Carissa Hipsher knew that her “Foundations of Environmental Science” lab would be trickier to reorganize than her traditional lecture classes. In the hours leading up to Loyola University Chicago’s transition to online or virtual instruction on March 13, that lab—or, technically, the lack of one—is where she focused all her energy.
A lecturer in the Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES), Hipsher was slated to teach her students about the environmental chemistry of soil. It’s the stuff we all walk on everyday, except when we’re cooped up at home, miles or even continents removed from Lake Shore Campus. “Initially, I was trying to think of stuff they could do from home,” she says. “I sent out a survey that had a couple of odd questions on there: ‘Do you have a place where you can dig a one-foot hole? Are you willing to put soil in your oven?’”
For 48 hours, Hipsher went on a mad scramble for supplies. She made a huge Amazon order that she picked up herself at the distribution center. (Who has time for shipping!?) She swung by Home Depot and bought an “insane amount” of PVC piping. At Target, she slid 40 bell jars into her cart. (“They must have thought I was weird.”) Back at her desk, she poured over lab manuals and blitzed Google with search phrases like “DIY soil texture test” and “make your own funnel.” (A party cup and duct tape will do the trick.)
On March 12, with time slipping away, Hipsher and her teaching assistants frantically assembled the lab kits, dumping soil samples into ziplock baggies that could be packed away in suitcases. The alternative, Hipsher admits, was “some terrible assignment of this massive data analysis,” nothing as edifying as handling the authentic material. By 5 p.m. on move-out day, all 40 of her students had come through IES to collect their care package. Hipsher caught her breath and then tried to figure out the rest.
Everyone in the Loyola community had their lives severely disrupted by the unexpected and vicious COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 3,400 classes migrated online this month, per the provost’s office, along with another 65 from the John Felice Rome Center. It’s by no means the first time Loyolans have learned from the comfort of their bedrooms; the University hosts 50 existing online programs, and some 500 instructors had already taken the intensive Online Teaching Course offered by the Office of Online Learning (OOL). Still, the current crisis was an unmistakable shock to our collective system. And across three Chicagoland campuses, faculty members like Hipsher are adjusting to their remote reality in resourceful, imaginative ways.
Some are deploying technology creatively as a means to recreate, as best they can, the actual classroom experience. Take Ray Dybzinski, an assistant professor of ecology. In his lab course, students are starting to analyze experiments—what influences rates of decomposition, what affects aquatic microorganism diversity—by learning statistical coding.
At this point in the semester, Dybzinski would normally circulate throughout his room, acting as a resource for students with computational questions or concerns. Instead, Dybzinski has cleverly leaned on the Breakout Rooms feature of Zoom’s video conferencing software, which simulates group work and allows Dybzinski control of his students’ screens should they get tripped up.
So far, nobody in his class seems “shell-shocked” by the move online, he reports. “With coding, you can have 99.9 percent of your code right and the wrong .01 percent will kill you. Having expert eyes glance at your code really helps.”
The physical isolation has forced other teachers to spin out in new directions entirely. The curriculum of the dance program, housed within Loyola’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts, is centered on performance. That’s complicated in the short-term, as nobody is allowed anywhere near a recital. Instead, these high-functioning athletes are making due, according to Sandra Kaufmann, dance’s founding director: “We’re not dancing, full-on. But we can keep the instrument in condition.”
It takes many forms, depending on the class and instructor. One younger faculty member is hosting a 30-minute daily practice over Zoom; similar online dance resources have exploded in recent weeks. (If students keep a log of individual guided coursework, they’ll receive extra credit.) Others are asking their classes to watch more than participate, hammering home disciplinary vocabulary and promoting reflection. “We’re really emphasizing mental and emotional resiliency,” says Kaufmann. “And we want to encourage everyone to keep moving.”
Elsewhere in DFPA, theater instructor Ann Joseph Douglas was inspired by an interactive happy hour she joined with her friends in the early days of shelter-in-residence. The 10 “amazing women” in her Creative Dramatics class had been running their own theater program at George B. Swift Specialty School, an elementary school in neighboring Edgewater. When Chicago Public Schools went down, so too did drama club. Unless?
Online Drama Club started last week with a warm-up section, followed by a focusing session, a storytelling session, and a story creation section. Kids need only bring paper and crayons for writing, plus some space to move about. Fifty can join Zoom at any given time, though that might strain everyone’s patience. Loyola students will develop theatre games that are adaptable in a virtual setting and lead to self-expression. They’ll start with three classes and go from there. “Frankly, this could be really messy,” Joseph Douglas warns. “But it could also be something really great that could be done globally.”
Teaching from home requires spatial improvisation. Joseph Douglas had been using her bedroom as a home office, but will move some furniture around in her living room when classes pick back up. Dancers in Kaufmann’s program use their kitchen counters as ballet barres. (She doesn’t envy her friends in New York, attempting to pirouette in bandbox apartments.) Dybzinski chats from his guest room, with lovely brown and green floral wallpaper in the background, headphones jammed in both ears.
Hipsher, for her part, was able to take some furniture from school, along with her computer monitor. It’s all set up in her finished basement, which now doubles as her office. During her prep week, and with the trusty camera skills of her TAs and her husband, she shot 16 different Panopto videos in her kitchen, her front yard, and the woods near her house.
Last week, her lab met officially on Zoom. There was a short lecture. They all clicked play on her first video. Then the students busted open their soil kits. To see everyone engaged was uplifting, Hipsher says, if slightly bittersweet.
“I’m sure there will be bumps in the road,” she says, “because there are bumps in the road even when we do this stuff in the lab!”