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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Academics & Research

‘The staff at UH are killing it’: Faculty gears up for an unprecedented fall semester


Christopher Charleston/The Cougar

Now having to hold the majority of their classes to some online capacity, professors at UH have been trying to adapt to the new normal as much as students.

“The initial thoughts were that there would be a significant in-person component in the fall,” economics department chair Dietrich Vollrath said. “We weren’t sure what to expect.”

Vollrath said his department realized later on in the summer that the number of coronavirus cases in Houston weren’t going to allow for in-person courses to operate normally.

“I think the biggest struggle was a lack of understanding about exactly how we were expected to make this work,” Vollrath said. “A lot of this is being done on the fly with limited knowledge and guidance.”

Although the process to build courses structured around online learning was difficult, Vollrath said, the University helped to make the process easier for professors.

The University’s faculty advancement center provided live training opportunities that were recorded for later reference and helped to compile lists of concerns and necessities among the staff.

The provost’s office has also provided resources for faculty with information about IT assistance and learning to better online teaching.

“The staff at UH are killing it,” Vollrath said. “They are working their butts off doing a lot of things that have never been asked to do before.”

Byron Ross, a communication science and disorders professor, praised the University for being at the ready to assist the faculty throughout preparations for summer and fall courses.

“They really jumped out in front of this as much as they could,” Ross said.

He said the resources the University provided really helped in preparing him for the HyFlex courses he will be teaching this fall semester.

Ross said teaching a HyFlex course will be especially difficult because there are students attending online and in person simultaneously. His concerns revolve around how to attend to each group of students and keeping them engaged.

Ross expressed that his traditional style of teaching involved paper quizzes and exams, but with a HyFlex course, it won’t be possible. He said he needs to incorporate new methods for assessment, attendance and teamwork while implementing academic dishonesty policies.

Education professor Carrie Cutler said her concerns lie with students. She said she wants to make it a priority to ensure that her students know she cares for their well being.

“I hope my students still feel connected to me and to each other,” Cutler said. “I want them to know I care about them.” 

To make sure her classes were fun for her students, Cutler made a YouTube channel with her three young sons. They have over 60 videos with math lessons for teachers and parents to try from home based on what would have taken place in an in-person course of hers.

Vollrath expressed similar concerns over students being engaged with them and their peers virtually. He said the technical requirements and the interim grading policy could contribute to frustration and lack of engagement in a course.

“It reduces the dynamic for us,” he said. “The energy and excitement we get for teaching is keyed off of you guys.”

Amy Sater, the biology and biochemistry department chair, had different concerns with the structure of courses. Sater said her department was focused on adapting their lab courses to be instructed online and to troubleshoot potential challenges to teaching them in that format.

Instead of focusing on research programs, her and her faculty have been meeting to map out how this fall was going to play out.

“We’re biologists,” she said. “We knew that there was a good chance we’d still be dealing with COVID by the start of the fall term.”

With professors learning to conduct their courses over Zoom, what to wear and where to teach are things they are still trying to figure out.

Vollrath said his wife will also be teaching online courses and his two daughters are trying to navigate school virtually.

“They almost have tape out on the floor just finding whose zone is where,” he said.

Another thing to consider when conducting lectures through Zoom is the background. Vollrath said what you wear to teach a class in person shows what kind of environment you’re creating as a professor.

Now, he said, it’s your Zoom background.

“Everybody starts to worry about all these students staring into their house,” Vollrath said, his professorial office bookshelf being his least favorite background.

Jokes aside, Vollrath said students should appreciate the amount of effort on behalf of UH faculty and staff to make this semester a success.

For more of The Cougar’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

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