” Keithahn said.
DiPasquale liked the way she saw students engage deeply with the material in her online class. In fact, she plans to continue using some elements of her approach once classes resume in person —for example, using discussion boards to allow students to dig in and explore a topic with each other.
“You know how Gen Z students, even when they’re sitting next to each other, they text each other? Why wouldn’t we do that in class? Why wouldn’t we want to do that?” DiPasquale said. “I think there are ways to use that technology in the classroom.”
She thinks that it’s important as an institution to embrace the technology and the times—to help students grow, connect and develop their resiliency.
“Going through this together with their peers, with the staff of Whitman, and the faculty of Whitman, is building a kind of intellectual and emotional community that you couldn’t get any other way,” DiPasquale said. “You wouldn’t choose it. But sometimes a crisis does help you grow.”