Class is back in session at Milwaukee’s biggest university on Monday. But, the teaching is happening online.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, along with most other universities and colleges across the country, suspended in-person instruction because of the coronavirus threat. UWM extended its spring break, giving professors two weeks to reformat courses for distance learning.
Sheri Williams Pannell, an assistant professor in UWM's theater department, was two weeks into rehearsals directing a student production of the musical Bonnie & Clyde when she found out about the mandatory pivot to online classes.
"I never thought 'this cannot be done,' " Pannell said. "My thought was 'how can it be done?' "
The production includes 33 student actors, along with students building the set, making the costumes, and doing other behind-the-scenes work.
"So the challenge is how to take this from a face-to-face ensemble experience to now being that remote experience?" Pannell said. "As the showbiz adage tells us, the show will go on. A different format, a different manner of thinking, but we go on."
Pannell’s plan is to use a video conferencing service to allow the full class to perform one or two of the big musical numbers all together at the same time. Each student will also hold their own individual performance in their homes, recording themselves singing, reciting monologues and dancing to the choreography. Because of copyright issues, the online performances will probably not be available to audiences.
Peck School of the Arts Theatre Department Chair Robin Mello says this experience reminds her of another massive disruption the department faced recently: In 2017, a fire decimated UWM's Mainstage Theater, which displaced classes and performances.
"We have already gone through, 'how do we work in emergency mode?' " Mello said. "You really can't go into the tunnel of 'oh no, I wish my life was different.' You have to figure out what happens next."
Almost all UWM courses are continuing this semester despite the challenges of quickly shifting to distance learning. Executive Director of UWM Online Laura Pedrick says that out of about 6,300 face-to-face classes, only 37 were canceled because they can't be taught online. They are mostly in the athletic field, including golf, sports officiating and physical conditioning.
"The University's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning has made an all-out effort to help instructors transition their courses to online delivery," Pedrick said in an email. "Over the past two weeks, 25 workshops were offered, and over 180 instructors have taken a self-paced course to help them move their courses online."
That means lab science classes will continue online as well. UWM Physics Department Chair Alan Wiseman says it’s unfortunate that students will miss out on hands-on experiments.
"In physics, it is an interaction with the real world," Wiseman said. "You really should develop some physical intuition about 'gee, we have a big heavy flywheel, how hard is it to rotate it? When it’s rotating, what are it’s properties?' You want to develop some genuine physical intuition about how nature works, and that’s probably going to be harder to get across in a videotape."
Wiseman says instructors will be filming themselves conducting labs, and then students will write reports based on the data. He says lecture courses are easier to shift online: instructors are just filming themselves giving the lecture and assigning homework to gauge students’ understanding.
Some students, Wiseman says, are wondering how the change to online instruction will affect their learning.
"[They're asking questions like] 'will I really get the full content of the course?' And those questions have a sort of case-by-case answer," Wiseman said. "In the case of labs, we’re doing the best we can. In the case of lecture courses, provided they do the homework, I think they will get the full benefit of the classes."
UWM extended its deadline for students to drop courses, but Pedrick said Friday that only 100 students have withdrawn from courses between March 10-26, compared to 230 in the same period in 2019 and 156 in 2018.
With computer labs and libraries closed, UWM has also been working to help students who lack access to technology. The school sold more than 100 low-price surplus laptops to students, but that didn't cover the demand -- Pedrick says there is a waitlist of more than 200 students.
Suzanne Boyd, the chair of UWM's math department, is worried about students facing technology barriers and those who learn best with in-person help.
"My fear is that the experience won’t be really satisfactory for the students," Boyd said. "Math is already frustrating for a lot of students, so you add technical issues to that and it’s doubly frustrating. But we’re gonna try it."
As UWM instructors and students navigate online classes through the rest of the semester, UWM's leaders are bracing for a financial hit because of the coronavirus crisis. Chancellor Mark Mone announced last week that the university expects to lose significant revenue, partly from students moving out of dorms months early. Because of the looming financial challenge, UWM is freezing hiring and pay raises.
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