Challenge met: Geography department transitions to remote teaching and learning

Penn State geography undergraduate student Talia Potochny is pictured in this collage showing various students’ workspaces at home for remote learning. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Within days of the University's shift to remote learning, faculty, instructors and teaching assistants in the Department of Geography moved 35 resident instruction courses into remote delivery mode to teach 1,947 students.

 Crash course for faculty in remote teaching

“As a department of modest size we had a major size push to remote learning from resident teaching,” Department Head Cynthia Brewer said. “All our courses for resident students suddenly went to remote learning, video, and virtual modes starting the first week after spring break.”

Brewer said that among the 35 spring courses being taught, five were originally web-based, and two were hybrid offerings with some online materials already developed.  

"We have nine introductory general education courses, nine core courses for geography majors and certificate students, thirteen 400-level advanced undergraduate courses and four 500-level graduate seminars, plus Undergraduate Research Opportunities Connection (UROC) projects, internships and independent studies,” she said.

Brewer said she is in regular contact with all the resident program instructors.

“They tell of fabulous classes where the students come together in animated conversation and of other days when stressed students have been disruptive,” She said. “Some faculty who happened to have a light teaching load this semester with buy-outs, releases or sabbaticals have been generous in offering guest lectures for their colleagues’ courses.”

Undergraduate students log in to class from home

As they shifted to remote learning, undergraduate students reported challenges with unsteady internet connections, getting software, distractions at home and missing their fellow students and professors. They also said how much they appreciate their professors going the extra mile to help them and stay positive.

"It has been challenge for all of us to shift course material to a remote delivery,” said Harman Singh. “The Department of Geography has been prompt in adapting to students needs by switching GIS labs into ArcOnline, reducing course content and easing up the expectations for final projects.”

Singh said that keeping daily deadlines for herself has kept her motivated during this time and also accountable for her work.

Talia Potochny was in Barcelona, Spain, when the University cancelled study abroad programs and instructed students to return home.

“The most challenging thing for me was transitioning from living abroad in the big beautiful city of Barcelona to living in my house in the suburbs of Hershey, Pennsylvania,” Potochny said, where she is finishing four courses through Institute for the International Education of Students (IES Abroad). “It was pretty hard at first to adjust to my online classes because we could no longer meet in person with the time difference, but it wasn’t too difficult to get used to.” 

Amanda Byrd overcame the challenge of not having the necessary software by using Amazon Virtual Machine to complete GEOG 485 assignments which require ArcGIS Pro.

Kathryn Giesa said she found the transition to remote learning relatively smooth and easy.

“My professors were outstanding at making sure lectures resumed as usual, while making them interactive,” Giesa said, adding, “They made the best of the situation.”

Student advising continues remotely

To serve the advising needs of students who can no longer drop in her office, Jodi Vender, undergraduate adviser, is developing a web site with helpful undergraduate resources.

“I wanted to create an online resource for several years, and this situation has given me the impetus to start it,” Vender said. “It’s a central location for information and resources I often send to students via email, or hand out during the professional development seminar, GEOG 390.”

Vender said the GEOG 390 is continuing to meet synchronously via Zoom at the usual time.

“I have adjusted some assignments, but many were able to be completed as originally assigned,” Vender said. “I also reached out to Career Services for more virtual resources, normally we visit Career Services twice. Now that content is accessible as online recorded sessions.”

Academic department advisers and Ryan Family Student Center advisers are in frequent communication via Teams, helping each other out, Vender said.

“It’s been an adjustment for everyone,” Vender said. “Now we are several weeks in, things are starting to settle into a new routine.”

Graduate students adjust plans

“The biggest challenge is getting my internet to work when my dad is having to work and make calls too,” Hannah Caudill said. “We work out a schedule when we can, but it's still an issue sometimes.”

Brian King, associate head for the resident graduate program, has been focused on supporting graduate students.

“The abrupt transition to a remote learning environment has been challenging for all members of our community,” King said. “Whether in terms of proposal defenses, comprehensive exams or summer fieldwork. I have been deeply impressed with how our graduate students are working to support each other and their communities during this difficult time.” 

Online learning impacts

Although the online programs were already built for remote learning, students faculty, and staff are also facing challenges.

Twenty-eight faculty — 11 full-time teaching professors and 17 part-time instructors — taught 29 different courses with 41 class sections over the spring 1 and spring 2 terms, said Anthony Robinson, director of online geospatial education programs.

“We have had 801 enrollments this spring in these classes, representing one of the highest demand semesters we've had in several years,” Robinson said.

Robinson noted that he was aware that a significant portion of online students are engaged directly in supporting response and recovery efforts, due to the nature of their work.

“The vast majority of students have continued their coursework as usual, and we're being flexible on deadlines for those who need some extra time,” he said.

One adjustment being made is to offer an online seminar series as a forum for graduating Master of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) program students to complete their capstone requirements, Robinson said.

“Eighteen students were planning to present their work at various conferences this spring that have subsequently been cancelled or postponed, so we're switching gears and looking forward to engaging our students and faculty in a lively seminar series as an alternative option,” he said.

The online geospatial programs have contributed a lot of course content to the Open Educational Resources repository over the years, added Robinson.

“This emergency has seen it become useful in a way we never anticipated as peers at Penn State, and around the world at other universities, are using these materials to help make the abrupt transition from resident to online teaching,” he said.

Last Updated May 06, 2020