As the number of COVID-19 cases increase in the state, University of New Mexico faculty have quickly adjusted and are beginning to move many classes to an online format.
On the morning of March 12, an All-Faculty message solidified that classes would not be canceled after spring break as of yet, but encouraged faculty to decrease in-person interactions.
“Our experts tell us that our window of opportunity to implement containment steps remains,” the message read. “If we pursue business as usual, we will not be able to flatten the curve and the mortality rate could be high in those vulnerable populations.”
The message continued to encourage faculty and departments to consider how in-person instruction could be reduced in an attempt to “flatten the curve.” The University stated that many students rely on the institution to provide healthcare, housing and other services. The message said closing the University could have “irreparable damages.”
“The goal is not necessarily to eliminate all in-presence instruction, but to reduce contact and hence minimize the probability of viral transmission in the educational environment,” the message said.
A shortened version of the message was later sent as a Campus Communication from UNM Provost James Holloway.
“I do think it’s very good that UNM has been proactive. Before we had cases in New Mexico, we started to get notification that this was coming,” Melanie Moses, computer science professor, said. “They’re reminding everyone to, you know, you have the websites. They’re reminding everyone to practice behaviors that are going to protect particularly vulnerable populations.”
Not all instructors found this communication helpful. Shortly after the message was sent to faculty, UNM Assistant Professor of American Studies Nick Estes expressed his concern on Twitter.
“An email from my boss: there is a window for containment for Coronavirus and steps to take,” Estes said in the Twitter post. “We’re not going to take them, but we hope you as an instructor figure it out. Good Luck.”
Before the All-Faculty message was sent, some professors had already been moving or preparing to move their classes online. English MFA student and Blue Mesa Review Fiction Editor Mario Montoya said that he was advised by his department to move his classes online earlier in the week after he and 10 other English instructors returned from a writing conference in San Antonio, Texas.
“There weren’t saying that there was a rule or a policy or it wasn’t against school policy for us to show up and teach,” Montoya said. “But they wanted to take precautionary measures.”
According to the CDC, as of the publication of this article, there are 23 reported cases in Texas.
“This is a good practice in my opinion for something that might happen anyway to the entire campus after spring break,” Montoya said in regards to moving his class online this week.
He said that his in-person classes were not difficult to transition online because he is already teaching other classes online this semester.
“Is it easy? Is it as convenient? Well, of course not,” Montoya said. “But it’s working and it’s doable and if it’s what we’ve got, it’s what we’ve got.”
Montoya said he is not sure if he will keep his class in an online format following spring break and he will do whatever is advised by his department and the University.
Assistant Professor of Political Science Jessica Feezell began preparing to move her classes online when she saw colleagues at other universities undergoing the same transition about a week ago, she said.
“Seeing other universities do it and knowing the way that things tend to spread, I imagine that coronavirus (will) eventually come to New Mexico and I imagine that the state and public universities would want to do whatever they can to minimize any potential spread and to mitigate that threat,” she said in a March 10 interview with the Daily Lobo. “And one of the easiest things and most effective things to do is to close schools, at-least in-person school.”
Feezell was interviewed before presumptive positive cases were recorded in New Mexico. The state’s first presumptive positive was reported on March 11. As of March 13, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham confirmed there are 10 presumptive positives in the state.
The first move that Feezell took to mitigate the spread was to adjust her attendance policy.
“I don’t want students who are immune-compromised to feel like they have to come to class and subject themselves to unnecessary risks,” Feezell said. “I went ahead and I eliminated that requirement of attendance.”
Feezell taught her first online class in the summer of 2019 but said that it was a long process to get herself ready to teach online. She said that there are two components to online teaching, the lecture and the discussion. Replicating the discussion, she said, is the difficult part of having an effective online teaching experience.
“The one thing that I still can’t figure out how to do really well is to replicate the discussion that happens in the classroom,” Feezell said. “There is probably stuff I can read on how to do that better and I would certainly like to know, but it seems like one of those things that is costly in terms of energy to produce something that so fun to do a classroom … but providing that same circumstance and experience in an online environment. I’m not sure how to do it yet as effectively.”
Feezell said she thinks it would be tricky for the entire campus to move online quickly, especially if faculty have not taught an online class before.
“It’s my hope and my expectation that the University anticipates that we might have to move this all online quickly,” Feezell said. “And that the technological infrastructure and the pedagogical infrastructure are there to support teachers as they make this very quick leap that would normally take months to learn to do.”
Resources to transition online quickly
Since the Daily Lobo spoke with Feezell, the University began to offer materials to assist faculty in the transition to online courses.
The UNM Center for Digital Learning is working with Academic Technologies to create a series of resources to help faculty get started in moving their class online. The Academic Technologies website hosts a coronavirus page where resources can be found: at.unm.edu/coronavirus/.
“Once we have all of our pieces in place, and we are ready to go public, that’s where everything will be linked from.” Stephanie Sprong, the associate director of the UNM Center for Digital Learning said.
According to Sprong, the UNM Center for Digital Learning is also building a simplified template for a web-enhanced course, but the template has not yet been made public.
Sprong said the UNM Center for Digital Learning is also increasing its number of open labs, drop-in labs to prepare online classes and making sure the labs are available virtually. They are also scheduling additional webinars to get faculty started on Blackboard Learn, the University’s online platform for course-related materials. Videos are also being made to help professors transition to Learn quickly, such as how can you upload an item in Learn.
Sprong said they have been learning from other schools on how to ease into this transition.
“In the time of all of this chaos, one of the things that I’ve been both surprised and impressed by is the intellectual generosity of so many people who do this kind of work across institutions,” Sprong said. “People are being really generous with the things they are sharing so we have access to more things than we could possibly put up. We wouldn’t want to overwhelm folks but so many people are sharing things right now.”
Makayla Grijalva is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MakaylaEliboria