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How agriculture instructors capitalize on benefits of the virtual classroom

The ins and outs of online pedagogy have been under scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools and universities around the country lean on the medium to slow the virus’ spread.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic all summer 2020 courses at Purdue were offered online. For several summer College of Agriculture instructors, this was not their first time teaching online, and they have valuable lessons to share with their colleagues.

“The online format has to be designed to take advantage of the aspects that work best in that environment,” Beth Forbes, director of science communication and agricultural sciences and education lecturer, said. The biggest mistake a professor or instructor can make in online classes is trying to recreate the experience of a physical class within the virtual space, she added.

Another reality to remember according to Barny Dunning, forestry and natural resources professor, is that online classes are always more work for the students. Dunning taught a Freshman FNR introductory course this summer, which he has conducted online over the summer for the past six years.

“ I don’t stand up in front of the class, tell them what’s important and then have them spit it back out to me on a test. I show them where the information is, but they have to go get it,” he continued. “I think it can work well, but it takes a lot of effort.”

It takes a lot of work on both sides, Katy Rainey, associate professor of agronomy, emphasized. She taught genetics online this summer for the third year in a row.

The devil is in the details with online teaching

“Online teaching is 24/7. Be ready to answer email night and weekends, hold help sessions in the evenings and allow some assessments to be dropped,” Rainey said. She added that being accessible and flexible is key to any successful online course, but so is setting certain boundaries that would be more obvious in an in-person setting. This includes not allowing for the rescheduling of exams without due reason (bereavement leave, illness, sports, military service etc.), even though they won’t be done in-person and being clear about which assignments students are and are not allowed to collaborate on. “The devil is in the details with online teaching,” she continued.

Rainey, Forbes and Dunning all said that they often experience higher levels of student engagement when teaching online courses. Two important facets of promoting student engagement are offering a variety of options for engagement and keeping on a predictable schedule.

“Students like that every week has the same schedule,” Rainey said.

Dunning added that he uses a lecturing format that is popular in online classes, offering 10-20 minute videos, or “modules,” for students to watch and engage with on their own schedule. The course has discussion boards, but he also creates assignments that he thinks will engage student interest and discussion.

“For instance, each student picks a different country throughout the world and writes a weekly essay about the topic for the week (e.g., energy resources) from the perspective of that country. Students really seem to enjoy this portion of the class - they get to see the whole range of environmental issues from the point-of-view of some place other than the U.S.,” Dunning explained. 

“Developing a good online course can take two to three months of full attention,” Dunning said. “I think it can work well. That’s why I have taught this online section for six years.”

Forbes said she relies on discussion boards for engagement, but she also asks her students to interface with each other in less traditional ways, like recording introductory videos to share with the class.

“This really helps the students start to get to know each other even though they are not physically together. We also pair them up for peer review assignments. Combining reading assignments with thought-provoking questions also helps prompt discussion.” 

Dunning said while teaching online may not feel as natural to him, or many others, as standing in front of a class, there is much to be gained from online instruction for both students and professors. The spring semester saw everyone scrambling to make a quick transition, which is never ideal. With several months planning time, however, most professors can prepare an online course that is as, if not in some ways more, engaging for students.

“Developing a good online course can take two to three months of full attention,” Dunning said. “I think it can work well. That’s why I have taught this online section for six years.”

Dunning and Rainey emphasized the importance of remaining adaptable and flexible as situations develop and understanding students may be experiencing the pandemic and its associated stresses in a variety of ways. You can never be too sensitive to that, Forbes said.

“This summer we had students taking the course while living with large families and some were taking care of children as well. These were not ideal conditions for them,” Forbes continued. “Thinking about this fall, it is important to remember that students taking online classes may not be in ideal situations. They may have additional distractions or family concerns. On the other hand, they may be alone, feel isolated and without support. COVID-19 complicates everything and does elevate stress levels for both students and faculty.”

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