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‘Creative, flexible and resilient’: How VCU faculty and students adapted to remote learning

A glance at the innovative ways professors and students continued their work in these unprecedented times.
A drawing with different screenshots of V.C.U. students, faculty, and staff.

March 23 was a day VCU students and faculty will likely remember for years to come. It was the day they “returned” from spring break. But instead of making their way back to campus and ducking into classrooms, labs and studios, they logged on to their computers from their couches or beds, the kitchen table or their backyard, many of them fending off interruptions from parents, siblings, kids or pets.

It was a situation none of them could have envisioned at the start of the year. And yet despite the challenges, professors kept teaching and students kept learning. Most professors had to modify their courses, and in some cases the change in format led to unexpected opportunities, whether it was new ways to connect with students, creative class projects, or lessons that incorporated the very thing that was foremost for people around the world — COVID-19.

Nothing if not resourceful

While some classes that follow a traditional lecture style might lend themselves to remote learning, others are much more of a challenge. In the latter category fall many visual and performing arts classes at VCU, for which professors had to revamp their courses and come up with innovative ways to continue to teach, whether it meant asking fashion design students to upcycle fabric from old clothes in their homes or holding improv sketch sessions via Zoom.

When confronted with the prospect of teaching students virtually, Justin Alexander, D.M., an assistant professor of music and director of percussion studies in the School of the Arts, shifted the focus of his students from performing other composers’ music to composing music of their own using household objects.

“A lot of the instruments that we study in percussion are big instruments — timpani, marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, etc. … instruments that most students do not own,” Alexander said. “However, since the early 1900s, composers have used everyday objects as percussion instruments — bottles, brake drums from cars, auto coils, tin cans, etc. Since many of my students don’t have access to the primary instruments we study in school, I [had] them compose a piece for ‘found’ objects around the house.”

Garrett Ellinger, a junior majoring in music education, created a piece called “The New Normal” using mixing bowls covered in cling wrap, measuring spoons, foil, a teacup and chopsticks at his family’s home in Orange County, Virginia. As the semester progressed, he would film himself performing the song and send it to Alexander for critique.

“It was kind of fun to find different sounds and figure out which ones you liked or which ones could be better,” Ellinger said.

At the end of the semester, Alexander’s students presented a virtual concert of their compositions via Zoom.

Arts students weren’t the only ones making do with what they could find in their homes. VCU forensic science students in the course Crime Scene Science normally “work” a mock crime scene set up by the instructor. When in-person classes were moved online, Tal Simmons, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, had her students instead stage a murder scene of their own at home.

Each scene needed a “victim” (maybe a stuffed animal, a pet or a sibling), a weapon, probable DNA containing evidence, patterned evidence (such as a fingerprint or blood splatter), a piece of clothing or trace evidence from the perpetrator and a descriptive scenario reported by the first-responding police officer. They had to document all evidence, taking measurements, photographing everything, bagging items into evidence collection bags, and drawing sketches.

“They then had to exchange their crime scene documentation with another student and reconstruct that student’s crime, based on the evidence provided…. They were allowed to ask for additional tests to be run or for autopsy findings (all provided by me) and then they had to incorporate all of these into their reconstruction,” Simmons said. “Finally, they [had] to answer questions, as they would in a mock trial, explaining and justifying their actions as the CSI doing the investigation and documentation of their original scene.”

a dog lying on a sofa next to a knife
Greg Sandoe's dog, Bandit, plays the role of victim in a mock crime scene Sandoe created at home for his forensic science class. (Courtesy of Greg Sandoe)

Forensic science student Greg Sandoe used his dog, Bandit, as his scene’s victim. “This project worked out fairly well given the unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “[Making] our own individual crime scenes…was an odd yet more rewarding twist in my opinion.”

Simmons said the at-home crime scene investigation paralleled as closely as possible to the experience the students would have experienced in the lab.

For the past few years in her Clinical Therapeutics Module in Infectious Diseases course, Leigh Anne Hylton Gravatt, Pharm.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and outcomes science, has assigned second-year students in the School of Pharmacy an in-class presentation to discuss various emerging pathogens. This spring she decided to make the assignment a bit more creative and asked her class to craft and perform a dramatic story or rap about a pandemic or epidemic from history. The class voted on the winning submission, a dramatic five-minute film about the London plague of 1665 featuring a feline doctor and a pair of stuffed owls.

Andrew Hylton — no relation — and his winning team had planned to do a sock puppet show for their video, but the store was out of supplies so Hylton resorted to the next best thing: Staging a video with some owl stuffed animals and his cat donning a stethoscope.

a cat wearing a stethoscope
Pharmacy student Andrew Hylton's cat Tigger wears a stethoscope in a video for a class project on emerging pathogens. (Courtesy of Andrew Hylton)

Hylton said he’s gotten to see more of his classmates — not just more of their faces instead of the backs of their heads as they sit in class, but also more of their homes and lives. In the infectious disease course, Hylton Gravatt’s children even joined the video stream as guest judges for the class’ competition.

