Learning in the time of coronavirus: Clemson students, faculty adapt to new digital norms

Zoe Nicholson
Greenville News

In mid-March, with the coronavirus outbreak growing worldwide and hundreds of colleges and k-12 schools working to limit the spread of the virus, Clemson announced it was moving instruction online after Spring Break. 

For students, the shift to online courses meant a loss of hands-on learning and a disconnect from their instructors. About 1,200 students disconnected from school altogether for part of the semester, according to a university presentation to the board of trustees. 

For faculty, the switch meant weeks of preparation to move courses online and hurdles in learning how to video conference or how to adjust without at-home internet. 

For all of Clemson – and for colleges nationwide – the past three months likely mean a permanent shift in higher education, and Clemson is wrestling with how those changes will look on campus. 

But to make the move to eLearning happen, Clemson Provost Bob Jones said the university had to first:

  • Move more than 5,000 courses online.
  • Distribute 379 internet hotspots.
  • Distribute 100 laptops to students and faculty.

According to Jones, the library saw 30,000 more accesses of their online resources than 2019 and there were over half a million logins to Canvas, the university's online organization tool. On average, there were 900 Zoom calls a day across the university during the spring semester.  

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Looking ahead, Jones said the university is looking to employ a hybrid model of teaching for the fall, like using recorded lectures and Zoom meetings paired with in-person discussion and activity. Already, the university is fitting 300 classrooms with video cameras so instructors can record their classes for anyone home bound or unable to attend in-person courses, Jones said.

And as the virus continues to wreak havoc across the country, Jones said the university will prepare for a number of scenarios, including all online classes. 

But in the long-run, Jones said the lessons learned from eLearning will change how technology is used and how faculty communicates with students even after the pandemic is over, but students still feel "shorted" on their education. 

'Disconnect' between teachers, classmates 

Clemson's move to online learning wasn't entirely seamless – the university had to track down nearly 1,200 students who had not logged onto any online platforms during the first week of eLearning, Jones said. 

"We have reached every single one of those students to find out what was their problem? What was their connection problem, or are they dropping out of school?" Jones told the board. 

But for students who were plugged in from the beginning, there was still a sense of disconnect.

At the end of her spring semester, Clemson student Ava Nixon logged into a Zoom meeting to perform a scene with a fellow theater major.

But something was missing – mainly, that energetic connection actors and audience members feel during a live stage production. 

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"I think there was a disconnect... you just simply can't make it authentic in the same way that live theater is authentic," the Hilton Head native said. 

The actors in the live-directed scene could change their backgrounds to resemble a stage and look into their laptop cameras to connect with their partner, but the Zoom meeting couldn't make up for the electricity Nixon feels when she's acting live in the theater. 

"It's obviously not the same," she said. "But I think we're making the most of a difficult time."

Jones said the university is working to train faculty on advanced online learning platforms like Zoom and Webex so students can have face-to-face interaction with their instructors, even if it's virtually. 

"We're working to get more and more of that real sense that there's a deep connection going on, even if a lot of it is online," Jones said. 

Andrew Connolly of Clemson works on his homework from R.C. Edwards Middle school, sitting outside the Cooper Library at Clemson University, since her internet is not working at home. Clemson Spring semester students are finishing classes online too, and some will take online classes for a summer session.

Graduating senior Shelby Champion, a biology major, said the move to online learning meant her science lab teachers had to abruptly change their content.

"When we were at school, it was hands-on, we got to work with the plants because I was taking a plant biology lab ... but once they moved to remote learning, it became a lot of Excel stuff, a lot of writing Word documents and stuff like that, and we really didn't get to do the hands-on material," she said. 

Champion thinks she was still able to learn what she needed to in her science courses but said her business minor courses left a lot to be desired. 

She said her marketing professor just assigned textbook readings in lieu of lectures. 

"I really did get shorted in my business classes. But overall, I think the science department did a great job," she said. 

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The university made adjustments to accommodate the move online – it extended the course withdrawal date and offered every course to be graded as pass-no pass, which wouldn't impact a student's grade point average. 

The rates of course "incompletes" or withdrawals were as low as last year, according to data provided by Jones. 

