The first year of college is never easy, and it takes some getting used to. Add a global pandemic to the mix and it sounds almost insurmountable. However, professors have adapted and created new ways to learn, and reading professor Dr. Timothy Nelson is no exception.
Dr. Nelson teaches a prescribed course, so he is interacting with students as they begin their college journey. He has found that it is important, whether dealing with a pandemic or not, that being available and adaptable is key.
In the spring of 2020, Dr. Nelson was preparing for the imminent closure of the university and classes going virtual because he could see it coming based on what was happening in other parts of the country. He and his colleagues attempted to contact every single student in their classes and survey them on what they thought would work best since the spring 2020 semester would not be meeting in person.
“We made phone calls and sent emails making sure they had the necessary technology,” Nelson said, noting that there was a lot of problem-solving done over the course of that communication. “We did not want our students to ever have to say, ‘We lost touch with our professor.’ And that did not happen.”
Dr. Nelson said another challenge in the spring of 2020 was that several of his students were impacted by the tornadoes that hit Nashville, Cookeville, Wilson County and other communities in early March.
Some classes required synchronous learning, specific times that a class would meet on Zoom, but Dr. Nelson opted for a different method since he knew his students’ lives were all unique. He adapted assignments to fit the new format, but he still maintained the integrity of the course and ensured the students were still meeting the goals of the courses.
“We knew some of the students had kids at home,” Nelson said. “Even though there was not a certain time we all met, I tried to let them know that any aspect of any part of the work we were doing through other means I was very available and could discuss any aspect with them.”
Dr. Nelson said he spent a lot of time taking Zoom meetings and talking on the phone with students about assignments and chasing down students to make sure they didn’t lose touch with them. That also included making sure their web pages were updated with detailed instructions and requirements so no one was confused or lost.
That really didn’t stop in the fall of 2020, even though some of Dr. Nelson’s students are on campus. However, one big difference is that Dr. Nelson had been in the midst of developing an online course that serendipitously began last fall. He says that couldn’t have timed out better because he has several students that cannot be on campus for this required course.
“Developing the materials for the online course gave me a lot of extra support for how students could work outside the classroom setting,” he said. “I am using those same materials in my web-assisted classes, designing things that really meet our course objectives.”
Nelson calls the timing “an absolute miracle,” noting that was the biggest change from last spring to now. Still, though, it was a shock to the system. The class is designed to be interactive with a lot of group participation, but obviously, they cannot do that with social distancing guidelines. Instead, they’re relying on technology.
Because he had already set up the online class, Nelson was able to give his web-assisted students access to their textbook using the Perusall platform. Perusall allows students and professors to view a text simultaneously and students can collectively annotate readings in threads, responding to each other’s comments, making for a much more interactive experience.
“I can see their notes, we can do activities with small groups, and we can always pull the text up together and know we’re all looking at the same text in real-time,” Dr. Nelson said. “It helps to have that continuity and know with certainty that everyone is on the same page.”
“Being available is really important,” Dr. Nelson said. “I think once they know we are there for them they will use us. The students who do that are benefiting from it now more than ever.”
— Hunter Patterson (Hunter.Patterson@mtsu.edu)