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Thoughts of campus during online education

Posted by scott.weybright | May 12, 2020

CAHNRS faculty and students share their thoughts about online education

Summarizing the impact of WSU President Kirk Schulz’s announcement earlier this spring about moving from in person to online courses isn’t easy. From students to faculty, the response to online learning due to Covid-19 varied greatly and emotions ran high in the days that preceded spring break. During this time, students rushed to say goodbye to their friends, seniors tried to soak up the last few days on their beloved WSU campus, and faculty and staff worked tirelessly to adjust their classes for online learning and gave their best advice to their students one last time in person for the semester.

Now, with the end of the spring semester, there is a chance to look back on the last seven weeks and analyze just how online learning compares to in-person education, and how we reacted as a university, a family, and as individuals.

Chalk message "Congrats 2020 Grads" written on pavement on WSU campus.
Inspirational message on a near-empty WSU campus.

The student perspective

After the announcement of online learning, students had to make a variety of decisions. Some stayed in Pullman, others went home, others started full-time jobs early, and yet others began part-time jobs to support their families. The transition wasn’t always smooth and balancing these responsibilities became difficult for some.

“We had to create an entirely new schedule,” explains Hallie Galbreath, a Agricultural Food and Business Economics major who just graduated. “For me, it’s been interesting because now I’m at home working for my dad on the farm. Trying to work and fit in classes at certain times, sometimes that means sitting in the tractor on my class.”

The students had to adapt. Whether that was with their schedules or their learning styles, they had to figure out how to learn in different ways. They no longer had their classmates to learn with and many did not have as easy access to professors.

While it was tough for some students to adjust, they have been able to thrive once their schedules were adjusted and set. For many like Hallie, this meant working on a family farm while taking classes. For other others, this meant rising to the challenge and learning how to balance their various priorities.

For Luke Williams, senior Agricultural Economics major, he found success by constructing an entirely new schedule that fit in his work, classes, and extra free time. While he adjusted to this balance, he still missed his walk to campus and the structure that comes with in-person education but was excited about the prospect of setting his own timeline every day.

“It’s hard without a rigid schedule,” Williams says. “It’s nice because I am able to be more flexible in my personal life but it’s tougher because my focus is not 100% on school like it would be in a regular school year.”

Williams, who just graduated, understood the importance of staying focused and managed to do so even during tough stretches. He and Galbreath are excited to enter the workforce over this summer. This experience has shown them that they can adapt and push through the challenges that life may throw at them, a skill that will be invaluable during their future careers.

For younger students, this transition caused concern for their classes next semester. Julia Layland, freshman in Agricultural Education, said her welding class and lab were originally to help set her up for her advanced welding class next semester. Now, she does not know how she’ll do in the advanced class when she doesn’t have the basic skills normally taught in her current class.

“Several of my classes are so lab heavy that I have to go back and compound on those skills that were supposed to be learned,” Julia explains. “I think it’s going to be a big challenge.”

Sophomore Agricultural Education major Nicole Snyder shares Laylan’ds concerns, and agrees that the transition back to in-person education may be difficult in the fall. She has felt the loss throughout this semester in her Biology 107 class, where she was unable to perform experiments which are well known by students who have taken this class.

The largest impact felt by students falls with being unable to learn alongside classmates and friends.

“I am a super social learner and the social aspect of school is motivating to me,” Galbreath said. “I learn better from other people and not being able to have that has made it difficult to stay motivated, but also trying to relearn how to learn new information on my own has been tough.”

This lack of connection has been slightly lessened with the help of Zoom, Facetime, phone calls, texts, and other long-distance activities. For every student who misses their friends and classmates, there is another student to pick up the phone and call them. What this time has showed us is the importance of personal connection; the ability to bounce ideas off another person, the chance to ask questions in class, the opportunity to struggle through homework together, and the simple act of being in the same room as friends to learn about something. Regardless of distance, Cougs will find a way to still connect and thrive in whatever situation they find themselves in.

"Go Cougs" written in chalk on the Terrell Mall on campus.
More inspiration on campus.

From the faculty’s eyes

 Students are not the only ones who faced transition this spring, faculty had to adjust as well. After spending eight weeks teaching in classrooms, getting to know their students, and hosting office hours that were well used, faculty had all this taken away and felt the strain just as much as their students did.

“I love teaching, I love my students, I love my content – but teaching and learning in the middle of a global pandemic has been one of the most challenging aspects of my academic career,” said Caitlin Bletscher, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Human Development. “As faculty, this is the time when our rubrics, our grading, our assignments are not the bottom line: compassion, grace, and understanding is our bottom line.”

Bletscher was one of many faculty throughout CAHNRS who felt the shift in their teaching styles and in the way they helped their students. Holly Henning-Yeager, a clinical assistant professor in CAHNRS who teaches a senior capstone classes in Agricultural and Food Systems, saw a variety of successes and difficulties as she strove to serve her students.

“I had some anxiety about how to manage the technology, specifically helping students who are not able to join during class time,” Yeager said. “The transition to online teaching offered new challenges and a quick learning curve with the technology. It also offered new opportunities to work with each of the student teams to find ways to work remotely.”

Yeager taught her class of seniors to be adaptive with the changing situation and to stay focused at the tasks at hand. While Yeager worked directly with her students, CAHNRS Associate Dean of Academic Programs Rich Zack did his best to help students and faculty transition in this time and had a bird’s eye view of all that was happening within his department. He helped facilitate trainings for faculty and encouraged them to do their best.

“We have had to learn new ways of doing things and we have had to learn fast. For some, they had to change how they teach in ways that they never would have considered,” Zack said. “Most have risen to the challenge and have done a magnificent job at it.”

On a human level, regardless of success or failures with the transition, the one-on-one atmosphere and tight-knit community of WSU cannot be replaced over the internet. Faculty miss their students, and students miss their teachers. Overall, however, the situation has taught us how to be flexible, to communicate better, and to appreciate all that we have in front of us.

“I do think that this experience will make a lot of us stronger and will make us realize that life and our times together are very precious and should not be squandered,” Zack said.

Some things can’t be replaced

Despite the challenges, our Cougar nation has rose to the task at hand and, while there have been hardships, students have still been able to learn, and faculty have been able to teach. CAHNRS is proud of the way faculty and students have adjusted, and there are things both have learned this semester that can be implemented to better in-person education. There are, however, some things that simply cannot be replaced by online education.

For Layland, the simple ability to see people from around the world is something she cannot replace in her small logging community in western Washington. She loves walking across campus to her classes seeing people from around the world, from different cultures and different walks of life. This college has not only given her the chance to pursue a great major but has expanded her horizons in ways she never thought possible.

Through all these ups and downs, our faculty and staff has found ways to make it through. Communication about expectations has increased, students have learned how to prioritize their time, and faculty has gained invaluable skills that can be taken back to the classroom. Maybe this semester didn’t turn out as expected, but we have finished the school year stronger and more resilient than ever. If anything, our community has been brought closer together while being miles apart.

“Our students are strong, our faculty are strong, our staff are strong, Bletscher said. “We are resilient, Coug Nation – let us lift one another up in support, empower those who are struggling. For me, the end of the semester is not the time to stay silent, not the time to throw our hands up in the air and say ‘Thank God that’s over! Instead, it is the time to check up on our most vulnerable. Check in on your friends, colleagues, and peers. Check in on those living alone, check in on those who had to grab an extra job, check in on those that had to move home with their families, check in on those that lost a loved one. Now is our time to be proactive.”