“The way that the professors have adapted to the situation is just great because they’ve come up with these alternative plans very quickly and have had very few issues,” Hylton said. “They all had to basically move their curriculum to Zoom, and it’s been — I won’t say it’s been a completely smooth transition — but for the most part there haven’t been any major issues.”

Hylton said he was grateful for the plague lesson, which reminded him just how much medicine has evolved since the 1600s. Hylton Gravatt said that was exactly why she wanted students to take on the assignment.

“If anything, what I wanted the students to get out of doing this project is to put the current pandemic in perspective in comparison to other pandemics and epidemics because that’s not necessarily something that they get a chance to do,” Hylton Gravatt said. “The way I thought about it, at least when I constructed it, was as they were going through their disease saying, ‘How is this different than what I’m going through right now?’”

Addressing the elephant in the room

When COVID-19 forced professors to rethink the rest of the semester, many chose to incorporate the pandemic into their curricula.

Jeff South, an associate professor of journalism in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, invited four friends from different parts of the world to join a discussion with his class. They discussed how COVID-19 has affected their lives and their communities, especially how they communicate and use the media for news, entertainment and other information.

The panel included Yanan Gao, who works for TikTok in Beijing, China; Sudip Rizzolo, a video gamer who works for Decathlon, a sporting goods store, in Bolzano, Italy; Maria Pastora, a journalist and radio talk-show host in Punta Arenas, Chile; and Jabulisa Mtungwa, a human resources executive in Johannesburg, South Africa.

professor south leading a zoom session with his students
Professor Jeff South leads a Zoom discussion on how COVID-19 has affected communications and media across the globe. (Courtesy of Jeff South)

“My students learned that young people all over the world are wrestling with the same issues during the pandemic and are yearning to maintain social connections at a time of social distancing and self-isolation,” South said. “They also learned that their peers in other countries were coping in similar ways — watching a lot of movies online and playing video games, for example. The international video chat underscored a theme that we have explored throughout the semester in MASC 101 — [Canadian philosopher] Marshall McLuhan’s observation that thanks to modern media technology, we now live in a ‘global village.’”

For students in a class titled Black Health Matters: Social Determinants of Health in the African American Community, COVID-19 was depressingly relevant as the disease has had a disproportionate impact on black communities. When they returned from spring break, Mignonne Guy, Ph.D., an assistant professor of African American studies, asked them to brainstorm a final project where they could feel they were helping African Americans facing the challenges of COVID-19. They decided to create a website to house health-related communications, including brochures and videos, about COVID-19, tailored to the black community, for a social media campaign.

“I decided that the best project would be one that empowered the students to use the information they learned in class to help protect the black community,” Guy said.

"My students learned that young people all over the world are wrestling with the same issues during the pandemic and are yearning to maintain social connections at a time of social distancing and self-isolation."

In the School of Medicine, faculty led by assistant professor Kathy Kreutzer put together a one-week crash course on COVID-19 that all rising third- and fourth-year students were required to take. The course used curriculum models developed by Harvard Medical School students (overseen by Harvard faculty) and the VCU professors added reflection exercises, assessments and a Zoom guest speaker each day.

“The goal of the course was to provide the students with some good science (virology, epidemiology, infectious disease) information on how our health system is working to respond to the pandemic, and an opportunity to consider ethical issues such as scarcity of resources and distributive justice,” Kreutzer said.

The five guest speakers were faculty working on the front lines of COVID-19. Students were able to ask questions and hear first-hand about fighting the pandemic.

Guest lectures for the win

While classes were adapted in numerous ways, one trend emerged — the guest lecture. VCU professors from all disciplines took advantage of Zoom and other platforms to enlist notable speakers.

Assistant professor of musical theater Kikau Alvaro set up Zoom sessions with Broadway actors Jacob Brent, who played Magical Mr. Mistoffelees in the 1998 video production of “CATS,” and Aaron Albano, who has been recently touring with “Hamilton.”

Other classes were able to shift in-person lectures and tours online.

Students in Jen Kostyniuk’s Agency capstone course were slated to take a tour of Charles Ryan Associates, a multistate communications firm with offices in Richmond. When that couldn’t happen, the firm put together a virtual tour and answered students’ questions from their homes.

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to be creative, flexible and resilient in a time of crisis,” said Kostyniuk, adjunct professor in the Robertson School. “This virtual tour is a great example of a local agency stepping up to help our students continue to experience ‘real life’ in the public relations industry and what it takes to successfully complete a campaign.”

