Reporter Debrief: How Vermont Colleges Are Adjusting On The Fly
Nearly two months after local college campuses made the call to send students home due to COVID-19, the disrupted academic semester is coming to a close.
In a matter of days, faculty and students had to pivot from their classrooms and studios and labs to bedrooms and living rooms and kitchen tables as schools mandated remote learning.
VPR's Henry Epp spoke with VPR's higher education reporter Amy Kolb Noyes. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So the second part of this spring semester has been all about changing to a new education model for colleges. I'm sure that was harder for some classes more than others. Right?
Amy Kolb Noyes: Yeah. As you can imagine, some classes just lend themselves to remote learning better than others, especially if there's no opportunity for pre-planning. So it's one thing to take an English class from home, but how do you navigate a science lab? So, I was really interested in following how science students are completing their lab requirements at home and how studio art students are making do without their studios.
So to find out about lab sciences, I checked in with Norwich University chemistry lecturer Page Spiess. She says chem labs that would have been hands-on learning for science students now involve watching a video of someone else performing the experiment:
Page Spiess: And that video and data is posted online for the students. And the students work through the pre-lab questions, the data analysis and calculations, and the post-lab questions virtually.
Now teaching chemistry online is not new to Dr. Spiess. She teaches an introductory-level online course through Norwich. And for those classes, students purchase chemistry kits that give them the tools to conduct basic experiments at home. But she says it's different for a more advanced course and one that wasn't planned to be taught that way. She's had to rely on videos and other tools readily available online, and she says there are some things they just can't cover.
They've gotten through this period of remote learning so far. Are colleges now thinking differently about how campus-based courses will be offered this coming fall, if they open in the fall at all?
Yes. Everyone I spoke with has told me they are preparing for in-person instruction in the fall, but also coming up with a plan B in case classes have to be taught remotely again. So both UVM and the Vermont State College System have announced that all campuses are planning to open for in-person learning in the fall. And at Northern Vermont University in Johnson, I spoke with printmaking instructor Phillip Robertson. He says he's looking forward to being back on campus with the students, but he's also thinking differently in making plans for the fall:
"So we've all been asked to not only prepare to go back on campus in the fall, but to be ready to convert to online. And I've really had to change my thinking."
At UVM, Provost Patty Prelock says they're taking a lot of notes on what is and is not working well this semester:
"I'm having all my deans kind of identify: What have you learned about yourselves, going through this? And when we get through it — and we will — how will that change your pedagogy going forward? And then, What could we do more of?"
All right. So back to the current semester of remote learning. You mentioned studio arts classes are a particular challenge in terms of working from home. Is that due to a lack of access to studio equipment and supplies when students are at home?
Yes, exactly. Printmaking is a class that normally relies heavily on equipment in the fine art building back on campus. Now, Robertson, the printmaking professor, is encouraging his students to make art using materials and tools they find at home:
"You can do relief prints on, you know, wood or linoleum. A few students have had some carving tools and linoleum and or wood, and they've made prints. They've carved the plates. You can also do potato prints. No one has done a potato print yet."
And Robertson says he's personally been making prints at home by carving Styrofoam meat trays. And he's been crafting his own print making tools as well and sharing those designs with the students. He's calling it "MacGyver Printmaking."
In all, Robertson says about half of his students have been making prints or stencil art. But he's trying to get all of his students, no matter their means, at least thinking about printmaking techniques:
"Most of the students don't really have any supplies and they've been pretty much just posting drawings. But what I've been doing is getting them to think about, well, what kind of print would this be when we get back on campus?"
But Robertson says it's been a challenging semester for many of his students.
Well, for his students at Northern Vermont University, has part of the challenge been the uncertainty this semester around the future of their school?
Yes, absolutely. As we've been reporting, the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges announced a few weeks ago that he would close NVU next year. And that plan has since been withdrawn, but Robertson said it was hard to keep his students motivated. Some students just felt like giving up:
"The hardest part for me was, you know, you're already emotional with having to close campus and stay at home and then to have that — and try to put a positive spin on it for all your students —that was challenging for me personally."