In mid-February, a possible pandemic seemed like a distant concern for most of us at Mason’s campuses in Virginia. But in South Korea, with growing concern and a sudden increase in COVID-19 cases, Mason Korea became one of the first universities forced to decide how to operate during a pandemic crisis. Questions that are now familiar to universities worldwide -- Should we go online? For how long? How? Synchronous or asynchronous? Do we have the right equipment? Enough bandwidth? –were answered several weeks ago by the faculty, staff, and students of Mason Korea.
“It was like trying to change a tire while driving a bus at 50 mph,” recalled John T. Crist, associate dean of academic affairs. After initial hope that a simple one-week delay of face-to-face classes would suffice, an increasing number of COVID-19 cases made it apparent that Mason Korea would need to teach online for a much longer period. One week? Faculty could wing it. The sudden, new plan to continue teaching online from the end of February--when the spring semester at Mason Korea began--until the beginning of April was a challenge of a different, and much more daunting, order.
To meet the challenge, Mason Korea drew on its own resources, as well as those of Mason’s Virginia campuses. Faculty members more experienced with online teaching stepped up to help their colleagues. Workshops were organized. Advice and guided tutorials on the rapid conversion of courses to online teaching were circulated. Equally crucial were the efforts of instructional designers from the Fairfax campus, who created a Blackboard course template for Mason Korea faculty and made themselves available for live help, despite the 13-hour time difference.
Unexpected benefits of online learning
Jennifer Ashley, a faculty member from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) Global Affairs program, arrived in Korea in February to spend a semester teaching. She found herself not only having to negotiate the expected transition to life in Korea, but also the unexpected transition to teaching online. Ashley focused on finding the advantages of an online environment rather than trying to replicate the face-to-face dynamic. “I found that introverted students often have difficulty participating in group discussion,” she said. “However, in the online class environment, those students now had time to process the question and provide a thoughtful response.”
She tapped friends and colleagues around the world to record short videos about their experiences and used them to help her class discuss global health. “It's a unique moment to be able to think about how the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of globalization shape health outcomes around the world.”
She added, “Instead of thinking about a class as an hour and fifteen-minute time period, it's useful to think about it as composed of a series of short segments… a short lecture followed by some video examples and activities and another short lecture can be much more effective. Overall, I would recommend keeping things simple when it comes to technology use.”
Support from colleagues in Fairfax
Professor Hyunyoung Cho, English program coordinator on the Mason Korea campus, had never taught a literature class online, and she knew that online courses usually required significant preparation beforehand. For Cho, colleagues in CHSS’s English department were an invaluable resource. “It was great to get the support from Professor Jessica Matthews and Professor Samaine Lockwood, who already taught the same or similar courses online. They kindly gave access to the rich resources in their existing online courses, as well as ideas and advice for me to be prepared quickly.”
Cho found that “a mixture of asynchronous and synchronous delivery of course content is needed. Such mixture not only gives students some semblance of regular class week structure but also provides much needed flexibility.” She noted, “It is also good for the instructor to loosen some of the control and let students do some of the work, such as hosting a [video chat] session, so that they can gain experience of being in charge.”
Cho emphasized that going online in this difficult situation requires consideration for students who also never expected to find themselves learning online, and who may themselves be dealing with other effects of the situation. “One of my students had to be self-quarantined because his roommate had symptoms consistent with COVID-19. I think those moments are when we need to be reasonable and show grace and kindness.”
Douglas Eyman, associate professor of English, is another CHSS faculty member from the Fairfax campus. He too finds that reason and kindness are key. “I think we're all dealing with the affective challenges of living with so much uncertainty, so I also made sure my online class wouldn't overwhelm students with too much work at the outset; I want them to get used to their new socially-distanced online learning experiences first, and then gradually bring them up to speed with the work.”
The student perspective
Scaling up successfully has taken time. Early student opinion of the online format was largely unfavorable. However, in the weeks since those first online classes, faculty and students alike have become more sophisticated online learners.
Minsoo Chung, president of Mason Korea Student Council, says he was grateful for the immediate responses he’d seen from the campus dean’s office and the office of academic affairs as the COVID-19 outbreak became more serious. As he represented Mason Korea students’ complaints and requests, he witnessed improvements in course delivery. “Most importantly,” he said, “I was able to understand the value of Mason’s ‘We Thrive Together’ a little more through what we had to overcome.”
Associate Dean Crist emphasized listening carefully to students during the transition. “Students are understandably uncertain and confused about the new way of doing things, not to mention concerned, as we all are, about the epidemic unfolding around us. The most useful thing that I learned faculty can do…is to communicate with students—or better yet, over-communicate. Stay in frequent correspondence with them about course assignments and expectations. Ask them how they are doing. Help them understand that you, as a teacher, are also working hard to adapt to an unexpected situation.”
Robert Matz, campus dean of Mason Korea, was grateful for the support from the Mason’s Fairfax Campus. “Advice from Mason Fairfax was a big help in moving our courses online quickly, including creating on-the-fly Blackboard course templates for our faculty,” he said. “I’d like to think that some of that work put Fairfax in a better position to manage its own transition a few weeks later.”
He also appreciated the determination of faculty, staff, and students at Mason Korea to continue to teach and learn. “Mason Korea has had a really great year,” he said. “Everyone is working hard to keep that momentum going despite COVID-19. It’s like we are doing two jobs—our regular ones, and then all the extra work that needs to be done to address these new situations.
“I am really grateful for the energy and creativity of the Mason Korea faculty and staff who are living up to this challenge.”
March 20, 2020