Beyond academics

When Allison Johnson’s class logged on to Zoom on April 1, they were met with an unusual sight. Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, was sporting a flight suit and had changed her Zoom background to a view from inside the International Space Station.

Johnson, who had picked up the suit during a family trip to Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, decided to surprise her students on April Fools’ Day to bring a bit of levity during a time when faculty and students were still trying to adjust to remote learning.

“In this case, humor worked well to connect with my students, break down barriers in communication, and share my love of science in a fun way,” Johnson said.

allison johnson in a space costume against a space background
Allison Johnson surprised her students on April Fools' Day with a space costume and background in their Zoom session. (Courtesy of Allison Johnson)

Professors from across the university have recognized the need to connect with their students on a different level during the crisis, and to check in on their emotional well-being. Guy, the African American studies professor, had a hunch that students were feeling as isolated and unnerved as she was and that they’d have a need to talk about what they were going through, so she started a weekly chat for her Black Health Matters students at 7 p.m. each Friday. “AFAM After Hours” quickly grew to include any students from the department, and those students started inviting their friends from outside the department and even outside VCU.

“Most times we end when we can no longer keep our eyes open — normally around midnight,” Guy said. “We’ve talked about movies, books, classes, graduate school, future career plans, politics, talking to families and friends about COVID-19, what we expect the country to look like after ‘lockdown’ or after COVID-19, what we can take from this situation and use to create the country we desire … you name it! Students are free to drop in and out as they please and we talk about whatever is on their minds.”

In the School of Education, Adria Hoffman, Ph.D., the Anna Lou Schaberg Professor of Practice, Teaching and Learning, shifted gears to focus on her students’ well-being in the two sections of a course she teaches on communicating and collaborating with families. At the start and end of their first Zoom class, she asked students to provide words describing how they were feeling and created a word cloud from the results. At the start of class, the most common word was “overwhelmed” but by the end, it was “together.”

“I did a quick social-emotional check-in with them, modeled it, and I said, ‘You can do this with a 5-year-old. You can do this with a 10-year-old,’” Hoffman said, describing the social-emotional learning activity.

a word cloud with words such as relieved, together, classes, feeling, helps, and hopeful most prominent
Adria Hoffman created a word cloud at the end of her first remote-learning class that captured students' feelings. (Courtesy of Adria Hoffman)

In the weeks that followed, Hoffman’s students learned how to combat compassion fatigue, a secondary form of trauma often experienced by teachers and others in the helping professions, and talked about the importance of self-care. The class exercises Hoffman led did double duty — they helped students deal with their own emotions in the face of COVID-19, and the students can use them as soon as this fall with their own students when they begin student-teaching.

“I showed them some other resources they can use with elementary schoolers and their parents to do that kind of check-in,” she said. “I had them do an exercise which you can do with 5-year-olds: ‘All right, it’s the end of class. I want you to say thank you to one of your classmates for something.’ And they just kept going for 20 minutes, which was really cool and really powerful.”

Student James Valdivieso appreciated the chance to focus on well-being.

“Overall, this class…has really helped get me back on track in time to handle my finals with the usual level of stress rather than an engorged amount thanks to isolation/quarantine,” he said.

A way to say thank you

Kim Case, director of faculty success and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, started the “Thank a Professor” project so that students, alumni, family members and colleagues could recognize the outstanding efforts of VCU professors during the pandemic. Anyone can fill out a simple form [Google form] and their message will be shared with the faculty member they are thanking.

All in this together

The ways VCU professors and their students have used grit and ingenuity amid COVID-19 goes on and on. Capt. Erik Keirstead, chair of the Department of Military Science and Leadership, used his son’s toy soldiers to demonstrate tactics. Students supervised by Matthew Scott in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences were able to continue working with nonprofit Jacob’s Chance by hosting 30-minute workout sessions via Zoom for children and young adults with special needs.

Bill Korzun, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences in the College of Health Professions, used the example of lab tests for the COVID-19 virus and antibodies to illustrate predictive value and diagnostic efficiency at different levels of sensitivity, specificity and disease prevalence for two of his courses. Associate professor of design and creative advertising Peyton Rowe was able to convert the annual CreateAthon event to a virtual format.

“The accommodations from all the professors I have for working around that was amazing,” Ellinger said. “They did a great job about understanding and working through all of this with everybody. It’s like, ‘How is everybody? Are you OK?’ With all of my classes we would start off with a sharing time where we would talk about how we’re doing. And it was every class.”

Kim Case, Ph.D., director of faculty success and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, has been “blown away” by the resourcefulness and dedication faculty have shown.

“What I heard most from faculty is how worried they were about student stress, anxiety and mental health,” she said. “They somehow prioritized compassion, empathy and student well-being while incorporating maximum flexibility to allow students many avenues and options to maximize learning.”

Brian McNeill and Mary Kate Brogan contributed to this article.

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