Shawnee State University is wrapping up a historical semester in early May with the conclusion of a transition to all remote-learning classes in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown.
In March, just as university spring break concluded, Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine issued the stay-at-home orders. Shawnee joined public institutions everywhere in moving quickly to adjust to distancing. In less than 10 days, the faculty switched courses for more than 3,300 students to a new way of teaching.
“In our program we’re very hands-on,” Matt Cram, chair of SSU’s Fine, Digital and Performing Arts program, said. “We use traditional lectures and mini-lectures, working with students one-on-one to help them improve their technique. We had wondered for a long time if we could take our program online.”
Cram said he has eight faculty members in his program in addition to part-time adjuncts. They teach about 260 students in a range of courses from game design and graphic design to illustration, studio arts and musical theatre to art education.
“We have a department of leaders,” he concluded. “I asked the faculty to become team leaders and the response was immediate and very effective.”
Bastien Lecouffe, assistant professor of studio arts/illustration, and Marcus Cenci, assistant professor of game design, were very familiar with working remotely. Both had years of previous professional work in online environments.
“It was a curve ball, but I had worked remotely as an art director for seven years, from Columbus, for a studio in Illinois,” Cenci said.
“My teams were from Russia, Malaysia, Mexico, China, Canada. I was their main point of contact, and I’ve used every video and chat platform around. Since that job was sort of teacher-esque, growing teams, teaching them how to use our programs, I was used to this.”
Cenci was so familiar with it he was able to transition overnight. “We said on Tuesday we’ll take 10 days off, but I had class live on Thursday.”
Lecouffe was aware in late February the problem growing in Europe was eventually going to affect the United States and the entire world.
“I was reading a lot of French articles and what was going on in Italy,” he said. “To me it was only a matter of when (the virus would reach us). The day after spring break, I was creating and testing platforms, talking with students and in a couple of days I knew what I wanted.”
An established artist with known work in a range of industries internationally, Lecouffe was also familiar with working in a strictly digital format for clients. However, his normal teaching style is to work with students in a lab, helping and advising as they work in drawing and animation software.
Lecouffe’s transition from these lab sessions meant guiding the students into working from their homes, sometimes with very limited technology.
“I always ask the students what they want,” Lecouffe said. “It was clear they wanted to meet on Discord (a gaming industry video and chat platform). That is what we used. I created everything that we needed, kept track of all the steps.”
The technology barrier was not easy to overcome. SSU students working in the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts use state-of-the-art labs with advanced drawing tablets and software.
“We work with expensive stuff,” Lecouffe said. “Most students simply don’t have that technology. I told the students, if you can’t afford a (computer) tablet for drawing, do it on paper and take a picture of it and send it to me.”
Cenci said there are some differences when lecturing online instead of a class room or lab. The teacher won’t always see the reaction on students' faces as easily, and they usually have their mics muted to reduce background noise in the virtual chat room.
“It’s a little awkward, lecturing in silence,” Cenci said. “There is a lot of loss of tactile feedback. Some of the students had to learn to not be shy on camera.”
Cenci and Lecouffe noticed another recurring behavior among the students: a need to communicate and stay in contact with others.
“When I’m done with the lecture I don’t leave right away,” Cenci said. “We stay afterward and continue talking, sometimes for another two or three hours. They are eager for contact with their peers, anything that’s not just on YouTube or Netflix. They really like the engagement and they are always saying thank you for keeping this live.”
Some SSU programs transitioned in even more creative ways. The Nursing program needed to continue instruction on patient examinations and patient care to conclude the semester.
“We were watching this unfold and knew we had to get on top of it,” Nursing Professor Adair Carroll said. “There is a Virtual Clinical Excursion program (VCE) we knew of, and I reached out to the company, Elsevier, for help.”
“VCE was created to offer hands-on learning experience to help improve students’ clinical judgment and critical thinking skills while interacting with a variety of virtual patients,” said Jill Divila-Price of Elsevier.
“This software also presents significant real-world problems that place students in nursing situations,” she said. “In these scenarios the students can set priorities for care, collect data, analyze and interpret findings, prepare and administer medications, and reach conclusions about complex problems.”
While students had worked one-on-one and with clinical faculty and some hospital preceptors in the first part of the course, the Ohio Board of Nursing had approved additional teaching methods in the face of the lockdown to continue instruction. The students discovered VCE was helpful in several ways.
“Sixteen of my clinical hours were completed online,” Nursing major Rowan Rine said. “I initially thought that virtual clinical assignments would offer limited learning opportunities. To my surprise, the online learning was very challenging and required a significant amount of critical thinking.”
Rine said the virtual experiences turned out to be a valuable learning tool.
“I found myself spending hours reading my books and performing research for these assignments, which ultimately resulted in me preparing for the nursing licensure exam that I will soon be taking,” she said.
Carroll pointed out that normally the students are given two opportunities to take the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) exam that prepares students for the professional licensure exam. The students who score above a high threshold the first time can proceed to the licensure test. The rest must pass on the second attempt.
“Normally about 30 percent of the class will proceed after the first attempt,” Carroll said. “This year, that number jumped to more than 40 percent.”
“I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to re-examine learning material through these assignments and am sure that I will be better prepared to start my career because of them,” Rine said. “Although I prefer the hospital setting over an online clinical assignment, the learning facilitated through the virtual hospital is remarkable.”
Whatever their subjects, SSU students and faculty found this semester landed them in a different world from their normal classroom.
“When I call a meeting (online), they attend,” Lecouffe said. “They want to be in class. This situation is going to affect them forever. The wheels will be put in motion again, but I think there will be generations of kids who will never forget this.”