Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Biological Sciences
Delivering a biology course consisting of lectures and in-person labs to over 1,000 students has always been a challenge. Throw in a pandemic, quarantine and a mid-semester mandate to move the course entirely online in 10 days and you’ve got the potential for an educational disaster.
That’s exactly the scenario Lara Hutson, clinical associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Biological Sciences, faced in March 2020 for BIO 201, Cell Biology.
While challenging, BIO 201 was far from a disaster. In fact, there were a number of course improvements and assessment surprises —"silver linings,” as Hutson describes them — as a result.
Taught in the Spring and Summer semesters at UB, BIO 201 is a required course for undergraduates in biological sciences and several other majors. It is also often chosen to fulfill science requirements by students in other majors.
The new must-have: A digital library of course materials
When the pandemic hit, UB faculty members quickly adopted new learning styles and technologies. “We stepped up," Hutson says. “You can ask any of the administration, faculty and students here, the rigor was not lost. For weeks we got very little sleep trying to ensure that there was as much consistency and quality when moving courses online.”
One motivation was making sure that students were getting their money’s worth in a very difficult and uncharted environment. “The university instructed professors whatever we needed to teach, they would give it to us. From what I can tell, UB handled this as well or better than any other university,” says Hutson.
She now records lectures ahead of time with software that allows her to embed questions students must answer in order to complete the lecture. She allows students 48 hours to receive credit for completing them.
“I spend a lot more time crafting a perfect lecture,” says Hutson. “I actually think that the content they’re getting is a little bit better and more entertaining. And if misspeak, I can correct it right away,” she adds.
Lectures are available throughout the semester so students can go back and review them at any time.
Based on Hutson’s analysis, more students are completing lectures within the 48-hour window than attended lectures in person before the pandemic. In other words, more students are keeping up with the work.
Labs created another set of challenges. Hutson recorded her staff performing all of the labs, editing and embedding questions in them. She created tutorial animations to further explain difficult concepts. Students also received documents of lab notebook entries in order to complete their lab reports. By summer, TAs were facilitating live Zoom lab sessions to explain the labs and answer questions.
“Nothing replaces an in-person education and we will be getting back to that as soon as we possibly can do so safely,” says Hutson.
When that happens, her complete digital library of lectures and labs are available in the future for students with different learning styles and schedules.
She also modified her approach to office hours. “I hold more frequent and shorter office hours so students can pop in any time. Overall I’m getting better participation.” She explains that “the rules” are the same whether you’re in person or online: students have to take the initiative to attend office hours and attend class, even if there is no physical class to go to. If students have questions or concerns or just want to reach out to get to know your professor, they do it.”
Signs of success
A major concern across the country was how well college students would adapt to online learning. “One of the big surprises for all of us - both within the department and across the university- is that our grade distributions are about the same as they have always been,” says Hutson. “While it is clear that online courses are far from ideal for some students, most of our students are finding ways to succeed.”