In March of this year, the sober reality of the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges across the country to quickly move from on-campus to remote learning. For any college, that would be a significant challenge. But for Arizona State University, the stakes were even higher due to its huge population of over 50,000 students.
Dr. Susan Holechek, a faculty member in ASU’s School of Life Sciences since 2014, found out about the transition during Spring Break and had three days to work with her team to prepare her 450 students for online learning.
Below is an edited version of our conversation with Susan.
What was your first reaction to hearing that you needed to move online in three days?
That we didn’t have a lot of time! Luckily, students had their exams just before spring break so we didn’t need to worry about that. We held a meeting with our entire crew on a Sunday to start getting ready. There was a lot of work behind the scenes to convert a lot of the worksheets and hands-on activities we use in our classes.
What were some of the biggest decisions you had to make?
The most important decision was whether to hold classes in a synchronous or asynchronous mode.
Ultimately, we decided on synchronous and kept our classes and exams at the same times as before. We wanted to mimic the on-campus experience as much as possible.
You are a big believer in “active learning” for your students. How did you manage this remotely?
It’s definitely challenging! Active learning is the key to success in many disciplines, but especially in the biology topics I teach. We have large classes – usually around 450 students – and breaking them into smaller groups for active learning is critical. Once we moved to remote learning, we separated students into different groups. They were certainly nervous about it, but everybody had to jump into action.
Like our class schedules, we did our best to mimic in-person activities. For example, we did a lab on measuring lactose intolerance. I went to the store and bought regular milk and lactose-free milk and then we tested it virtually via webcam. The students participated by entering comments into the chat feature and we examined the similarities and differences between glucose content among the two milks.
As you know, our class also uses an adaptive learning platform.
Adaptive learning plays an important role in successful active learning, especially when the class is online. The software won’t let them move to the next module until they have the knowledge they need to do so – and they love the instant remediation. And as an instructor, it’s very important that I get visibility into what they’re doing.
How have you handled losing the 1:1 interaction with students you normally have?
Normally, I do my best to be present for my students as often as I can – it’s so important for their success. For BIO 340 (Genetics), I hold my office hours online, and break them up into two separate sessions with different agendas for each. Students can solve activities together during these office hours. For BIO 100 (The Living World), students are separated in groups and they interact with each other and the instructors inside their own “breakout room”. This facilitates collaborative learning.
Do you think your move to online learning has been successful?
I definitely do! The feedback I’m getting about my Bio 100 course is that it is one of the classes with the smoothest transition.
I think using the CogBooks platform has played a large role in that. Because we were using CogBooks, nothing changed with that part of the experience since their course materials were already online. My students can check their deadlines the same way and they are already familiar with CogBooks assignments. And the adaptive learning that helps when they’re in class really helps when they’re working remotely.
We couldn’t do active learning if we didn’t have the adaptive learning in CogBooks to support it.
Trying active learning online without CogBooks? I can’t imagine it. Every active learning activity is carefully planned based on what students are learning in CogBooks, and because I can see how they’re learning and where they have gaps, I can adjust the active learning experience or connect with students who need extra help.
One of the favorite features of CogBooks by my students is the “Ask an Instructor” option. It’s helped students feel as though they have access to me, even when they aren’t seeing me in person in the classroom like they used to. I think that connection has helped ease their anxiety about the whole situation.
As an instructor, what gives you the greatest gratification?
That moment when a student tells me they can finally get through an assignment or activity, or even something they see in the news, and they really understand it. The light clicks and they realize why they should care about a topic like photosynthesis. They make real-world connections.
Finally, how are you thinking about the future?
That’s the million dollar question – we just don’t know yet, so I’m telling my team to be prepared for a remote teaching experience this fall. We’ll be creative! Perhaps we’ll send out little packages of lab assignments for students and then do things together.
Many instructors are wary of technology in general and especially adaptive and personalized technology. My message to them is to embrace it!
Adaptive technology keeps my students more engaged and helps me to be an even better instructor.