How Was the Shift to an Online World for FPU?

An Overview of How Our Teachers and Staff Felt About a New Reality

As FPU enters its third semester online, it has begun to seem as if in-person learning is a distant memory. When the change was made over a year ago, the FPU community, along with much of the rest of the world, didn’t think much of it. For students it was an excuse to stay home, while also being a much more convenient way to attend school. For the teachers and staff which make the classrooms run, however, it was a hard change to their everyday lives. 

Over the course of lockdown, the Syrinx has published many stories presenting the views and thoughts of FPU students during this period of online, distanced learning. This time around, we have decided to instead showcase the thoughts of some of our FPU staff and teachers on the change and how it affected them.

The Syrinx interviewed two offices as well as a couple of teachers for their insight. We want to personally thank those who responded for sharing their voice to us all, as it will help us better understand how this online switch has changed the way they work. 

How difficult was the transition away from the classroom or office setting when FPU first made its transition to online?

Kerry Brown, Director of Student Support Services, Student Success (ASC):

“The difficulty at first was more emotional than in the functionality of our services. That week in March was full of changing news and growing concern of COVID-19. On Thursday of that week, a colleague mentioned that we as a campus would be shutting down for a couple of weeks. Sure enough, that Friday we were told to move our service online, pack what we needed to work from home for awhile (we all thought we’d be back by the end of March at that time), and take care of ourselves. It was difficult to not be scared, but our ASC team was so motivated to do what we needed to do to help the faculty and students, we didn’t stay scared for long.

Our team stayed in almost constant contact during our work days for the next month or so. We met online with one another, our fabulous colleagues in COL and IT, and our student workers. Our question to one another and others in the FPU community was, ‘How ARE you?’ and giving space to name fear, boredom, frustration, loneliness, as well as share in joys and celebrations.

So, how difficult was the transition? It wasn’t too difficult because we all love what we do and love to serve the FPU community. I know the Lord strengthened us to persevere and persist! I look back on what we were able to accomplish last year and am so grateful for the hard work of so many across the campus and within our department. I am grateful for the leadership and empowerment of Greg Camp, who oversees us; for Robert Lippert for including the ASC in the CARES grant; for the COL staff—Henrietta, Patty, Jason, and Todd—who helped us make sure our services were transitioned onto Moodle; for Amina in the library and her collegiality; for John and Chad (both of whom no longer work at FPU) in IT and their work with the laptops and hotspots for our student workers; for the ASC staff and student workers for truly making the best of a pretty crummy situation.

In many ways, this year brought out the best in a lot of people.”

Registrar Office:

“The Registrar’s Department is blessed to be comprised of capable, independent staff and a strong, compassionate leadership team who work together quite well. Because of this, the transition to remote work and learning went much smoother than it could have. Under the leadership of the University Registrar, Danielle Jeffress, the Registrar’s Department was able to plan, prepare, and transition to working from home while continuing to provide the best support and service we could to students, staff, and faculty. There was certainly a learning curve as we navigated Zoom meetings, developed new communication methods, and adjusted to the changes in the world around us. However, the Registrar’s Department once again proved that the ‘Reg team’ has created a caring community as everyone extended support, prayers, and encouragements to one another before, during, and after the transition.”

Dr. Daniel Larson:

“The transition was hard for a lot of reasons. When we went to distance learning in Spring last year, there was a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty, a lot of new responsibilities at home for many folks. On-line settings work really well for some people, and others have a really hard time.

Teaching on-line requires its own specific techniques and strategies—it really is a completely different thing than a face-to-face classroom. Creating a strong on-line course typically takes months of preparation (writing and recording lectures, creating lessons, updating and recreating worksheets or handouts, writing exams and quizzes—not mention keeping up with research and integrating new and fresh perspectives into the course); a lot of that happens when designing any course, but it has to take specificities shape for on-line learning. Because of that, an on-line course can have more unification and more clarity sometimes, but it also can lose some of the spontaneity of traditional face-to-face classes. There are some drawbacks to that, but it also opens some really interesting new possibilities as well. There are some real exciting new things you get to try out in this setting that wouldn’t be possible in a face to face class.

I think this is a really interesting question, because when we talk about FPU’s shift to distance learning, we’re really talking about 3 different things: 1) crisis management, 2) synchronous distance learning, and 3) on-line learning. I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that the three (or 2 1/2) semesters we’ve been in ‘distance learning’ we’ve had some very different expectations. In Spring, we were responding to crisis—we had to move fast and take stock of a lot of new things in all our lives; in Fall, we had planned for an in-person face-to-face return, but received news just before the semester started that all classes would be ‘synchronous on-line;’ and Spring is really the first time we knew beforehand what we could expect for the semester.”

