It was late spring and Annie Taylor was beginning to wonder if she would ever get to see the results of her team’s work come to life.
The director of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ (EMS) John A. Dutton e-Education Institute had spent months working with learning designers across Penn State on a virtual-learning resource to ensure continuity of instruction during inclement weather, or other situations. The effort — in a year with so little snow — seemed to be reaping little reward.
Then, in a flash, it was critical.
When Penn State decided in early March to cancel all in-person classes, staff at the Dutton Institute were already weeks into a plan to assist faculty members with the transition. They had the snow-day protocol complete with teaching tools from hundreds of learning designers with decades of experience creating courses for the virtual world.
“One of the things that’s so amazing is the learning design community across the University,” Taylor said. “We have so many incredible colleagues across the University who were working collaboratively. No one needed to reinvent the wheel because if something came up, we knew there was someone out there who had already seen it and had a path to a solution.”
Boots on the virtual ground
Stevie Rocco, director of learning design at the Dutton Institute, said having a team that oversees the college’s more than 140 distance-learning courses helped in the transition. Although there are similarities, the institute has been primarily supporting course offerings that occur entirely asynchronously, meaning the students participate when their schedule permits. That works for their students, who are often professionals in the field or members of the military. But during this crisis Penn State is using a synchronous approach to “remote learning” that faculty and students are more familiar with.
Rocco said the Dutton Institute received early warnings that the global COVID-19 pandemic might alter classroom education in early March and began working around the clock to ready their designers with the required tools to assist faculty.
For faculty, some of the transitions were simple. Lectures could be given through Zoom and quizzes through Canvas. But many faculty members, not wanting to limit their approach to engaging education, sought ways of incorporating some of the more dynamic and interpersonal learning into these virtual meetings.
“We know that our faculty value these student engagement experiences,” Rocco said. “So we wanted to offer solutions that preserved these experiences. And I think we’ve had a lot of success with that.”
That’s what happened for faculty members Roman Engel-Herbert, associate professor of materials science and engineering (MatSE) and physics, who successfully gave an interactive exam to more than 100 students using Zoom breakout rooms. Or Peter Heaney, professor of geosciences, who sought a way to continue classroom polling through Zoom. Or Allen Kimel, associate teaching professor of MatSE, who held a poster session that allowed 17 teams of students to interact with judges remotely.
Classes go on
Traditionally, Heaney polls his students during class using iClicker technology. He worked with learning designer Jane Sutterlin to transfer that feature to Zoom polling. That data is then stored on an excel spreadsheet that is uploaded to Canvas to streamline the grading process.
Heaney also conducted testing with his students that included a group portion and found ways to minimize software glitches or classroom disruptions. His virtual classroom attendance mirrors that of his residential classes, which he said is a testament to the success of the learning designers.
“These people have had so much on their plate that I can’t believe the level of individualized attention I have received from them,” Heaney said. “When this pandemic is over, I hope we remember who made it possible to transform our University overnight.”
When Kimel heard that classes were being moved to remote learning, he immediately worried about his MATSE 492W: Materials Engineering Methodology and Design class, which traditionally tasks students to pitch their engineering solutions to an industry and alumni board. In teams of four, students pitch their ideas to one of 12 alumni judges, all in real time.
“This is a huge opportunity for the students to get some real-world experience explaining and defending their ideas,” Kimel said. “I reached out to the Dutton Institute, and together we put together a synchronous virtual poster session using Zoom, where the team members were able to give their sales pitch in real-time, following the same format as if in person. The students performed excellently.”
Richard Alley, who’s launched a pair of courses for the Dutton Institute’s online learning platform, said he still reached out to learning designers when his residential classes shifted to being taught remotely. It’s impossible for faculty to know all the features of all the tools available, he said, so he’s grateful learning designers are able to.
“Having Dutton folks do so, and then share, is a great way forward,” Alley said “And, when we do well, the student gets a seamless transition.”
Rocco said the quick connections with faculty enabled swift transformations.
“For us, it was just a matter of saying ‘OK, here's what you normally do. And here are some ideas for effective adaptation to the online environment. Let's work with the learning strategies and technologies that are available,’ ” Rocco said. “Then there’s a lot of experimentation. I think all of us are really learning a lot more about the tools and strategies that we’ve had available to us for a long time.”
e-Education in the College of EMS
It’s no surprise that Penn State and the Dutton Institute excel at online learning. When the investment in distance learning began in 1998 through Penn State World Campus, geographic information systems (GIS) — now offered with the support of the Dutton Institute — was one of its first four offered academic programs.
That investment continued with the support of John Dutton, then dean of the College of EMS, who recognized the potential of “e-education” sooner than most academic leaders. Penn State President Eric Barron, who followed Dutton’s tenure as dean of EMS, honored Dutton’s commitment to distance learning when he named the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.
David DiBiase, founding director of the Dutton Institute, says it was a challenge to attract department heads and faculty members to help build new online programs. Though tech-savvy EMS faculty certainly understood how computers and networks can enhance and broaden access to education, they were also skeptical about the time and effort required to build and maintain high-quality offerings. Assembling a team of experienced, credentialed learning designers was a key strategy for entraining faculty collaborators.
DiBiase says he initially conceived the Dutton Institute as a collection of professionally oriented online academic programs that would complement the college’s on-campus offerings.
“What my successor Annie Taylor and her team did,” he said, “was broaden that mission to include support for on-campus and hybrid instruction as well. That’s what prepared them so well to help the college respond to the current national emergency.”