Instructors, students tackle challenges of fall mixed-mode learning environment

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While Penn Staters may have had some time to adjust to pandemic life for the fall 2020 semester, there were still many challenges to overcome as students and instructors worked through the limitations of a mixed-mode learning environment.

In the College of Information Sciences and Technology, adjunct instructor Bryan Ollendyke added blogging and branding to his database design class; while Bart Pursel, affiliate associate research professor, and Jennifer Sparrow, adjunct instructor, brought their mixed-mode IST 110 class closer together by having in-class students also log in on Zoom to encourage more discussion. Kris Grey, a visiting artist and assistant teaching professor at the Penn State School of Visual Arts, worked around the limitations posed by COVID-19 for their Art 80: Introduction to Ceramics course by having students create their own Claymation short films at home.

These are just a few of the stories of Penn Staters going above and beyond as they work to continue educating students through a global pandemic. Lab work proved especially difficult to adapt to a remote learning environment, but educators came up with creative solutions to help students keep learning.

Two teaching assistants bring the lab home to students

In the College of Agricultural Sciences, two teaching assistants worked to ensure that all of the 41 undergraduates in the two sections of their course had samples and materials for lab work.

Elisa Lauritzen and Max Aleman are both doctoral students and TAs for PPEM405: Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, and began planning early in the summer for the possibility of a remote lab environment. In June, they began hatching plans for both remote and in-person instruction, but realized that there would be no way to do a restricted in-person option.

“We just couldn't figure out a way to take care of 40 students in a lab that could only accommodate 10 people, and two of them were TAs,” Lauritzen said.

The course instructor, Christina Rosa, associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, gave them the freedom to tackle the course as they would see fit, Lauritzen said.

Max Aleman, left, and Elisa Lauritzen put together lab kits for students earlier this year.  Credit: William FescemyerAll Rights Reserved.

Lauritzen and Aleman began devising lab kits their students could use at home. They needed an augur-based medium that students could grow cultures on and supplies that would survive transit through the mail. Accounting for breakage, they ended up making about 300 plates of media.

“It was like trying to put together a grocery shopping list for each person, making sure that we had enough for everyone — and that was a challenge,” she said.

Students also made use of pocket microscopes, which are affordable (only $20 or so) microscopes that offer 250x magnification and are about the size of a smartphone and as thick as a deck of cards. They’re a far cry from a professional light microscope, said Lauritzen, but they support slides for specimens and are compatible with smartphones so users can take photos and zoom in even more.

Lauritzen and Aleman made sure the lab kits made it to each student, whether they had to mail them, offer them for pickup on campus, or deliver them by car to students off campus who couldn’t make to University Park.

In November, Lauritzen said the students had adapted and were performing well, if a bit Zoom-fatigued. For many it was the first time they used the program R for statistics or had even used statistics for a course at all.

“They have far and away just blown us out of the water, as far as their capability in picking something up that they've never had experience with before, that totally surprised us,” she said.

"I’m sure there are students that absolutely would have preferred a face-to-face class. I would have. But we did hear a lot of students saying ‘Thank you for doing this remotely. It’s helpful.’ It's been really good. It’s been really positive," added Lauritzen.

Nursing instructor helps students practice critical skills at home

Nursing education professionals had to ask themselves a straightforward question during the pandemic: How can their students practice the skills they learn when they don’t have access to professional training equipment?

Debbie Loop, simulation coordinator and instructor at Penn State Behrend, said that nursing students need to practice the psychomotor skills before they can begin treating patients in a supervised setting. 

“Students cannot afford to make mistakes in skill performance,” Loop said. “One mistake could lead to significant patient harm, so it is paramount that our students are 100% accurate on their psychomotor skills.”

This lead her to develop DIY task-trainers, made of materials that are affordable, easy to find, and allow students to practice their skills at home when they don’t have access to a laboratory setting and the usual professional task-trainers.

Loop explained that much of the research published on remote-teaching strategies in nursing focuses on complementing in-class education, and that there was a dearth of information of how to teach and practice psychomotor skills in fully remote environments.

Nursing students first learn their skills in a didactic format, Loop explained, then practice in a laboratory setting before performing supervised patient care in a clinical experience. COVID-19 restrictions made the hands-on learning in the lab impossible, and nursing educators needed ways for students to be able to practice. However, Loop said that professional task trainers are prohibitively expensive, and student feedback showed that a new line of portable task trainers wasn’t worth the nearly $200 price tag. While there were instructions for DIY task-trainers people could make at home, Loop said the materials were still cost-prohibitive and hard to acquire.

“I began ‘experimenting’ with everyday household items and items that could be purchased at any local craft store trying to create something that would be affordable, replicable and functional,” Loop said.

The DIY wound task-trainer allowed nursing students to practice their skills at home. It's made of readily available household materials. Credit: Debbie LoopAll Rights Reserved.

Among her creations is the “wound box,” with the outside compartment made of an empty tissue box, covered with a printed photograph of a wound and sealed with glue, tape and plastic wrap, with a slit cut to simulate dealing with a wound. Loop then gave step-by-step instructions via Zoom on the skills they would need to practice. The students could then position their cameras on the wound box so educators could observe the students and provide feedback.

The DIY ostomy task trainer consists of a stoma created by modeling clay, which was shaped and painted red, then attached to a box. This allowed students to practice measuring a stoma, cutting an ostomy “wafer” and applying a new appliance, emptying a full ostomy bag and cleansing an ostomy bag at bedside.

“The students loved the task trainers,” Loop said. “They enjoyed making them and they liked that they could practice with their own equipment in the convenience of their home.”

Fall 2020 saw 40 junior nursing students using the DIY task-trainers and Loop said the 60 sophomore nursing students would make the task-trainers in the spring semester.

Resources available for students and educators

In October, Penn State announced its spring 2021 semester plan that will continue the current flexible instruction modes in place for fall 2020. Students and educators are encouraged to reference the resources built and maintained for pandemic-era learning.

Students should consult, which has the latest information on academic advising, resources, health and safety guidelines and effective learning strategies.

At, educators can find information on instruction and pedagogy, technology resources, inclusion and student well-being and information related to academic integrity and assessments.

Last Updated December 15, 2020