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UW Faculty, Students Persevere to Make Online Instruction Successful

March 30, 2020
man using cell phone camera to record himself teaching with whiteboard
UW Department of Visual and Literary Arts Professor Doug Russell records an instructional video for one of his drawing courses at his home. Russell and about 1,000 other UW instructors are getting creative to teach and connect with their students online for the remainder of the spring semester. (Doug Russell Photo)

Longtime University of Wyoming art Professor Doug Russell says his one-on-one, face-to-face interaction with students in his drawing classes is one of the most enjoyable parts of his job.

Having taught studio art classes for 24 years, the last 15 at UW, Russell says being in the same space with his students while they’re working on their drawings is a fundamental part of his instruction -- and really can’t be duplicated in any other way.

But, with UW classes resuming today (Monday) following an extended spring break, he is pulling out all the stops to come close.

That’s because UW, like the vast majority of other universities across the country, has moved to online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester due to concerns about the novel coronavirus COVID-19. And Russell, along with the approximately 1,000 faculty members teaching courses at UW, has been forced to become especially creative so that his students have the best possible experience online -- even if it’s not the same as in-person instruction.

“There is not a good substitution for in-person and in-class interaction when it comes to a studio art class,” says Russell, who is teaching two sections of “Drawing I” and one section of “Drawing II” this semester. “No matter how well I do it online, it will not be the same, nor as good, as an in-person drawing class. It is a very different experience for me and the students. But it will work for what it is -- because it has to.

“The students will hopefully learn the basic information, concepts and at least some of the actual physical skills required to succeed in my courses,” Russell adds. “They will be adequately prepared for the next level of course they take.”

For many UW instructors and students in lecture-style courses, the shift to online delivery is not as difficult as it for classes where hands-on activities are an important part of the curriculum. And, for the estimated 65 percent of faculty members who haven’t taught online-only courses before, the remainder of the semester is something of a new frontier.

In fact, the change has required almost all UW faculty members to revamp the way they do things. Many are recording lectures and other presentations, and even allowing flexibility in test-taking, so that students can move through the courses as their schedules allow. Most have been in regular contact already with students to understand their data and bandwidth limitations. Some have created discussion boards to let students interact and express their hopes and concerns, and others are holding Zoom office hours and sessions this week to talk about the plan for the next few weeks and receive input.

“Everybody is rising to the challenge,” says UW Faculty Senate Chair Ken Chestek, a professor in the College of Law. “I’m confident our students will receive good instruction, and we will come out of this with good results at the end.”

“Our faculty are doing everything in their power to assure that our students are successful,” says Tami Benham-Deal, vice provost for academic personnel.

Teaching Art from Home

Russell, who has never taught a course completely online before, has been busy during the extended spring break preparing himself and his 58 students for the change. He moved his teaching space from UW’s Visual Arts Building into his home, taking over the dining room and turning it into a makeshift office and video recording space. He brought home his basic drawing supplies, an easel, a dry-erase board, a tripod with an iPhone mount, his laptop and many other items to teach with.

“Creating this home teaching space also means I do not have to enter the Visual Arts Building for the rest of the semester,” says Russell, an accomplished artist whose works inspired by ancient ruins have been exhibited widely during his academic career. “I can practice good social distancing by staying at home -- and only go out for essential needs and exercise.”

Even before the UW administration decided to move instruction online for the remainder of the semester, Russell was planning for how it could work in his classes. First, he reduced the number of assignments, removing redundancies and combining other assignments. He started retooling and rebuilding existing PowerPoint presentations to include clearer and more complete information. He also built several new PowerPoints to deliver information he normally would have just talked about in class. So far, he has uploaded 20 new versions of PowerPoints to his online course shells.

