In-person to online: instructors prepare to switch courses mid-semester

Online education has been around for almost two decades. Switching a course from in-person to online, however, is a new experience for students and instructors.

“I told my students, this is an adventure and we’re in it together,” said Nancy Irlbeck, a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. “That’s the attitude we need to have, find the positive side and be flexible. We know students can get a high-quality education with online education.”

Portrait photo of Irlbeck
Nancy Irlbeck

Irlbeck, who is currently teaching Companion Animal Nutrition (AS 205) and Animal Nutrition (AS 314), has been teaching online classes since 2002, and is a huge fan. But there are differences compared to classroom teaching.

“Switching to online halfway through is new and requires creativity, but our students are used to communication online,” Irlbeck said. “Instead of quizzes, we’ll now have discussions that earn participation points. If students don’t respond, they don’t get points. It’s all about keeping them engaged in the learning process.”

She’s also been talking with Animal Science colleagues, who are diving into the new experience of teaching online.

“There’s a great can-do attitude I’ve seen in our department, and I assume is going on across the college and university as well,” Irlbeck said. “We will do all we can do to give students their tuition-dollar-worth of knowledge.”

For other instructors, the adaptation varies heavily based on the course. For instance, Robby Cooper, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development, teaches Family Interactions (HD 204) to 43 students and Diversity in Contemporary Families (HD 350) to 112 students this semester.

“204 is mostly content, doing lectures and giving exams,” Cooper said. “But 350 is heavily discussion based. I’m having to get creative, revamping discussion assignments to fit Blackboard (WSU’s online course-management application).”

That revamping is helped by the students already doing much of their work in small groups. Each class, different students will lead their group discussion as part of their grade. They’ll have more responsibilities on Blackboard on days they lead the discussion, Cooper said.

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Robby Cooper

But while he’s modifying some of the coursework for online interactions, he considered feedback from students for some of the changes.

“I asked if they would rather switch from a group project to writing a paper as the largest portion of their grade,” Cooper said. “And they overwhelmingly voted for the group project. They’ve been in their groups since the third week of the semester, and they didn’t want to lose that collaborative experience.”

And while the switch is unusual, online instruction isn’t new for him.

“We know online teaching works, we do it all the time,” he said.

But for instructors who haven’t taught online before, this is a learning experience.

“I am so grateful WSU’s AOI (Academic Outreach and Innovation) for the instruction they’ve made available,” said Holly Henning Yeager, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “I’m very used to teaching and coaching in small groups in person, but the online experience is new for me. But I’m excited about what I’ve learned so far.”

Yeager is teaching the senior capstone course for students earning a degree in Agricultural and Food Systems (AFS 401), which requires working in small groups and close interaction with industry or Extension professionals.

“We’re very fortunate in that the students have already done their site visits with their industry partners,” Yeager said. “Now I’m working out how to make sure they get the most out of this course, stay engaged, and finish their projects with their partners.”

“Online teams need a little more structure than in-person teams, where I can watch their interactions,” she said. “But there’s no doubt collaborating online for this class will be applicable in their careers. And they’ll have a great story to tell in their first job, or even in future job interviews.”

And though the students will still learn and earn the credits they’re working toward, the instructors know that students will miss the in-person experience.

“In our last class physically together, they were mourning the loss of Mom’s Weekend and having only two hours instead of two months to say goodbye to friends,” Yeager said. “And I teach graduating seniors, it’s not an ideal way for anyone to finish their college experience. But it shows the adaptability of not only the students, but my fellow faculty members, and the university. We’ll make this as positive an experience as we can.”