From blackboards to Blackboard: Texas universities ramp up online teaching amid coronavirus pandemic

University of Texas at Austin lecturer Anne Lewis will teach her video editing class remotely during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)
University of Texas at Austin lecturer Anne Lewis will teach her video editing class remotely during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

They’re in training. They spend weekends poking around video conference tools. They’re in online forums asking each other how to hide messy home offices from their student audiences.

Since most students won't be sitting in classrooms in the coming months, professors and faculty at the state’s universities are preparing en masse to start teaching online. While many are used to virtual tools like Zoom or Blackboard, others have spent most of their teaching years in front of actual blackboards, and are nervously embracing the unsettled academic world spawned by the spread of the new coronavirus.

“I saw a lot of posts over the weekend about hiding the chaos of your home office,” said Anne Lewis, an associate professor of practice with the University of Texas at Austin, who’s perused Facebook groups with names like “Pandemic Pedagogy” to prepare. “Somebody else says in the comments, ‘My home office is a corner of my sofa.’”

The transition is marked by uncertainty, especially over how campus officials will reformat labs, art classes and other courses that don’t lend themselves to remote instruction.

But with experts expecting the virus to disrupt the country’s operations for months, Texas colleges are postponing commencements and telling students to go home. Campuses — usually bustling milieus of densely packed lectures, dorms, self-service dining halls and club meetings — are taking precautions to disperse big gatherings, and professors are taking in-person lectures and small group sections and rejiggering them to be delivered through a webcam at home.

Faculty say they’re steeling themselves for a potentially bumpy ride. Some seem excited about the transition and confident in students’ ability to adapt. Others say there is trepidation among colleagues near "the age of retirement" or who are less familiar with online tools.

“The faculty — it’s going to be more of a transition for us” than for students, said Texas A&M University law professor Neal Newman, who teaches small courses on business law topics like securities regulation. “Some faculty are more — quite frankly — more tech savvy than others.”

At a two-hour training for A&M faculty Monday, Newman said the volume of questions was “heavy” — covering everything from how to mute and take attendance to whether students can be broken up into chat rooms for small group discussions.

“They see what this is — this is the reality,” Newman said, of faculty. ”I think the overall attitude is: ‘Let's do the best we can to provide the best educational experience that we can under the circumstances.’”

As for Newman, who ranked his technological capabilities as a 6.5-7 out of 10, he spent last weekend doing a test run in Zoom, and had a colleague dial in as a “mock class.”

“I feel fairly comfortable but, you know, it's hard to simulate game day,” he said. (His first classes were today: they went smoothly, he said.)

Lewis, the UT-Austin professor, says she’s worried not just about the technology, but how her “spontaneous” or ebullient lecture style will translate on a computer screen.

“I like to be with people and feel their body language and know no one’s bored to death. How do you know when you're boring a student if you can't see them or if they're a little tiny box?” she asked.

While she’s planning to record lectures so students can tune in at their convenience, Lewis will ask her class to watch live and participate “so at least I’m not talking into the ether,” she said.

For now, she’s working overtime to redesign production courses in radio, television and film, and trying to meet the needs of students who lack equipment or strong internet.

Many institutions are trying to equip students and train instructors. Baylor University posted a photo of faculty studiously taking notes and watching a presentation with a comment saying they were “hard at work in training sessions… as they prepare to take classes online.”

“If he can make the switch, we all can,” the university tweeted later, about a law school professor who’s taught at Baylor since 1966.

At UTEP, Teacher Education Professor Elena Izquierdo said she’s provided students with laptops she had from a previous grant, and that Charter Communications has offered free broadband and Wi-Fi access to them.

Similarly, instructors at Texas Tech University’s mathematics and statistics department have been so busy recording video lectures of themselves that a schedule had to be set for when each professor could use the media rooms. Magdalena Toda, the department chair, said faculty were rising to the challenge, and the department was able to buy document cameras, and distribute computers, iPads and webcams to graduate students who work as teaching assistants, and some faculty.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said administrators across the country are trying to protect the quality of the online educational experience and ensure students’ in isolated areas have the necessary equipment.

But she thinks the migration “will lead to a level of creativity and innovation in curricula, especially with institutions that have been reluctant to engage in online learning.”

“I think back to what happened with Hurricane Katrina and the institutions that were shut down and how those students were sent elsewhere. Now we have the capacity to keep our institutions open and we need to look at models and best practices and work together to ensure that all students have access to educational excellence,” Pasquerella said.

Still, there are some fields that are ill-fitted for online instruction.

Michael Hubbard, an instructor at Texas State Technical College, is unsure how his hydraulics courses can be taught remotely. While he’s moved lectures online and is staying in touch with his students, there are hands-on labs the students need to be prepared for their next courses. It’s “a lot of math, a lot of disassembly and reassembly of the components so they understand what's happening on the inside,” he said. Each lab has one trainer for every three students who all work “right next to each other,” with more than a dozen in each class.

The technical college has not said courses will move online. “We don't know what else we can do really,” Hubbard said. “We've never run into this before"

Others remain skeptical of the quality of remote or fully online teaching.

One instructor at Northwest Vista College who’s long used online tools to post grades and assignments, said he’s “ambiguous at best” about online teaching even as he’s “going to give it a go” now.

Sitting on campus Wednesday — “it’s like a ghost town” — waiting for an officer to grant him access to his building, instructor Dennis Medina said he’s hearing in conversations about the transition: “Don’t worry about perfection, don’t worry about getting it right. It’s a big learning curve.”

He knows he’ll modify one assignment, a presentation, to grade students more on the aesthetics of their powerpoints than on their oratory skills. Beyond that, he said his first directive to students is going to be: “Email me. Tell me where you are and what’s happening.”

Faculty, like Medina, are also contending with how their own lives have been upended by the outbreak. Medina’s partner owns a dance studio that’s seen business drop precipitously.

Tiffany Rainey, who teaches first-year English at Texas State University, said her husband’s earnings as a ride-share driver have similarly plummeted. She’s also worried a dip in the university’s enrollment next fall — perhaps prompted by the virus — could hurt her employment prospects as an adjunct.

Tech-savvy and a proponent of using online tools in the classroom, she spent her last in-person class having her students log in to Zoom, and has set up a divider in her bedroom so there’s a neutral backdrop behind her when she’s teaching. She may make a separate recording of all her lectures so students without stable WiFi can download them instead of tuning in for a livestream.

For now, Rainey is in seminars hosted by Texas State about “establishing communication guidelines” and “alternatives to lectures for low-tech remote course delivery.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Baylor University, the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas Tech University, Texas State Technical College and Texas State University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.