UW News

March 17, 2020

‘It’s a good test’: UW faculty, students adjust to an online end to the quarter, prepare for spring

UW News

This wasn’t how LaShawnDa Pittman expected to give her final exam review: At her kitchen table, laptop open, coffee cup at the ready, her 12-year-old Chihuahua named Espresso by her side.

But as the first week of the University of Washington’s shift to online classes drew to a close, Pittman, an assistant professor of American Ethnic Studies, was talking with her students over the conferencing platform Zoom, first to answer logistical questions about the upcoming exam, then to provide a refresher of some of the themes of the course. For this class, African American Families, that meant revisiting some key historical developments and public policies from the Civil War to the post-civil rights era.

Navigating the technology effectively has been a learning opportunity for everyone, Pittman said afterward, but the university’s decision to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of winter quarter was the right thing to do “for the health and well-being of everyone on campus.”

“I’m trying to be as flexible as I can with all of this,” Pittman explained. “There’s a lot of anxiety among students. I’m trying to end the quarter in a powerful way for students, to try to be as compassionate and make this is as easy as possible for them.”

Around the UW, faculty in every department, school and college made a change in plans. School of Music instructors conducted lessons over FaceTime. In the Jackson School of International Studies, guest speakers visited over Zoom. A doctoral defense in the School of Oceanography was livestreamed, with audience members occupying every second seat. And School of Public Health Dean Hilary Godwin has been holding “town hall” webinars on all things COVID-19.

Student at a lectern with a screen behind him and audience members scattered around the room.

Jake Steinberg defends his research to in-person and online audiences in the School of Oceanography.Olivia Hagan/U. of Washington

Rick Mohler, an associate professor of architecture, wrapped up his winter-quarter Research Design Studio from an empty classroom in Gould Hall. On the wall-mounted monitor, his students presented, group by group, their proposals to revamp six Seattle neighborhoods. At quarter’s end, there was to be a celebratory event — a panel discussion with local officials and planning professionals — but that has been postponed indefinitely.

It’s been a challenge, Mohler said, to translate what is normally a hands-on class, in a room filled with posters of housing prototypes, scale models of city blocks, and the chatter of student groups. Viewing their digital models on a large-screen monitor — rather than a student laptop in class — is a definite plus, he said. But the shift to an all-online environment means continual adjustments.

“A potential silver lining in this crisis,” Mohler said, “is that we are being required to adopt remote conferencing tools we might otherwise ignore.”

Students have been adapting, too — concentrating on lectures via Zoom and Panopto, “visiting” instructors in online office hours and submitting questions to discussion boards. None of the technology is completely unfamiliar, students say, but the totality of it — every lecture, every assignment, every question, every test — has taken some getting used to.

“It’s been a big learning curve,” said freshman Hannah Lee as she studied in Odegaard Undergraduate Library last week. “There’s definitely been some limitation in not being able to work with other people on whiteboards, or to have them write things out. But Zoom meetings are nice, because we can share screens. My TA was able to pull up her screen and write out what she would have written out on paper for us.”

Freshman Zage Phillips likened the shift to online classes to a public health experiment.

“I’m glad that they’re doing this for people who are high-risk, but I think that it’s a good test to see if we can keep it contained,” Phillips said. “But I think that the results will only show us if it actually worked in the future. I think only time will kind of tell.”