Ready, Set, Remote

Amanda Durbak teaching remotely
Melody Kroll, Division of Biological Sciences
Biological Sciences

Amanda Durbak is trying to keep things as similar as possible for students in her courses, even as they transition to meeting remotely as part of MU’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Durbak is an assistant teaching professor for the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science. She teaches a large-enrollment, introductory cell-biology course, which consists of three hours of lecture each week and coordinated discussion sessions. She also teaches a writing-intensive science and society course for upper-level students. She has used creativity, flexibility, and a lot of campus tools and technologies to convert both in-person classes to online environments.

Maintaining continuity was an important consideration. During the soft-launch the week before spring break, Durbak moved quickly to shift her lecture to a video conference. She kicked off her first real-time video-conference, or Zoom, session with students in her cell biology course at their regularly scheduled class time the week before spring break. To her delight, 130 of her 180 students showed up for her first Zoom lecture.

For the first half of that class, she said students mainly wanted to talk about the coronavirus.

“A lot of them are pretty freaked out about the coronavirus and all the uncertainty,” Durbak said. “I kept saying, ‘We'll get through this, and there’s always hope.’”

As the lecture continued, however, she started getting questions related to the class topic, which she took as a sign that her students were feeling a bit better.

“We spent the second half of the class reviewing material covered in a pre-recorded lecture. I asked a couple Clicker questions and shared a video about vesicle transport. I even did a live demo using pool noodles,” she said. “Overall, I thought it went smoothly.”

Keeping up with the Changes
Sophomore Morgan Goodnight agreed. She attended Durbak’s cell biology Zoom session from her home in Oklahoma.

“I thought it worked out really well,” Goodnight said. “I didn’t know what Zoom would be like at first or if it would be any different than watching a Panopto lecture. But I enjoyed it. I like that I can easily ask a question right away versus sending an email after watching a video.”

Whereas Zoom presents live lectures and allows for immediate questions and conversations, Panopto lets students view pre-recorded lectures, and they must submit questions via email or another method.

Goodnight said that Durbak’s cell biology class is the only one of her courses that met using Zoom the first week of remote learning. Her other professors posted recorded lectures and slide presentations for students to review. While Goodnight is uncertain what her other classes will look like after spring break, she said she is not concerned.

“I expect that a lot of it will be trial and error, but my professors have been really good at communicating with us and addressing our concerns. I feel like they will figure out a way to be fair and make things work,” she said.

Keep Things as Normal as Possible
Other than using Zoom to meet with students remotely, Durbak said not much else about her cell biology course will change. She had already been recording her class lectures using Panopto and even had a few “flipped” classes, where students had to watch the lectures before coming to class and then doing in-class activities. Durbak said that this flipped format is what she will continue following, but now they will be using Zoom.

Knowing that some students may not have access to a high-speed Internet connection, Durbak is not requiring students to attend the Zoom sessions. She is, however, strongly encouraging them to participate in the iClicker questions, independent of Zoom.

“The clicker questions are great for learning, and I didn’t want to take that learning tool away from them,” she said.      

iClicker is a classroom response system that allows students to use a smartphone, laptop, or remote control to vote in class.  Instructors use so-called clicker questions to poll students in a variety of ways to engage them and assess their learning. Students can access the iClicker questions remotely through an app.

“My weekly quizzes and homework assignments are unaffected because we were already using Canvas,” she said. “As for my exams, they will be online using Canvas Quizzes, which I've done for this class in previous years, so I am confident it will be fine.”

Canvas is yet another educational platform used at MU. It allows instructors to post homework assignments, reading material, and quizzes online for students to download or view.

While Durbak’s goal is to keep things as normal as possible, she admits some things may change over the semester. One thing that won’t change, she said, is her commitment to student learning.

“Some things will have to change, and with some things we will all have to be more flexible, but communication is going to be key to making this work,” she said in an email to her students. “I can't make this virus disappear—as much as I wish I could—but what I can do is try my best to continue to provide you all with the best education I can.”

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