From TikTok videos to Duck Pond lectures, professors get creative

By Jenny Kincaid Boone

virginia techClass lectures are broadcast directly from Stroubles Creek and the Duck Pond.

Dining room tables and bedrooms serve as makeshift art studios.

TikTok videos find new meaning as music history vocabulary assignments.

Across Virginia Tech professors are getting creative to transition their courses to the web because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To limit the spread of the disease, on March 23 all spring semester Virginia Tech classes moved online, rather than in-person. Classes will continue in this format through the end of the semester.

The university communicated the decision to the Hokie community on March 11 as many faculty scrambled to prepare for the change.

One of them, Paolo Scardina, decided to get creative with the location of his classes. Scardina, an assistant professor of practice in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been filming parts of his lectures for his three online courses while standing up to his ankles in creeks and waterways around campus and in nearby areas. Scardina teaches courses in fluid mechanics and water resources engineering, so seeing waterways and understanding how they work is an important element of the classes.

Using his own video camera, Scardina is taking his students to the water, virtually. Last week, he waded into Stroubles Creek, which flows into the Duck Pond to record a segment on open channel flow. In one scene, he picks up a red bucket, fills it with water, and pours it into the creek from an incline, demonstrating elevation differences for water flow.

“With online education, we can now do some of the stuff that we weren’t able to do before,” said Scardina, who feels stuck in a traditional classroom because it is not feasible to take large groups of students on field trips.

“Now I can make the classroom wherever I want,” he said.

Scardina also has filmed in Giles County, and he plans to visit other campus spots, including a stormwater retention pond near the Inn at Virginia Tech, for future video demonstrations this semester.

Already his students are emailing with feedback that the videos are a nice change from a more traditional lecture and Powerpoint slides.

“When you are in the classroom, you are limited to what you can do,” Scardina said. “But with everything remote now, it changes the options.”

Food, grass – it can be art

When it comes to making art, Betsy Bannan, an advanced instructor of painting and drawing in the School of Visual Arts, is giving her students the following advice in the wake of COVID-19 and online-only courses – use whatever materials you can find around the house.

Bannan spent the second week of spring break dreaming up ways that her students could produce art from their homes and apartments, without access to their paint supplies, an on-campus studio, or hands-on instruction.

“There’s not a lot of precedent for teaching painting online,” said Bannan, who consulted with many of her art education colleagues at institutions across the country for ideas. Like Virginia Tech, many universities in the United States have moved all courses online for the remainder of the semester to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Bannan encourages her students to use anything from food to grass as art material. Typically the students use acrylic paint for their assignments, but Bannan said many now could switch to using watercolor, ink, and even collage materials to produce artwork.

In addition, studio space for students to create their projects has been a big challenge to overcome.

“If you have the temporary use of a dining room table, how can you make the best use of that temporary space?” Bannan said. “Maybe you will be in a bedroom in the house and have the whole bedroom to take up. It can change the scale that the students work at.”

And because the professor is not available in person, the students must take pictures of their art pieces and forward them for grading. Bannan provided her classes with a tutorial on how to take photos of their work with a smartphone. “It’s harder than you think,” she said.

If there is a silver lining, it’s this: Bannan also teaches a Pathways course for non-art majors, and one of the assignments is to create art that reflects current events. Bannan plans to ask students to show, through an art piece, how COVID-19 is affecting them.

Also, Bannan believes that the pandemic will help her students learn valuable lessons, such as how to be resourceful when access to supplies is limited, she said.

“It’s a good lesson of what will you do when you are not in school,” Bannan said.

COVID class

Just before spring break, Glenda Gillaspy, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry, switched the topic of a course that she is co-teaching for undergraduate and graduate students to focus on the molecular biology of SARS/COV-2, which is the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Originally, the second half of the semester would have been a diverse study of gene expression and disease. Now the topic is more specific to what is happening across the globe.

“There is no way any of us are not thinking about it [the pandemic], but hopefully students in this class are thinking about the science and the pieces that they already know,” said Gillaspy, who is based in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “And hopefully they are thinking they want to know more.”

One challenge so far is that the COVID data and research that students are reading for the course keeps changing. That’s because scientists are publishing their research about the virus as quickly as they can and in many cases, before it is reviewed by peers.

“In a classroom, you make an assignment and you don’t expect that the resource will change,” Gilaspy said. “We are expecting that it does change. That is interesting for the students to see.”

Turning to TikTok

Meanwhile, instructor of musicology Elizabeth McLain is asking students to tap into a trendy video sharing app for assignments in her history and analytics of musical style class. Each student is assigned a vocabulary word to teach to the class — by creating a 60-second TikTok video.

These kinds of video sharing apps have picked up steam among younger generations as the rise of COVID-19 has forced people to stay at home, leaving them with extra time on their hands and a desire to connect.

“The students make these anyway … it seemed like a natural fit,” said McLain, who is part of the School of Performing Arts.

To be sure, these ideas could stick around for future in-person classes. The move to online teaching has opened up new ways for faculty to adapt and innovate.

“Great challenges also create great opportunities,” Scardina said.


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