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COVID-19 response: Arnold School faculty rise to challenge of online teaching

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life, members of the UofSC community family are rising to the challenge with a spirit of resilience and concern for others. See more stories. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced University of South Carolina faculty to take their teaching online. Where once professors and instructors commanded the classroom, they now command Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

In the process, faculty are getting a crash course in online education — and the learning curve can be steep. But it’s not insurmountable, says Lucy Ingram, assistant dean for academic affairs and online education at the university’s Arnold School of Public Health. Ingram is also an associate professor in the department of health promotion, education and behavior.

“I’ve learned that we know more than we think we do,” says Ingram.  “What I didn’t anticipate as part of my role was just trying ease the anxieties — beyond the technical assistance of, ‘How do I literally do this?’, it’s really been, ‘Can I do this? I feel overwhelmed.’ That’s not just from faculty but also from students.”

This is triage. This is everyone doing what they can to get through the next month.

Lucy Ingram, assistant dean for academic affairs and online education at the university’s Arnold School of Public Health

That’s understandable, even at the Arnold School, which already offered two standalone master’s degree programs online as well as individual online sections of other courses.

“We already did a fair amount, but certainly, as most of the university and the world is figuring out, there is a big gap,” says Ingram. “Some of us know more than others in terms of learning management systems, let alone how to develop, create and execute quality remote instruction.”

To get faculty up to speed, Ingram helped coordinate a workshop on using Blackboard Collaborate with the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence. She also put together a network of seasoned public health faculty from each of the Arnold School’s departments.

Dubbed the Online Learning Champions, these faculty provide guidance further down the chain.

Myriam Torres is one of several faculty members on that team. A clinical associate professor in epidemiology and biostatistics, she is herself a relative newcomer to online education but says she learned some valuable lessons while teaching a five-credit course online in fall 2019.

Torres is now sharing those lessons with her colleagues, though she understands the hurdles many of them have encountered as they adapt face-to-face courses for online instruction in a very short period of time.

“One big [hurdle] is that some of the undergraduate courses are huge —120-plus students — and some instructors felt intimidated about moving them online,” she says. “But we have had a tremendous amount of support from Lucy’s office and the Center for Teaching Excellence and that has made the difference.”

Ingram, meanwhile, continues to educate herself on available technologies, tools and techniques, and to share them as appropriate. She is also making sure the Arnold School’s different departments are on the same page and that everyone understand they are in this together.  

“My goal has been to stay in constant communication with CTE as well as our school-level administration to make sure we’re communicating one message — that’s important,” says Ingram. “Even if there is uncertainty among our faculty, they can feel like everyone has the same level of uncertainty.”

Ingram cautions that classes rapidly converted to an online format aren’t ideal, and classroom instructors suddenly conscripted into the online ranks are at a significant disadvantage. At the same time, she says, the experience may open some people’s minds to new possibilities.

“This is triage,” she says. “This is everyone doing what they can to get through the next month. That said, I do think it has helped some people to find out more about what online instruction entails, so we may have a few converts as a result of this situation, people who before now had been able to avoid distance education. Now, they may be more open to it.”

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