When Rachel Breunig envisioned finishing her senior year at the Jackson School of Geosciences, it wasn’t from her childhood bedroom in West Houston.
But Breunig, like students across the world, had to adjust at a moment’s notice when, over spring break, the word came down that she would not be returning to The University of Texas at Austin’s campus and would be expected to finish the semester online. There was the rush to Austin with her parents to grab her belongings from the residence hall. They had a two-hour window to move Breunig’s things, which meant that packing and organizing were not possible. They threw her belongings in the back of the car as best they could and headed back to Houston.
Now Breunig, a student in the Department of Geological Sciences, is finishing her classes from home with her parents, big brother and little sister, preparing to graduate and hoping she can make the trip to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall. There is a bright side to the situation. She is embracing the opportunity to spend time with her family, saying the situation is a reminder of what’s truly important in life.
But there are challenges, too.
Breunig is helping homeschool her sister, trying to keep her organized and on-task as she works to finish middle school and prepare for high school. Breunig is happy to take on the task, but she said it adds to the load of trying to finish her own classes and her senior capstone project without the benefit of being able to visit the lab or talk face-to-face with her professors. Breunig knows her struggles are not unique. She’s in close contact with some of her classmates, and their stories track pretty closely, she said.
“It’s like we’re working at 50 percent productivity yet working twice as hard to get everything done,” she said. “It’s happening to everyone, so I don’t feel like I have a right to feel that bad about it. I feel we all are just kind of doing the best we can with what we have.
When UT was driven to transition all classes online for the remainder of the term, faculty, researchers and staff throughout the university faced a monumental task. They had two weeks to transition classes to a virtual setting, communicate the new reality to students, and prepare for a whole new way of teaching and operating the university.
More than a month into remote learning, things seem to be going relatively well. The university as a whole transitioned more than 49,000 students online in more than 9,000 classes. The transition also included setting up funds for students with emergency needs, such as providing a computer and access to internet, along with more pressing issues like assistance with food, rent and medical bills.
Instructors across the university are doing their best to communicate frequently with students and trying to determine how they are coping, both in their academics and other aspects of life. But with students spread all over the country and world, it can be hard to be certain that all is well. That’s why UT and the Jackson School are stressing compassion in education during this time and making accommodations wherever possible.
“The greatest challenge has been to always remember to be aware of the very different circumstances that our students may find themselves in, with respect to having the electronic resources, the bandwidth, the time and space, and support at home to do their schoolwork,” said Jackson School Dean Claudia Mora. “For some, this change has placed them in environments where meeting their educational goals can be very, very difficult. Faculty and staff have faced their own challenges, as many are also sharing their workspace with children home from daycare or school, and spouses who are also trying to work from home. We have had to all develop greater sensitivity to each other and greater flexibility in our expectations.”
Online Instruction Transition
When UT made the decision to shift online, all schools and colleges faced their own obstacles. For the Jackson School, with its focus on hands-on experiential learning, the difficulties were significant. Taking students to the field was out, as was working in the lab, and the tactile experience of handling specimens.
The job of spearheading the Jackson School’s two-week sprint to online classes fell to a volunteer ad hoc committee led by Professor Daniel Stockli, writer-in-residence Adam Papendieck, and IT staff Adrian Huh and Tyler Lehman.
Papendieck had significant experience with online learning in a previous position at Tulane University where he developed systems and programs to support international health sciences education, particularly in eastern Africa. He also had the experience of helping Tulane reopen after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. There are some benefits to the frenzied energy of an emergency, he pointed out.
That’s what happened at the Jackson School, Stockli said. No one balked at embracing the
new environment. Everyone recognized the need and committed to do their best to adjust (see story on lessons learned by students defending Ph.D. thesis via zoom).
The team held daily virtual workshops in the two weeks leading up to online classes and has held office hours several days a week since to help with both instructional and technical challenges. Numerous technical aspects had to be covered, including teaching instructors how to use the conferencing software Zoom for live or recorded lectures, the content sharing software Panopto, and the Canvas learning management system for managing online education. They also covered how to edit recordings on different platforms that instructors were using from home, and how to draw and write during online classes using drawing tablets.
More importantly than just mastering the technical challenges, however, were the sessions on how best to create an interactive and effective online learning environment, how to take advantage of online resources and how to handle online assessment and testing. Most instructors had little or no experience with online teaching, meaning they were entering a whole new world of education and instruction, Stockli said.
“We urged instructors to maintain a rhythm, including maintaining class times and office hours,” Stockli said. “We advised instructors of small classes to continue live lectures via Zoom and make the recording available via internally accessible cloud archives in Canvas. In contrast, large classes were advised to either go live or with pre-recorded 15 min segments interspersed with live discussions.”
