An Inside Look at Brockport’s New Normal: Focus on Faculty
Faculty members are working outside of the box to provide their students a high-quality education during an unexpected semester.
Last spring, faculty at SUNY Brockport transitioned from face-to-face instruction to an online format because of COVID-19. Nearly seven months later, most faculty members are still offering online instruction, but face-to-face lectures and labs have resumed for the fall semester — only they look a little different.
Four faculty members share how they’ve adapted their curriculum this semester to fit a virtual world.
Professor of Environmental Science & Ecology
Professor Chris Norment teaches Wildlife Ecology, a combined lecture and lab course. While most professors have moved towards a hybrid classroom that involves a face-to-face lecture with half of the students in person and the other half watching online, Norment decided on a different approach. He still needed to split his class in half because of COVID protocol, with only one lecture per week and the other course day dedicated to asynchronous learning, such as writing prompts, guided readings, and practice exam questions.
Norment also holds a weekly four-hour lab for the class, split into two groups. Half of the students attend in person for the first two hours and the other half the latter two hours. The students can use the additional two hours to work on their classwork and travel to and from the field. Norment offered a virtual lab last semester but found it hard to adapt.
“To me, environmental science is about interacting directly with organisms, and that is just not part of the virtual world,” Norment said. “Last semester, I had tried to create interactive activities for the class online, but it always ended up feeling like another lecture.”
The switch back to in-person field research didn’t come without its fair share of challenges in today’s world. Norment needed to adapt the labs to follow College and SUNY protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which included students needing their own method of transportation to the field, social distancing, wearing face coverings, and more.
“I think everything the College has done so far to make all this happen is impressive,” Norment said. “While it is a massive undertaking, it feels like everyone has bought in, including the students most of all. I haven’t had any issues with telling students to wear their masks.”
For their most recent field research, Norment’s class visited the John White Wildlife Management Area. In a typical year, the students would set up the experiment and data collecting equipment on their own, but due to COVID protocol involving consistent disinfecting of equipment and social distancing, the students wouldn’t have been able to properly set up the research in the necessary time while also gathering data. In spite of constraints and restrictions, Norment is doing what he believes is best for his students’ education.
“Everything going on does constrain the types of projects you can do, but my colleagues and I are still able to make it work,” Norment said. “We are still able to go out in the world and conduct our research, which is what our students truly enjoy.”
Adjunct Lecturer of Music
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning that the COVID-19 virus can be spread through the airborne transmission of droplets that can stay in the air for multiple hours, Adjunct Lecturer Elizabeth Banner knew that the College-Community Chorus was going to need to innovate in order to continue singing together.
Banner turned to SmartMusic, an education software that helps educators practice, record, and synchronize the students’ singing through a web-based platform.
“A few of the College’s ensembles are still allowed to meet in person since they are not at risk of transmitting the virus if they maintain protocol,” Banner said. “The choir doesn’t have that luxury, so we needed to turn to technology to keep us singing.”
SmartMusic allows students the opportunity to sing together virtually. While the classmates are unable to hear each other, they can hear Banner playing music alongside a recording of the musical piece from a professional choir. SmartMusic also offers students the option to hear only specific sections of a choir, listen to their recordings, and set a musical piece on a loop so they can focus on practicing a specific portion.
“There are certain benefits to using a program like SmartMusic that we normally wouldn’t have,” Banner said. “It allows students to practice on their own and bring that experience to class, and the program allows me to hear each student’s voice individually, which isn’t possible in person when the entire choir is singing all at once.”
While SmartMusic has allowed the choir to continue under unusual circumstances, it cannot replicate the experience of a choir singing together: the bond the choir forms while performing together, listening to each other sing, and learning about each other’s strength and weaknesses. While Banner hopes the choir will meet in person later this academic year, she often stresses to her students that the important part is that they are still singing.
“I told all my students that while I know this isn’t what they signed up for, but we have to keep a positive attitude,” Banner said. “The important part is we are singing, and if we can’t sing together, we have to do the best we can right now for when we are finally able to.”
Chair and Associate Professor of Computing Sciences
Associate Professor Mehruz Kamal is currently teaching a course more relevant now than ever before: Life in the Digital Age.
Kamal teaches the course using a hybrid format, where a portion of the students attend face-to-face lectures while the rest attend online, rotating daily. This involves her setting up a camera that captures a video of her in-person lecture that is live-streamed to the students who are virtually attending. This method of teaching still allows students to attend face-to-face lectures with enough space for social distancing in the classroom.
One core component of Kamal’s curriculum is in-class discussion. When the campus went virtual last semester, she struggled to keep the quality of the classroom discussions at a high level. She initially tried posting slideshows and encouraged students to discuss openly through a Zoom call, but it wasn’t working as she had hoped. Kamal felt like students were much more reserved in a digital classroom than she had expected, including students that were once vocal face to face.
Dedicated to enhancing the experience of her classroom discussions for the fall semester, Kamal attended an online teaching course offered by Brockport Information & Technology Services (BITS) over the summer.
“The course taught me multiple ways to properly integrate BlackBoard in the virtual classroom, including the chat feature on BlackBoard Collaborate, which saved our in-class discussions,” Kamal said. “The feature allowed some of my more introverted students to participate in discussions using the chat feature when they would normally not participate at all.”
Another tool Kamal learned how to use at the summer course was the online discussion board. This feature allows students to post topics and comment on each other’s posts to further spur discussion.
She also used BlackBoard to administer the course’s midterm exam. In order to reduce the chance of students searching for an answer online or in their notes, Blackboard offers timed exams that only show one question at a time.
“I think that any instructors that are struggling with the transition from face-to-face classes to online learning should reach out to the instructional design unit at BITS,” Kamal said. “Even if it is just to ask a question on how to better engage students in a virtual world or how to administer an exam online, everyone at BITS is there to help.”
Associate Professor of Physics
Associate Professor Zachary Robinson has modified his intro-level physics class to allow students to work on curriculum from home using iOLab carts. The devices are a handheld interactive lab system that shows concepts of physics in action and allows the students to perform experiments outside of a lab setting. The lab system pairs with a software that gathers data and portrays the information through plots and graphs.
“Students rented the iOLabs from the bookstore at the beginning of the semester, and they were able to take them home,” Robinson said. “Our instructors work with a subset of each lab section in the lab itself while the teaching assistants are in the live chat helping the remote students.”
While the iOLab allows the students to run experiments and labs from home, one of Robinson’s most important learning methods was impacted by the hybrid model of teaching. Robinson often poses “clicker” questions to his class in order to begin discussions.
A “clicker” question is a multiple choice prompt that the professor shows to the entire class. Students then answer using their iClicker, which logs responses through a live poll. The questions are generally about physical situations and are meant to address common misconceptions about the way things work.
“I often use clicker questions to start ‘arguments’ between students in class,” Robinson said. “I believe when students are in these situations, it is the highest level of engagement we can have as they try and convince their neighbors they’re right.”
Social distancing and remote learning make it more complicated for the students to easily discuss and argue the results of prompts. Robinson has remedied this by having students engage with their classmates through the chat feature or join separate video calls to discuss the question in small groups.
“With everyone in the classroom I can sort of nudge the students into discussions and arguments, but virtually, I have to put more faith in my students to create these discussions on their own,” Robinson said. “I think it’s safe to say that we will all appreciate being in the same room much more when everyone returns.”