Dr. Julia Reimer: 

“I remember the week as being pretty intense, when we found out we wouldn’t be going back in-person after Spring Break. We were in the middle of oral presentations in my World Theater class and the final project for Visual Rhetoric was a ‘Where We Live’ project where students were supposed to run around and do a written or video rhetorical analysis of a place. With the ‘stay at home’ mandate, that was going to be more challenging. And Zoom was so new to most of us, that it was hard to know how much to keep the same in a course, and how much to radically redesign. And of course, it was such a disappointment for graduating seniors, and also for students in the Visual/Performing Arts, because their senior recitals and art shows were cancelled, the spring musical was cancelled. And that’s true now too for most of the Arts. I know some things got acknowledged in the wonderful prayer moments on behalf of various parts of our FPU community, but others maybe did not. Rituals of mourning are so important when we go through difficult things. So I was just trying to do my best to be present to students, both individually and in classes, and do what I could to help us all navigate the season. I was so grateful to students during that time, for their graciousness, how they were there for each other—being creative in figuring out how to manage teamwork, presentations, and figuring out unfamiliar technologies. It was such a collaborative effort across the whole university, with lots of unknowns. I’m grateful.”

Dr. Brian Schultz

“The transition, which happened in March of last academic year, was not too traumatic for me for two reasons: first, because one could build on half a semester of in-person instruction during which a certain amount of relationship building with students had already taken place. This is not to say that I had a personal connection with all the students, but that my experience of them and their experience of me had happened live in-person for a couple months already. One can interact with individuals where there is already some kind of shared in-person experience in ways one can’t without it. Second, I chose to keep the same schedule as when teaching in-person, which required less reworking of the course content and/or its delivery than if I had transitioned to make most of the course a-synchronous. One anecdotal report suggests this continuity between in-person instruction and remote learning was appreciated by, if not comforting to, students.
 

I found the past two semesters to be more challenging. There are some students’ faces I have never seen and, other than their verbal affirmation that they are actually behind the black tile that bears their name on my Zoom screen, whose voice I have never heard. Even so, we are so very blessed to have a tool like Zoom, and it may be that while I feel disconnected from such students, for all I know some of them may prefer it and do better with it than if they were in an in-person classroom.”

In what ways have you handled online? How have you changed your approach to teaching or work? What are you doing to keep a positive mindset and what have you learned over these times?

Kerry Brown (ASC): 

“As a department, going online helped expedite some changes we were hoping to make in the next few years. It’s a lot easier for students to make an appointment for an ASC service, including Degree Completion students. In fact, more DC students have been served in the past year than in the previous years combined! However, use by the traditional student population is dismal compared to what it usually is.

My approach to work has changed to being more proactive in reaching out to students who may need someone to talk to, an academic coach, or mentor. They aren’t able to stop by the ASC and I won’t run into them around campus. I know there are a lot of frustrated students out there who need help getting back on track with their academics. We are still available to serve them!

To keep a positive mindset, I meet regularly (some in person, some virtually) with my team—Francisco, Javier, Alfredo, Leann, and Sarah. They are such a joy and we really enjoy working with each other. Plus, they are fabulous colleagues who work hard to serve FPU students and to make the ASC as helpful as possible.

On a personal level, this past year has been a good year for my family to simplify our lives. It is usually full of sports, music, outings, and busyness. It’s been a year when we’ve spent a lot more time together, which has been great!

As I mentioned above, I think this time has brought out the best in a lot of people. We have a ways to go, but I am hopeful that we—individuals and a collective community—can be a part of God working all things together for good and for His glory.”

Registrar:

“Many of the processes within the Registrar’s Department were already online or transitioning to online/electronic platforms prior to the pandemic. However, many things, such as meetings and services provided at the front desk, took place in person. Luckily, there were already structures in place to support a transition to online work. Meetings were able to take place via conference call, Skype, or various other platforms and student services were provided via phone and email. 

The transition to remote work has proven how adaptable the Registrar’s team is. The entire team adopted an open and patient mindset, seeking to do whatever it took to ensure we did not waver in the quality of service provided to students, staff, and faculty. This included creating new processes, forms, and policies as well as updating or reworking existing processes and policies.  

Maintaining high morale and a positive working environment was very important to everyone on the Registrar team. Department meetings became a space to share encouragements, prayer requests, and connect with one another in addition to work. Many members of the team went above and beyond to show support to one another. It has proven to be a way for our team to grow and get to know one another better. We have learned how to better support each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to function successfully as a team in the face of adversity.”

Dr. Larson:

“Well, I think it helps to think about every situation as coming with its own specific opportunities, not just its limitations. The university classroom (on-line or otherwise) is a place where knowledge get’s created—you’re not just there to passively receive data like Neo in the Matrix or something. Students are part of the production of knowledge—you yourself are making the knowledge happen. In a discussion based-class, this is really evident; but it can be hard to replicate that kind of open discussion over something like Zoom. 

One of the things I’m doing more of is leaving the class meeting as a time for students to explore and create in groups. I’ll put up a lecture video or lesson to view before coming to the class meeting, and then leaving the class more open-ended for long-term group projects. For example, my Literature classes are making podcast episodes: they discuss the text as a group, then one person edits and posts the conversation for the rest of the class to listen to at another point during the week. That’s not really something we could do without Zoom break-out rooms. It’s one of the opportunities the on-line modality opens up for us.