During this transition to a new learning model, graduate teaching assistants were among those who were leaned on the hardest, Stockli said. Typically, TA’s learn to teach by watching their mentors. But in this situation, there was no playbook or example for them to refer to, and they often were the ones with the important job of leading students in labs and other small group settings.
“They were transformed into instructional designers overnight in a way that they hadn’t before,” Stockli said. “And we really stressed with TA’s that they are absolutely essential in community building. We emphasized that they cannot just be instructors but have to be the connection to the students.”
This reality hit home with Alexandra Lachner and Jaime Hirtz, who TA for Field Methods. They quickly found themselves helping students navigate virtual field outings largely on the fly and spending additional time offering support and guidance to students. Over the weeks, they have frequently extended office hours, and meet students one-on-one for virtual meetings. Both are embracing their expanded role to help students succeed during this difficult time, but they admit that the more frequent and instantaneous access can be tiring, particularly as they pursue their own graduate work and deal with their personal situations.
Hirtz’s small space – a tiny house on wheels – now has to serve as a workspace and home for both her and her husband. While Lachner is taking care of her five-year-old daughter while working from home in California, which makes a challenging workday even more so.
“It’s been more difficult in that respect,” Lachner said. “We are in a situation that’s kind of non-standard, so you kind of have to roll with it.”
The move to online classes has been more seamless for some than others.
Jud Partin, a research associate with the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, teaches an advanced statistics class for graduate students, which lends itself well to remote learning because much of it is based on MATLAB and math. In fact, the class had already introduced Zoom meetings in 2019 as a way of bringing together students based at different UT campuses.
For this particular class, the transition has been relatively smooth, but there are still reminders that these are far from normal times, particularly with Partin trying to teach a class and keep an eye on his four-year-old at the same time.
“Max interrupted me a couple of times yesterday. I had to stop class, apologize,” he said. “Fortunately, everyone’s quite forgiving these days.”
Other classes are more difficult. When the Jackson School’s ad hoc committee began discussing how best to move classes online, they knew one of the particular challenges would be large lecture classes.
Assistant Professor Daniela Rempe and Professor Rich Ketcham are co-teaching Introduction to Geology, a large lecture class for about 200 non-majors. The lectures are split into Tuesday-Thursday and Monday-Wednesday sections, so each should be attended by about 115 students. Typically, 40 to 50 show up for each lecture, Rempe said, a number that she is fairly happy with given the situation.
Rempe is following advice and usually running prerecorded lessons 10 to 15 minutes at a time before breaking off into discussion or some kind of interactive exercises. One thing she has found refreshing is that students are quick to use the chat function on Zoom to ask questions during class, which is a nice change from the large lecture halls where it was rare for students to raise their hand and pose a question.
On the flip side, Rempe said students will not turn on their cameras or audio. Rempe envisioned students using their cameras to see their classmates and help create a feeling of community. But students won’t, no matter how much she encourages them, leaving Rempe to address a screen of dozens of blacked out little boxes.
“Maybe they are on their phone or maybe they don’t want us to see where they live,” Rempe said. “It’s hard to say why they do that, but that part has been very frustrating.”
Rempe and Ketcham are incentivizing students to participate in labs by making it possible to finish the homework during lab sessions. Fortunately, the labs during this part of the term do lend themselves to Zoom, Rempe said. Earlier in the semester, they were more focused on tactile learning with specimens, but now many of the lessons involve exercises like building paper models to understand structure and faulting or other lessons that can be taught remotely.
Rempe also commented that she and Ketcham have adjusted the workload since moving online. The class is rigorous, she said, particularly for freshman, and she and Ketcham worried that some of the requirements might be too much given the circumstances. She’s hoping reducing time spent on certain assignments, students may actually retain the overall lessons better, but she admits that it’s difficult to tell at this point. Still, she’s convinced it’s the right approach.
“My personal philosophy is I am not here to stand in their way at this point,” she said.
Among the most challenging issues faced by the Jackson School is how to replace the field work that the school stresses as a foundation of geosciences education.
Field camps have taken a hit this summer. The marine geology and geophysics field camp and the hydrogeology field camp have been cancelled. Some students were given credit for other field work so they could graduate without taking the hydrogeology field course. The GEO 660 field camp – a capstone of Texas geosciences education for more than a century – will go on this year, but only eight students are being allowed to go on the trip, which is a significantly smaller group than the usual 30 or so. All of the students attending GEO 660 this summer are graduating seniors who need the field camp to fulfill their graduation requirements. The normal six-week trip is being shortened to three weeks and delayed until the end of the summer, with strict social distancing guidelines in place. Instead of stopping over in hotels and campgrounds, the current plan is for an expeditionary style of camping in more remote areas that would limit trips into town and contact with people.