"We thought those withdrawals and incompletes would go way up, and they didn't. And I attribute that – I have no proof – but I attribute that to the grading policy that we put in place," he said. About 12% of spring grades given were counted as pass-no pass, according to an academic report to the board of trustees. 

'Lessons learned' from pandemic will last past COVID-19, provost says

Jones said the move to online has taught faculty, staff and students valuable lessons about how to communicate effectively and efficiently.

"I think this is going to be baked into our learning environment, even though we prefer and will continue to use face-to-face learning and experience learning. We're going to have a better environment when we get back to business as usual," Jones said.

Clemson continues to plan for a return to in-person classes in the fall that would have some aspect of in-person instruction for "almost every course," Jones told the board of trustees in a May meeting.

While it's unknown what exactly instruction will look like at Clemson in the fall, Jones believes the challenges wrought by COVID-19 will have a permanent effect on Clemson and higher education as a whole. 

"I think the general idea of engaging more and more technology (in learning) is going to get a big boost from COVID-19. It's one of the silver linings of this pandemic in higher education... we are going to permanently frame shift," Jones said. 

Sean Connolly of Clemson works on his work outside the Cooper Library at Clemson University, since his internet is not working at home. Clemson Spring semester students are finishing classes online too, and some will take online classes for a summer session.

Looking ahead, Clemson works to learn from past mistakes

Looking toward the summer semester – which is being held entirely online and has about 1,700 more students enrolled than last summer – there are things the university wants to work on, said Anne Marie Rogers, Associate Director of Learning Technology at Clemson. 

Rogers said the university needs to acquire better programs for proctoring exams, or supervising tests to ensure students take them with integrity.

"We want to increase effectiveness with some of our proctor solutions because they're not easy to use, and we really want them to be set up ahead of time and tested out," Roger said. 

Teacher Johanna Connolly of Clemson works on her classwork from Clemson Elementary school, sitting outside the Cooper Library at Clemson University, since her internet is not working at home. Clemson Spring semester students are finishing classes online too, and some will take online classes for a summer session.

Rogers also wants to find better ways for some engineering, math and science instructors to give tests and quizzes online, since Canvas does not suit their high-level equation needs. 

Jones said the university should have those upgraded systems in place by the time fall exams happen. Clemson is also working on ways to make remote testing less susceptible to cheating, Jones added. 

"(It's) a legitimate issue. And that is we need to continue to advance and adopt the new technologies for remote testing," he said. 

But even facing difficulties, Clemson students managed to end the semester with similar grades as last year. More than 100,000 grades were given this spring – three-quarters of which were As or Bs, according to a May report to the board of trustees. 

Overall, Rogers said Clemson was "ahead of the curve" with its move to eLearning, which she attributed to the "practice days" the university had this academic year. 

The university has been holding eLearning days for the past two semesters to prepare students, faculty and staff for circumstances that would require instruction to move online for a long period of time, university spokesperson Joe Galbraith told The Greenville News in February, ahead of the spring semester eLearning practice day. 

History professor Pam Mack said the move online for professors meant weeks of changing lesson plans and, for some, learning how to teach in a completely digital age. 

"I don't seem to have any students who don't have internet at all. Oddly enough, I know five faculty members who didn't have internet at all," Mack told The News in March.

Mack has taught online courses in the past, so she said she devoted much of the first few days of eLearning to helping her colleagues get online. 

To combat any headaches for the summer semester, Rogers said her department is making contact with every instructor teaching a summer class. 

"We're letting them know 'Here's what you need to do to get ready now.' but fall is a totally different animal," she said. 

Cassidy Graham of Orangeburg walks around Clemson University, as she is finishing her psychology degree and staying for summer online classes and off-campus housing.

But if fall courses are held online, Nixon said she would postpone her December graduation, opting for one last semester on campus instead of a virtual one.

Mack, the professor, said she saw the semester of eLearning as a temporary solution, not a long-term shift for higher education, because of the need and desire to have in-person instruction. 

"This is emergency distance learning... I mean, partly because we've had to do it so suddenly."

Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at znicholson@gannett.com or Twitter @zoenicholson_