As far as ‘keeping positive,’ in all honesty, it’s a struggle sometimes. Sometimes, though, you do get down, you know, you get isolated and the repetition of it all gets a bit overwhelming. When that happens, it helps to reach out to people around you and try to get grounded again. I know for me it helps to read a short poem or do some contemplative or centering prayer or even just going for a walk—things that help me recenter and refocus on the moment.”

Dr. Reimer:

“I never quite understood the ‘flipped classroom’ before pandemic teaching, since in Theater, we are always interactive, hands-on, applied in our approaches. But I’ve been learning even more about what’s good use of class sessions, and what’s better done asynchronously…at least in my little corner of the Humanities/Social Sciences. For example, I’m pretty white Euro-Mennonite—that whole northern European to Russia to USA immigrant story—so it would be pretty tragic if students in an Intercultural Communication course got me as the main voice narrating all the theory, even if I’ve had a variety of international and cross-cultural experiences. But if we can hear Kimberlé Crensh​aw lecture on Intersectionality via a TEDTalk and Jeanne Tsai talk about emotion and cultural display across cultures in a video lecture, why wouldn’t we want that? Then, in our Tuesday sessions, we can hear from each other, listening and learning as we work to develop our intercultural competencies as diverse cultural selves in the classroom space. It has been really interesting to have the space/freedom to reframe certain pedagogical structures, which are perhaps part of a system we’ve been previously handed, but which could be creatively reimagined. It hasn’t felt like a ‘one size fits all,’ ‘this course must be put online’ mandate, which is sometimes how these things feel in pre-pandemic times. I’ve really appreciated that from the administration. It has felt generative to be able to play a bit with the ‘how’ of our structures so the medium really can fit the message. This has also been a time for me to step back a bit and think more about my vocational strengths as a teacher, as well as my liabilities. Maybe a little too much ‘alone’ time to reflect on the latter!”

Dr. Schultz:

“There are two main ways I have adapted to remote learning. The first is that I have tried to include more activities that are a-synchronous for students to do in preparation for the live Zoom sessions.  The second is learning to replace the plethora of face to face interaction that happens with in-person instruction during, before, and after class, at Charlotte’s, in the Forest, etc. with a constant flurry of emails and updates to the Moodle content.
 

The most challenging has been my Hebrew classes, which when held in person include lots of moving around the classroom, interacting with props, utilizing posters and whiteboard drawings, etc. More recently I have modified my desk to make it a larger surface on which I can play out scenarios with props, began using a second camera, and incorporated additional hardware that works with Zoom so as to allow me to write and draw like on a white board.”

What are you most excited for if and when FPU makes it’s transition back to in-person?

Kerry Brown (ASC):

“People!!! I miss the people…the students especially, but also the campus conversations with colleagues and the impromptu office visits to faculty.”

Registrar:

“Donuts on Fridays! Or, in other words, getting to be together in a place where we can actually see and talk to one another without worrying about slow Wi-Fi or any of the various technological issues encountered regularly. It has been so long since we have been able to come together as a community, gather around a box of donuts, and share with one another. More importantly, we are excited to be able to provide the level of service that can only be reached when assisting people in-person. We are thrilled to be able to take everything we have learned while working remote and continue applying it as we transition back to in-person work, providing the best service possible.”

Dr. Larson:

“Honestly, I can’t wait to just bump into people again. Those small moments of seeing someone on the way to class or sitting in the coffee shop are really important elements of life in a community.”

Dr. Reimer:

“I do miss being with other people as three-dimensional beings.  There’s so much that happens in the margins of a class session; the conversations before and after class, the energy from being physically together, running into students in hallways or saying ‘Hi’ at Charlotte’s or the Library, live performance in Theater classes, as well as all the little ethnographic things I like to send students out to do in various courses. I miss meeting up with colleagues and friends to bounce my self-, teaching-, and world-reflections off of.  I’m pretty tired of the Zoom. It has served us well through a difficult time; I’m grateful. But I’m looking forward to moving into a less-mediated existence. A bit more proximity, social joy and transcendence would be nice!”

Dr Schultz:

“I am most excited about having fewer (hopefully no) silent black tiles with students’ names in white font on my Zoom screen; even if these are replaced by equally silent bodies in the classroom, they will be very much alive and I will be able to recognize them—and hopefully interact with them—in other contexts.”

Whether fromit be told by a student or staff member, the answer is always the same. It is easy to see that the whole FPU community is eager to get back to an in-person setting.  We all miss the feeling of being at our beloved FPU campus and the vibe it brings. The Syrinx would like to once again thank those who shared their thoughts on how the online world has reshaped their lives. We are all excited and ready to return to our beloved campus! 

Author: Julian Alcaraz | Features Editor

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