He also organized each class into several modules on WyoCourses, the platform for UW online instruction. Each module includes a new assignment, discussion group, lecture notes, demonstration videos, lecture videos, PowerPoints and images of board notes from this and past semesters.

dining table set up as office
UW art Professor Doug Russell has turned his dining room into a makeshift office and video recording space. (Doug Russell Photo)

So far, Russell has recorded 15 videos of lectures and drawing demonstrations, with a few more still to record. He’s uploading the videos to his YouTube channel and sharing them with students through a private link in his WyoCourses class modules. He has kept the videos under 10 minutes each by splitting up longer lectures and demonstrations into smaller chunks. He’s also recording and uploading them in the lowest resolution possible while still maintaining image clarity, so that students with bandwidth issues are still able to view them easily.

Finally, he has reconfigured the final portfolio outcomes for each class. Normally, each student submits a physical portfolio of his or her best drawings at the end of the semester, so Russell can assess progress and demonstrated ability for each skill and concept at the end of the semester. For the new online version of the final portfolio, he has plugged in the students’ scores from their midterm portfolios.

“Where they have already proven a solid understanding and demonstrated ability in a skill or concept, I am not requiring them to demonstrate that again for the final portfolio,” Russell says. “This also means that, as they complete more work, more of the final portfolio scores are filled in. If necessary, I could provide them a final grade at any time, if classes were completely canceled during this crisis.”

‘Keep Moving Forward and Finish Strong’

Russell has communicated to his students through a WyoCourses announcement and an email follow-up, describing the new class plan and asking them to respond and acknowledge that they understood the plan. He also asked them to let him know of any concerns or questions they had regarding access to the internet, computer issues, acquiring the necessary supplies and being able to continue their classwork as described in the class plan.

His students appreciate the extra effort.

“Professor Russell is trying extremely hard. He has discussion groups set up to get feedback on in-progress work; a discussion group to discuss the stresses of the situation; videos with instructions and whiteboard notes; handouts with instructions; as well as photos and images of demonstrations,” says Anna Naig, a sophomore art major who has been commuting to the UW campus from Cheyenne. “His communication has been excellent, as has that of all the professors in the art department. Professor Russell is extremely meticulous, and he has gone above and beyond in terms of preparing us for the remainder of the semester.”

“I held many concerns regarding how my ‘Drawing II’ course was going to transition to the online format, but I believe that Doug followed the best route given the circumstances. He has been doing a wonderful job of staying in touch with myself and my classmates and has been very transparent about how the remainder of the semester is going to play out,” says Bailey Johnson, a sophomore art major from Alliance, Neb. “I truly appreciate the effort being put into the communication aspect, as it has eased some of my own anxieties that have stemmed from the uncertainty surrounding everything.”

Both Naig and Johnson say they understand the need for the instructional change, even if it is less than ideal.

“I feel that it is necessary, given the pandemic. I absolutely do not want to become part of the problem and spread the disease to a vulnerable person,” says Naig, a nontraditional student. “Given my personal situation, it came as a relief, since I have a 5-year-old who I am now home-schooling. My backup plan when I suspected my son’s school closing was to drop all my classes, and then retake them the following semester, which is something I really didn't want to do.

“I agree that it is not ideal. Looking at other students’ in-progress work during class and getting immediate feedback from Professor Russell was a great asset,” Naig adds. “That said, I am not concerned about coming away from this class lacking in instruction. This is due to the materials we use and due to Professor Russell’s dedication and methodical approach to teaching. I absolutely plan to make the best of this situation.”

“To be completely honest, I am sad and frustrated with moving online. The classes offered through the visual arts program require hands-on engagement with a variety of materials, the Visual Arts Building, faculty and fellow students. Not only is the in-person instruction important to me, but I loved working alongside my fellow artists and absorbing the energetic atmosphere that came with each drawing session. It’s not something that you can create at home,” Johnson says. “But, considering the circumstances, it is what has to be done, and I am ready to adapt. While everything seems chaotic, I do believe that the online instruction is going to work out fine. It will be strange adjusting to this format of learning, but I know that Doug will keep things hopeful and lively. Nobody wanted the semester to end this way; all we can do is keep moving forward and finish strong.”

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