VCU’s ALT Lab helps the university go virtual

A headphones-wearing person working on a laptop computer. [View Image] VCU's Alt Lab has played a key role in transitioning the university to an online learning environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Getty Images)

Nicholas Frankel had limited experience with online learning prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Frankel, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of English in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, had previously used Blackboard, a bulletin board platform, but did not want online learning to replace in-person lecture and the traditional classroom setting.

“In the past, I've concluded that Blackboard was no substitute for the live classroom experience,” Frankel said. “My students would almost unanimously agree with this, I feel sure.”

But as COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, continued to spread, Frankel began working with the university’s Academic Learning Transformation Lab to identify the tools necessary to move his classes online. The lab, a specialized group within VCU, has played a key role in transitioning the university to an online learning environment during the pandemic. 

‘Remote emergency instruction’ 

The ALT Lab, which develops online and technology-enhanced courses, was already engaged in conversations about transforming the university into a digital environment when VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced on March 18 that classes would be taught online for the remainder of the semester. 

James Fowlkes, acting executive director at the lab, said a plan was developed and a poll was sent to faculty asking them to rate their ability to quickly move online. The university created a form where faculty members submitted a plan on how to teach in an online environment and with that, a database was created to prioritize and strategize the different needs. 

Over the past few weeks, ALT Lab team members have worked with faculty to solve specific problems associated with their classes. It has been a massive undertaking amid an evolving public health emergency. 

Normally the ALT Lab takes an entire semester to build an online course, so what’s being offered are called “remote emergency instruction.” The ALT Lab team quickly assembled the available tools to create an online learning environment based on faculty members’ ability, the curriculum and student needs. 

“We approach this problem from each individual course differently,” Fowlkes said. 

A unique situation

Email, video chat, recorded video, instant messaging and online bulletin boards are a few of the tools that have been used. So far, the lab has worked directly with 300 faculty members and over 300 more have used online resources that the ALT Lab has made available.

Brianne Leia Jackson, Ph.D., a senior instructional designer at the ALT Lab, said the challenge is that people interact and digest information differently than they would in a traditional classroom setting. Part of that is due to the newness of online education. Jackson said people will say they are comfortable using an online tutorial on YouTube but also say they do not have any interest in taking an online class.

“A lot of time people see learning as the four walls and the guru on the stage, because that is what they are used to,” Jackson said.

Normally, the lab would break down the pieces of the curriculum and create custom solutions for an online course. The curriculum is crafted and built with the online environment as the center. The current situation is a crash course in helping take current curriculum, designed to be learned in-person, and presenting it in a substantive way to students who are scattered across the city, state and country. 

The process has faced three critical issues: lack of internet bandwidth for students to stream video; students who live in rural areas and do not have access to the internet; and the infrastructure of the internet being overwhelmed by the increased load. 

Jackson said the process also is taking place when everyone’s anxiety is heightened. People are out of their comfort zone. Staff at the lab is stressed at the same time faculty and students are worried and concerned.

“These are things in the current situation that are very unique,” Jackson said. 

Working with the lab

Frankel, the English professor, said he is grateful for the work that the lab has done and the help it provided. He understands the current situation is unique and everyone is doing the best they can to replicate a traditional classroom. 

“It's gone as smoothly as could be hoped, and perhaps more smoothly than I expected,” Frankel said. “Class is much more challenging to manage than before, and I worry about the extent to which all my students feel included. It's easier for me to make students feel included and part of a learning community in the physical classroom than online, but I'm working on it.” 

Andrea Malisheski, a senior English major, had some experience with online learning before the current crisis, but never for an English class. She is pleased with the transition to online learning but misses the opportunity for in-class interactions.

“English is very much about storytelling, and everyone imparts their own personality in the way they speak and present their thoughts, which I believe helps us all to connect and understand each other a little better,” she said. “I think discussion flows more naturally and into more interesting territory when you are able to respond to someone face-to-face.”

Now that classes are up and running, Jackson said a lot of the conversation has revolved around testing. Faculty members want to ensure the integrity of a testing process, which can be difficult when students are at home on a computer. The lab has talked about ways to limit the time a student can take a test as one solution.

Jackson said she has been proud of her team and the work they have done to help transform the university. She has been “blown away” at some of the creative solutions the designers developed for faculty and is confident the university will be able to present students with a quality education this semester. 

The process will have some bumps along the way, she said, but everyone is determined to make it happen.

“I have full confidence that VCU will get through this,” Jackson said. “I think this process is really going to showcase what can be done with online education.”

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