What professors are learning about virtual classrooms

Posted at 4:03 PM, Mar 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-25 18:11:04-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- College students and professors continue to adapt to a new style of learning, as institutions of high education in Central Virginia move exclusively to remote classroom instruction due to coronavirus concerns.

Some of the lessons Richmond-area professors are learning in the first few days of running virtual classrooms relate directly to thousands of workers who are currently teleworking from home.

Dr. Kelly Lambert, a neuroscience professor at the University of Richmond, taught her first online class Tuesday. Lambert said all of her students “Zoomed” into their online meeting from places like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Seeing all of their faces, even on a Brady Bunch-style screen, was a needed moment of normalcy in a time of so much change, Lambert sid. There were fun moments too.

“They actually raise their hand, and then talk and contributed. I was able to show some video and some slides,” she said. “One of my student’s big dog jumped up in his lap and took over the screen!”

Most colleges and universities are finishing the final half of the spring semester exclusively through remote learning. With complex course instruction occurring on various meeting platforms and not in person, Lambert said she and her colleagues are working hard to ensure their students do not experience a gap in learning critical material.

“It sounds kind of easy. ‘Oh, we’re going to teach the same course we’ve been teaching, it’s going to be online.’ But how do you simulate that discussion?” Lambert said. “When we’re stressed and distracted, we can’t learn. So I’m trying to do everything I can to let them know what they can count on to reduce the uncertainty. But also, let them know we’re going to cover all the bases."

VCU Data Management professor Peter Aiken said he was pleased that all of his students so far have shown up for online instruction. Aiken said the half-semester of in-person instruction he got with his students helped ease the transition into virtual learning.

“So I know them at this point,” Aiken said. “If you start out with a personal meeting, beforehand. then the teleconference becomes a very good substitute, but it is harder to do. If we have to go into the fall semester, hopefully that won’t occur, but if we do have to go into the fall semester it’ll be a different game.”

Aiken said any student not familiar with virtual meeting platforms may want to try to become more comfortable with the technology since colleges and universities will likely utilize virtual instruction more often moving forward, but that education leaders need to figure out the “appropriate” role for online learning.

Lambert’s first online lesson was quite topical for the moment.

“I’m teaching neuroplasticity, and that’s the idea that the brain changes in real-time to respond to challenges, and so we’re really applying that,” Lambert said. “It’s an ongoing, real time experiment.”

The psychological principle, Lambert said, is something everyone can hold onto in uncertain times.

“Humans, we have the most sophisticated and prepared brains to be able to handle this challenge, so we’re up for it. We can do this!” she said.