COVID-19 response: Faculty use technology prowess to connect virtually with students

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life, members of the UofSC community family are rising to the challenge with a spirit of resilience and concern for others. See more stories. 

When the University of South Carolina announced plans to switch to online learning only beginning March 23, the nearly 20 sections of U401 were quickly ready to roll, thanks in large part to the efforts of two technology-savvy language professors.

Lara Lomicka Anderson, a French professor and faculty principal of Preston College, and Lara Ducate, a German professor and faculty executive director of the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning, have for years been pioneers in the use of social media and other technology to enhance online learning. Two years ago, they worked together to create an online version of U401, a course for students completing the university’s Graduation with Leadership Distinction requirements.

“I participated in a weeklong boot camp at the Center for Teaching Excellence to write the first online module for the course, and Lara Ducate and I worked together the rest of that summer to get all of the online modules ready for the fall semester,” says Anderson, who provides support for all U401 instructors. “Lara Ducate taught the first online version of U401, and we team-taught it the next semester. Then we started introducing other instructors to teaching the course online.”

All but two of the U401 sections were being taught in traditional face-to-face classrooms this semester, but the instructors were able to access the online modules developed by Anderson and Ducate and get guidance on other aspects of making the switch. Anderson says her efforts in digital instruction, which go back to the early days of Twitter and Facebook, helped prepare her somewhat for the current situation necessitated by the COVID-19 health crisis.

“But I think it’s challenging for anyone to quickly figure out a good, solid plan for converting a traditional class to online instruction,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge for me.”

Ducate was on sabbatical conducting research in Germany this semester as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. She recently returned with her family, and her staff is now working with the U401 sections to offer options for students who must present their e-portfolios as a requirement of Graduation with Leadership Distinction.

“Most GLD students fulfill their presentation requirement through Discover USC, but since that event has been canceled this semester, we’re offering the U401 students the option of presenting in their online classes,” Ducate says. “And all of the instructors have been great about accommodating that.”

No matter what technology faculty members across the university choose for online learning, Anderson recommends having at least one backup plan. “I’m planning to use Blackboard Collaborative Ultra in my French class tomorrow, and I’ve set up nine different ‘rooms’ for my students to chat with their conversation partners as they would do in the face-to-face setting.

“If that plan fails for some reason, I’ve advised them to use Facetime to talk to their partners, and if that plan fails, we’ll use some sort of asynchronous tool for collaboration. It depends on how well online connections hold up here and in France.”

Ducate says it’s a common assumption that today’s students can easily adapt from the traditional classroom to an online only environment.

“Students can’t always make the jump from their social media lives to an academic setting without some guidance,” she says. “With something as simple as email, students sometimes write to faculty members as if they were writing a very casual text to a friend — many of them don’t know how to transfer skills from social media to what you would do in an academic context. They definitely are digital natives, but they need guidelines for how all of that looks in an online classroom.”

The Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning staff is adapting the functions of the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning to virtually connect with and advise students pursuing GLD requirements. For example, the GLD cording ceremony, held at commencement, will likely be replaced with a video to acknowledge the GLD students’ achievements, she says.

Anderson is also using technology to adapt Preston College’s myriad face-to-face activities to the current environment.

“I held my first virtual student hours this week, and we have a virtual coffee hour and a virtual trivia event coming up soon,” she says. “We’re also envisioning some kind of Tik Tok challenge. We’re just trying to figure out how we can continue to be a residential college when we are not all living here together.

“I have a wonderful team at Preston, and we’ve had some great ideas. I’m a person who likes to think out of the box — if something doesn’t work, we’ll try something different the next time around.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about