It was a working spring break for political science professor Michael C. Desch. He started the week of March 8 in Washington D.C. before heading to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “D.C. was very quiet because many U.S. government employees were working remotely,” he notes.
The Packey J. Dee professor of International Relations and the Brian and Jeannelle Brady Family director of the Notre Dame International Security Center was well aware of the threat the coronavirus posed to the U.S., but even he was surprised how fast ‘life as we know it’ came to a screeching halt.
“While at Fort Bragg, I was only in intermediate contact with the rest of the world, but it was clear by the end of the week that big changes were in store,” he says.
Indeed. On Wednesday, March 11, Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., announced classes would not resume as scheduled Monday, March 16. His announcement was made the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic — an outbreak of a serious new disease with sustained transmission throughout the world. Father Jenkins instructed faculty to take the next week to prepare to teach remotely. All in-person classes were suspended from Monday, March 23 through at least Monday, April 13.
By Wednesday, March 18, Father Jenkins announced the suspension of in-person classes would last the rest of the semester. These are unprecedented decisions for a University that prides itself on learning and living in community.
“The movement to online classes was the only thing we could do to protect our students, their families and our community,” notes Timothy P. O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. “I’ve been impressed with the entirety of Notre Dame’s response. I have colleagues at other institutions who received an email on Thursday or Friday saying, ‘Hey, get ready to go online next week.’”
O’Malley says, for him, the sudden shift to remote instruction was not a big ask. He’s been teaching online for five or six years. His advice for those jumping in now: Record your lectures and make them available to students to watch on their time.
“Asynchronous learning is really the only approach to take for a good deal of what we do, especially right now. If you're teaching at 8 a.m. it's simply not wise to have one of your students on Pacific Daylight Time get up at 5 a.m. to hear you talk about the Iliad.”
Rachel Novick recorded lectures last week at the Martin Media Center. The assistant professor of the practice in the Department of Biological Sciences and director of the Minor in Sustainability seemed at home in front of the TV cameras.
“The team at the media center was amazing,” she says. “I would like to thank (Notre Dame Studios staff) Amy Williams, Josh Baltazar, Dan Skendzel, Lynn Langston and the whole team at the Martin Media Center for their professionalism and support.”
The switch to online instruction is more than getting used to lecturing on camera, she says.
“I think the biggest challenge is balancing the desire to give students an academic experience that is as similar as possible to what they would get on campus while recognizing that they are dealing with a lot of stress and personal challenges and we don’t want to add to their anxiety,” Novick says.
O’Malley also acknowledges the stress students must be feeling related to the coronavirus.
“We have to recognize that our undergraduates are now functionally adult learners. They're no longer in residence at Sorin College or McGlinn Hall. They're at home with their families, scattered across the world...they could be serving as the teachers of their siblings,” he offers as an example.
O’Malley believes the biggest hurdle to distance learning isn't the technology or recording lectures. “It's learning to recognize the needs of these adults, who may be balancing their studies with life. And most of our undergraduates, I suspect, are doing this for the first time.”
Mike Chapple, of the Mendoza College of Business, agrees. “The guiding principle is to understand the impact that coronavirus is having on other aspects of our students’ lives. We need to find ways to accommodate that and have flexibility and compassion as students are trying to juggle so many things they have going on in their lives right now.”
Chapple is the academic director of the Master of Science in Business Analytics program, based in Chicago. The facility there is shut down, like the rest of the University. The program was moved online Friday.
“The first day went really well,” he says, thanking Stayer Executive Education colleagues Morgan McCoy, Carmen Quinn and Brooke Shannon as well as the Office of Information Technologies (OIT) and Mendoza IT team.
Chapple, who is also an associate teaching professor of IT, analytics and operations, has taught a couple of undergraduate online courses. He offers this advice to faculty new to teaching this way: “In a crisis like this, your effort is best spent trying to get things working properly rather than trying to create a whole new pedagogical experience and embrace all the many technologies that you haven’t used before. Simplicity is key in the early stages.”
Desch feels prepared for the change to online instruction. “I regularly use Zoom for business meetings so I suspect my transition to distance learning to be less disruptive than it is for many of my colleagues who are trying to adapt Zoom to large lectures and other teaching formats.”
Young faculty and staff, he notes, can be great coaches.
“Younger colleagues of mine — Jeff Harden and Aneika Johnson — have more extensive experience than most of us in distance learning and have been very generous in helping the rest of us in political science,” Desch says.
Still, he does not think the academic culture of Notre Dame’s in-person instruction is in jeopardy. “I would guess that our experience will somewhat reassure distance learning skeptics but it will also not vindicate the view that the brick-and-mortar campus is obsolete,” says Desch.
O’Malley agrees. “Online cannot replace that face-to-face conversation, the presence of person to person, that we crave. When (our) students get back, when faculty eventually returns to the classroom, I believe we may recognize the gift of what we have. Students and faculty fall into habits. I'll never walk into a classroom at Notre Dame again, without recognizing the unique (privilege) I have to be in the presence of such remarkable students. I miss them a good deal even now.”
The ability to be nimble in changing times is imperative, says O’Malley. For example, on Friday afternoon, he was asked to teach an online course for undergraduates who, due to the pandemic, came back to the U.S. from abroad.
“It will be a very fast three-credit course for those students, called Theology, Worship and the Arts,” he says. “I’ll also make it available to colleagues throughout the country in need of content.”
For those of us who feel like the world is upside down, Desch has this reflection: “My wife put up a sign in my den at home to ‘count your blessings.’ Like most people, I am preoccupied with disruptions to my life that, so far, are in the realm of first world problems (e.g., the gym is closed). But for most people who are not fortunate to be at a place like Notre Dame, things are much harder. We should, therefore, count our blessings and keep those less fortunate in our prayers.”