Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellen Klinger was already making a challenging transition. New to The Ohio State University, Klinger had moved from a government research role at Utah State University to teaching full time at the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
She hadn’t taught since graduate school. All of her spring semester classes were in physical classrooms, said Klinger, an assistant professor of entomology.
Then, the pandemic forced a campus lockdown. All Ohio State classes moved online.
Klinger, like so many of the college’s faculty, staff, and students, had to adjust, demonstrating ingenuity, adaptability, and resolve to uphold the university’s land-grant mission and deliver a quality learning environment.
“The land-grant spirit has been alive during the pandemic. It has just looked a little different,” said Tracy Kitchel, CFAES senior associate dean and director of faculty and staff affairs.
“Before the pandemic, we knew our faculty were creative,” said Kitchel. “The pandemic allowed us to see how truly creative and responsive they can be, and we saw that across teaching, research, and Extension.”
In addition to worrying about methods and strategies, faculty worried about their students, Kitchel said. “They cared. Some students could manage this better than others,” he said. “Our college is known for having a strong, student-centered approach, and this definitely played a role in working through the remainder of spring semester.”
Sink or swim
Though Klinger had very little online experience, she knew what had to come first. She made a video for her Entomology 1101 class using CarmenZoom, the university’s online meeting app. She invited students to contact her with issues, and she provided multiple contacts. She made herself available outside of class times.
“The sink-or-swim moment was realizing I had to be clear to my students. I had to give them information succinctly and make it so they could find it quickly. I knew it would kill the morale of the class if they had to search,” she said. “They really appreciated it because they were getting clear information about what was expected of them in the class online.”
When students floundered after having performed well in-person earlier in the term, Klinger reached out without judgement to offer alternatives such as verbal assessments and assignments. She became flexible with due dates because she knew students had much to overcome inside and outside of college, she said.
On CarmenCanvas, Ohio State’s online learning platform, Klinger created modules with shorter lectures and activities during which students could interact with insects in the world around them, instead of merely watching her.
She placed videos on YouTube and BuckeyeBox, the university’s file-sharing platform, to give options.
She sent students to sporting websites such as Cabela’s to look at fishing lures made to resemble insects. She directed them to the National Agricultural Statistics Service website for Ohio data and the Entomological Society of America to give a glimpse of career opportunities.
With the loss of a physical lab component, Klinger and graduate research assistant Kendall King assigned an at-home insect collection for students to investigate, photograph, and reflect upon in their backyards or on city sidewalks.
Insect nets are expensive, so Klinger and King wrote a document that described how to make insect traps with household materials. Students could make a pitfall trap by digging a hole in the ground and placing into it a plastic container with a little soap and water in it; a yellow bowl trap to fool bees that fly into it because they think it’s a flower; and a flight-intercept trap using plastic wrap and a pole.
Recognizing our common humanity
While moving 150 students in her Principles of Food and Resource Economics course from a large lecture hall to the web, Zoë Plakias realized what confronted the students at home would be amplified during this time.
“It hit home the many significant challenges that students face. Some students started working full time when they got home. Some students couldn’t do face-to-face,” said Plakias, an assistant professor in the CFAES Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE).
“There are a lot of students who don’t have a lot of people in their lives who are there just to help them out,” Plakias said. “I just try to recognize our common humanity and treat them as people first, students second.”
Plakias shared information on mental health services and food emergency resources. She revised assignment schedules.
On CarmenCanvas, many of her discussion boards encouraged students to ask each other questions relating the pandemic to current course material. For clarity, she compartmentalized the syllabus and assignments into learning modules.
She took her printer home with her and offered to mail materials to students who needed them. While no one took her up on it, students indicated in their course evaluations that they appreciated the gesture.
Also, she incorporated something she had never done before: lecture videos.
“The first one was not great,” she said. “But we are all our worst critics.” Plakias then improved the videos by exhibiting more of the energy from when she’d been teaching in a full lecture hall. She shortened her lectures and updated slides to be more explicit.
“I had to adjust.”
Learning in a 60-foot bubble
Forget field days when contact is off limits and all of the students have left campus.
How do you learn hands-on about weeds without strapping on boots and getting down on your knees in the mud?
Virtual reality (VR) technology provided a solution in the CFAES Department of Horticulture and Crop Science (HCS). Using a 360-degree camera, Bruce Ackley and HCS Professor Kent Harrison captured an environment to serve as a representation of CFAES’ Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory.
“With any device, you can go into the virtual environment and feel it out,” said Ackley, a program specialist in weed science with Ohio State University Extension. “I couldn’t take a group of students out to the field anymore, but we have a good setup of Waterman for our virtual lab.”
Students could examine various weed populations based on some of Waterman’s locations: a soybean rotation, a cornfield, a pumpkin patch, the pasture, and the turf farm. One- or two-minute videos were integrated with the Viar360 virtual platform to give the impression of standing in the middle of a field in a “60-foot bubble,” Ackley said.
Ackley and Harrison, who have been teaching an online master’s program in plant health management for years, repurposed their graduate-level weed ecology materials for CFAES Weed Science Team members in HCS 3488.01, a professional development course. Students had been preparing for the annual summer weed contest that was canceled this year, Ackley said.
Students also viewed YouTube videos of herbicides in action, manipulated three-dimensional models of plants, and reviewed digital texts.
“I want them learning something and enjoying themselves when they’re learning it,” Ackley said.
The 126th annual edition of AgriNaturalist, the nation’s oldest student-run magazine, came together despite COVID-19-related restrictions.
“The biggest difference this year was that our staff left for spring break and never returned to campus,” said Annie Specht, AgriNaturalist advisor and an associate professor of agricultural communication in the CFAES Department of Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership (ACEL).
“The way it was scheduled in the past, we came back from spring break and had a production week. Everyone worked together on that project, putting together the master document.”
Students had gone on vacation or to their parents’ homes or elsewhere. Many live in rural areas and don’t have internet access, making it difficult to carry out responsibilities at a distance, Specht said.
“I tried to limit the number of scheduled Zoom meetings, said Specht. “They were doing what they could within the constraints that they were dealing with.”
Design editor Lea Kimley, editor-in-chief Meredith Oglesby, and associate editor Marlee Stollar—all ACEL graduating seniors at the time—provided great teamwork and leadership, Specht said, as the students finished layouts, tweaked stories, finalized advertising, tracked ad revenue, and maintained contact with the printer, Freeport Press of New Philadelphia, Ohio.
“There was never a time when anyone said ‘we can’t do this.’”
Many CFAES instructors, such as Louise A. Campbell in the Department of Food Science and Technology, relied on their previous experiences online.
All of Campbell’s courses were already online, but after spring break, she made a key adjustment.
“One thing that I have learned from online teaching is that it helps to know which students have not taken online courses before.”
“I can tell you that most of what I did in the spring, after break, was to try to manage the obvious stress that students were experiencing,” Campbell said.
When each of her 300 students submitted an assignment, Campbell included in the grade comments a request to spare a few minutes and email her to let her know how they were doing and how everyone was at home.
“I got a lot of responses,” she said in an email. “Most were pretty surprised that someone cared enough to ask. And I got some insight as to what was going on in the lives and homes of my students, and how that was affecting their ability to learn.”