Distinguished Senior Lecturer Mark Helper and Bureau of Economic Geology Research Scientist Peter Hennings are planning the trip. The idea is that the smaller class can closely adhere to social distancing requirements to reduce risk, the only conditions under which UT would permit teaching the class in the field. Student registration and planning is going forward with the understanding that the course could be cancelled at any time. The smaller class will also be able to cover more ground both literally and academically – than the usual class, allowing the group to fit the same amount of learning in a smaller time period.
Hennings, who is taking the lead until Helper can finish teaching his Field Methods class (see story on exploring virtual field), said his main focus is developing learning modules that will be conducted in central Wyoming near Casper where students will conduct a comprehensive and intensive, multi-scale field mapping project where they will determine geologic history of a complex landscape from a whole basin, to geologic quadrangles, to outcrop. They are planning for other stops and learning objectives in other areas, many of them old haunts for the course, but don’t have anything nailed down yet.
While GEO 660 is downsizing, the field trips for GeoFORCE, a Jackson School outreach program that introduces high school students in underserved communities to geosciences, are going 100% virtual this summer. The same goes for the remaining three field trips for Field Methods, an undergraduate course that builds essential field skills.
Before quarantine, the class included weekend trips during which students would conduct field projects that depended on observing and interpreting the environment around them. Now, for the first two remote trips, students are trying their best to do the same in a virtual field that resembles a video game.
Barbara Sulbaran, a sophomore at the Jackson School, said she misses the discovery aspect of making observations and measurements for herself. In the virtual field, the students learn about the landscape by referring to a digital notebook where outcrop rocks are already identified, the strike and dip already measured, and other observations noted.
“I can’t physically look at the rock. All of what you’re supposed to do is already done,” she said. “I love my field notebook, and I haven’t had to look at it [since quarantine],” she said.
She said that there are some pros to virtual fieldwork though.
You can do it from anywhere. And there’s no worry about missing your ride out to the field site, which can easily be visited over and over. She is also impressed at how quickly the instructors, Mark Helper and Brian Horton, were able to change the class structure, and for the support they are providing along the way.
“They are doing the best they can to adapt, and it’s something I’m very thankful for,” Sulbaran said. “They’re giving us their emails, their phone numbers, and are encouraging us to ask for help if we need it.”
With UT already making the decision to run summer session virtually, the current situation will be the norm for some time. No decision has been made yet whether the fall term will be on campus, online, or a combination of both, but university administration has said it should be announcing a decision by the end of June.
Many of the student-related issues that Jackson School instructors are dealing with are both serious and often hidden from their view. Every student has their own struggles, but some are dealing with serious housing, financial and personal difficulties. While UT is providing emergency financial and supplies relief for students who qualify, Jackson School Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Chris Bell tries to assure that Jackson School students receive support in other ways, if needed. When a concern is raised by others, or he is notified that a Jackson School student has applied for relief, he follows up with a discussion with the student’s professors.
“You have to be aware that just because a student can access class online doesn’t mean things are going ok,” he said. “It means they have solved one set of issues that have been placed in front of them this semester. You don’t know what else is going on in their life, and that’s why we have to be sensitive and aware about the students in our classes.”
Rempe has seen some issues firsthand. Some of her students don’t have access to their own computer and are sharing with roommates. Others turned to the university for a laptop but didn’t receive them until well after classes resumed. But what worries Bell, Rempe and other instructors is that students may not be forthcoming about all the difficulties they are encountering, or they may be embarrassed to discuss them with someone at the university.
Senior Thomas Quintero counts himself among the lucky ones. Like many students, he was able to go home to his family to finish the semester. Between his senior thesis, finishing classes and helping his older brother renovate a home he just bought, he’s keeping quite busy.
Quintero was introduced to the geosciences through the GeoFORCE program in high school and is particularly active in clubs and groups on campus, including the Geoscience Ambassadors program run by Jackson School Professor Julia Clarke.
Quintero misses campus life, and with all that’s happening at home and the added pressure of a job search in the current economic environment, he said it’s difficult to concentrate on schoolwork. He admits he just wants school to be over so he can move on to focusing on his next phase of life. Still, he’s been happy with the support he’s received from his professors and his thesis advisor, Professor Richard Kyle.
“It’s been wonderful to see how accommodating the professors have been with understanding that family comes first,” he said. “Given the circumstances, I don’t think I could have seen a lot of other universities responding better.”