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How Faculty Prepared for the Fall Semester: Pitt to the Power of One

by Nicole Cortino

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The staff and faculty did not have the luxury to relax during the summer. They didn’t get to enjoy binge-watching Netflix while snacking on the couch and scrolling through their social media feed. They did, however, work endlessly staring at their computer screens, either teaching a brand new class offered for incoming freshmen, or participating in technology training sessions to learn about the new equipment they’ll be using.

Jeff Antal, media services and instructional technology manager, and Michael Pry, visiting instructor and member of information science, have organized mentoring sessions, set equipment up in classrooms, and regularly keep the technology updated.

Mr. Antal ordered the cameras and audio technology in late June for classrooms organizing hybrid teaching.

“Luckily we were able to get them as soon as we ordered them because the next few days they were completely sold out! We had to come up with a way to make things work in the classrooms with older technology. Using some leftover computers from the computer lab, we re-purposed them, re-imaged them, and tried to put a computer in as many classrooms as we could, alone with a webcam mounted on the ceiling” he said. “It’s not the best angle, but it’s the only place that it can still pick up audio. Anywhere else, it would have been too far away.”

While Mr. Antal set up the equipment, he also was teaching himself the mechanics, which made him anxious to teach, but he feels the process went well.

“I didn’t have time to try everything out. The equipment came out as soon as I started the training sessions. I was like a freshman quarterback starting his first football game at college,” he said. “I was nervous. I didn’t know how receptive the professors were going to be. I wrote out an outline on the board, but the sessions turned conversational, which was really nice.”

Mr. Pry also helped organize hybrid teaching. He had the opportunity to be a part of the Canvas Early Adopters Training program in the summer of 2019, where he learned the mechanics of Canvas.

“After receiving training on Canvas at Oakland, I came back and spent all of my fall semester teaching all of my classes how to use Canvas — understanding the best way to utilize it through its different figurations,” he said. “I got to experiment with some of my students in the class with some of the different functionality, like how do some students respond to different discussion threads, and what’s a good method for facilitating a discussion board.”

Therefore, Mr. Pry was ready when the pandemic changed the structure of the classrooms because he was familiar with all the online tools.

Some professors have taught online before, others are using PowerPoint for the first time ever. Over the summer, weekly training sessions occurred for staff and faculty so that they could learn how to share their screens, set up the classroom cameras, and generally learn how to teach through the new Flex@Pitt model.

They are not only experiencing stress and anxiety when preparing for their classes, but have been also experiencing forms of loneliness and sadness, much like many students, as they miss out on annual vacations, events, and everyday interactions from their careers.

They can also experience fear — fear for their families and fear for themselves due to the pandemic’s dangers. Some people, or their family members, have underlying, pre-existing conditions that could increase their risk of getting infected.

10 faculty members, including President Robert Gregerson, taught a two-credit course, offered to first-year students, called Introduction to Knowledge. Each professor had their own section to teach. For example, President Gregerson taught biology. The class provided students the option to learn remotely, or in-person, and the goal was to focus on COVID-19 from as many perspectives as possible.

Mr. Pry coordinated the course with Dr. Frank Wilson. He wanted people to get used to Canvas, which involved teaching students as well how to look at modules, log in without difficulty, find all the directions for assignments, learn how to interact with the materials, and more.

“We wanted them to also learn Zoom and get [the professors] accustomed to Zoom for lecturing, but we wanted those lectures to be engaging and exciting. We pushed the envelope and practiced using the polling features and small breakout rooms,” he said. “That was really great because rather than being a one-way type of interaction, where the information is going out from us to them, the students, we would have about fifteen minutes of lecture, then we would stop and send out a poll question to see how people would answer.”

Mr. Pry felt that sending students into breakout rooms was the most effective. Each faculty member facilitated a group’s conversation relevant to the lecture they just heard, or connecting to reading material they should have read before coming to class.

While Mr. Pry worked on teaching the staff how to use internal technological tools, Mr. Antal directed his work to equipment in the classrooms. He is always considering technology that he thinks would be beneficial to put in every room on campus.

“I don’t want the technology to be overbearing on education. I want the equipment to enhance the student education, but not be the main focus. I try to find a balance,” Mr. Antal said. “I think I found it, but I can’t be sure. Some faculty like it and some don’t. I’ll try to please everyone, but I know it’s impossible. I just have to try and find the technology that is going to adapt with the majority of the professors’ teaching styles.”

Just because the summer ‘break’ was over didn’t mean the preparation was finished. Staff and faculty have updated their online courses non-stop, reworking resources while grading assignments and setting up their spring semesters, too.

Mr. Pry is excited for the spring. He will also be mentoring faculty over the winter break while using the rest of his time to prepare his classes. Mr. Pry has also been proud of the way the campus has been able to help students who were forced to drop out of college because of pandemic.

“We’ve also been able to reach out to students who weren’t able to graduate or finish their degree,” he said. “Because of this new learning model, we’ve removed barriers for people to continue caring for their families, while working, but while also completing their education.”

We interviewed a variety of faculty members about their experiences during this training, as well as during the pandemic in general. Each link below will take you to that faculty’s feature article, and/or a Q&A, to learn more about their experiences preparing for Flex@Pitt and teaching this semester. (More interviews will be featured here in the coming weeks, so be sure to check back in!)

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