© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Teaching Online During A Pandemic Is Hard, And It’s Harder For These Kinds Of Classes

With schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, students have had to adapt to trying to keep up with lessons remotely, from living rooms, kitchen tables and bedrooms.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Transitioning to online is challenging for most university courses, but labs and other hands-on courses are particularly difficult to change.

EDWARDSVILLE — The coronavirus outbreak has forced classes at nearly every university and college in the St. Louis region online, and students and faculty face the challenges of learning or teaching through a screen.

Some courses, like larger lectures, can transfer online with relatively few hiccups. But others don’t translate so well, because they’re designed to be hands on or geared toward experiential learning.

Bryan Smith teaches one of those courses — an exercise assessment class — at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Smith is also the exercise science undergraduate program director at the university.

In his course, students learn to measure heart rates and blood pressure, take skinfold measurements and conduct aerobic testing.

“We kind of lucked out in the spring, in that we had most of that stuff done before we shut down,” Smith said. “This second half of the semester, we’re not in the lab quite so much.”

Still, Smith will face the challenge of teaching online when the class returns in the summer. He plans to send stethoscopes, skin calipers and blood pressure cuffs to students for them to practice with. 

It’s not a perfect solution. It will still be difficult for Smith to ensure his students are learning those skills properly, he said.

“They can video themselves putting a blood pressure cuff on and putting a stethoscope in the right spot, but I can’t hear what they’re hearing,” Smith said. “It’s the same thing with taking a heart rate. Obviously, I can’t feel what the pulse is in the other arm.”

Smith expects he’ll be able to teach those skills over the internet, but the responsibility shifts to his pupils to really learn and practice them.

'No substitute'

In-person instruction is crucial for other courses, too, like chemistry, physics and biology. 

“There’s no substitute for having students in the lab and actually doing [the experiments] themselves,” said Alison Redden, senior lecturer and general chemistry lab director at Washington University. “When students are working in the lab, they’re under the guidance of a teaching assistant who is monitoring their technique.”

Much like Smith, Redden said she was lucky when the coronavirus pandemic hit because there were only three labs left for the year. She did not have to teach how to stay safe in a chemistry lab online, because those lessons were covered much earlier. But the transition online was challenging because Redden needed to make sure her students were still learning.

“Really going through my mind was, ‘How can I retain as many of the learning objectives as possible? How do we assess lab technique?’” Redden said. “The one thing we really cannot do is have students perform hands-on experiments.”

She decided to record a colleague doing the experiments and sprinkled in a few mistakes in the lab procedure. That way, her students still have to pay attention to the material, Redden said.

“They are able to watch the procedure and watch the techniques, but it’s not the same as being in there, doing it yourself, having to pay attention to waste disposal, how to handle the chemicals,” she said.

Part of the lab is making sure students know and understand how to work safely, which cannot be tested online, Redden said. The courses she oversees are prerequisites for more intense lab work or research.

Beyond science courses, arts courses also benefit from face-to-face instruction. Most are a combination of theory, instructor demonstrations and studio time to work on projects, said Paula Haniszewski, an art professor at Southwestern Illinois College who teaches basic design, drawing and painting. 

In her courses, she leaves time to demonstrate to her students when they have questions. Moving that online means using her phone, tablet and computer to show different angles, she said.

“I’m providing all these views so I can show them what exactly they need to be doing,” she said. “It doesn’t translate the same way.” 

Moving art courses online is also challenging because of the cost of supplies. Haniszewski said the art department let students take home supplies from the college when the stay-at-home order was announced. Art supplies can cost between $50 and $500 depending on the project, Haniszewski said.

“That’s not a reasonable purchase for them. For them, that’s grocery money, rent money, cellphone bill,” she said. “Our No. 1 concern was that they would go home and they wouldn’t have any supplies.”

Looking forward

The whole coronavirus lockdown has Haniszewski, Redden and Smith all thinking about how to improve their online courses if they have to do it again in the future.

“Ultimately it will help in the long run, because we have had to sit back and think about how we teach this material,” Smith said.

For Redden, the challenge shifts to bringing new students onboard and teaching them proper lab technique, safety and etiquette remotely. 

Haniszewski even sees online learning as an inevitability, just hastened by the coronavirus. 

“Classes were moving online already before this happened,” she said. “It’s just figuring out how to make sure everything [students] would normally receive face to face would be the same quality when it moves online.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Send questions and comments about this article to: feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Our priority is you. Support coverage that’s reliable, trustworthy and more essential than ever. Donate today.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.