Trinity University is not a warzone.
But in the spring of 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic establishing a foothold in the United States, Trinity instructor Katherine Troyer says the University’s scramble to move classes online was about as close to that experience as academia gets.
“The spring was like wartime conditions: do whatever you can to save as many souls as possible, and worry about yourself later,” Troyer says.
Troyer is assistant director for programs with The Collaborative for Learning and Teaching, a braintrust for Trinity faculty and teaching staff that shares best practices for effective teaching and learning and organizes reflective discussions, presentations, workshops, and scholarly communication. The Collaborative, in partnership with Trinity’s information technology services department, faculty and staff across multiple departments, and University leadership, was tasked in 2020-21 with shifting Trinity’s classrooms towards new models of learning and instruction they’d need to survive—and thrive—in the COVID-19 era.
This shift has taken many forms, from the implementation of new technology to the adaptation of novel teaching techniques. It’s required an incredible amount of sacrifice from faculty and staff in all corners of the University. But more than anything, Troyer says, this shift has prompted administrators, technology specialists, and faculty to unleash their creativity.
From Break to Breakthrough
As the pandemic surged during Trinity’s spring break, the University rapidly weighed its options to finish the spring 2020 semester.
Troyer, along with the Collaborative, the President’s Task Force, and Academic Affairs, turned to Trinity’s information technology services (ITS) department to figure out how to move online. That’s where Jessica Barto, training and outreach specialist for ITS, stepped in.
“[Academic Affairs special assistant to the vice president] Lisa Jasinski came up to us and said, ‘It looks like we’re going online—we’ve got spring break to make this happen,’” Barto says. “And we were like, ‘OK, let’s do this!’”
Moving online meant introducing faculty and students to technology such as Zoom—now a household name, but in spring 2020, still relatively unfamiliar to much of Trinity’s campus. Trinity had already purchased Zoom and similar tools needed for online learning in 2019, well before the outbreak, but had been using them mostly for remote Trustees to video in during board meetings. Barto had planned on starting education for these tools slowly, over the course of 2020.
“But we didn’t have time for that,” Barto says.
And while much of campus was able to successfully transition online for the last weeks of school, “this was more like a temporary band-aid,” Barto explains. “We still needed a more stable, long-term solution going into the fall.”
Barto and Troyer, along with their counterparts in ITS, Academic Affairs, and the Task Force, were charged with having to completely re-imagine Trinity’s classrooms for the upcoming fall semester. So, they started work in May, as soon as the spring semester ended.
“We accepted a new normal: We’re no longer in triage mode with COVID-19, this now is our reality,” Troyer says. “Now, how are we going to find a way to make the best of this situation?”
The initial problem facing the team was the wide range of Trinity’s classes. As a liberal arts university with a heavy dose of sciences and experiential learning, not every class could simply move online. And faculty, Barto recalls, were extremely concerned about the fact that Trinity wouldn’t be able to return all its students to campus, which would create a divide between remote and in-person learners, sometimes within the classroom itself.
“We knew what had worked from the spring and what didn’t, so we were both excited and very nervous for how both the classroom and online learning were going to work,” Barto says.
There were three types of fall courses Barto’s team had to prepare for: in-person, remote, and TigerFlex (a hybrid with in-person and remote learners both in the course.) But even within these three types of classes, there was incredible variation in the size of each class, the physical space of each room, and even the technological needs dictated by the subject.
The best solution, Barto says, ended up with ITS taking a custom, tailor-made approach to each course. “We had to strategically think about what was going to work in each room. Every one of our divisions were brought together to come up with solutions. We couldn’t just set the same technology in every room - we had to create custom solutions for classes with 10 versus 50 people.”
ITS ended up equipping more than 60 classrooms with new technology that allowed faculty to teach in-person and remotely at the same time, such as mobile document cameras and video conferencing units.
But simply installing the tech wasn’t enough, Barto says. She also needed to help faculty learn how to use the technology. So, in partnership with The Collaborative, Barto launched a series of summer training sessions for faculty to help prepare for the upcoming semester, and has continued them through the fall.
In addition to the hardware, Barto also ended up overseeing training for software, such as overviews of Google Suite and Zoom and more technical tools such as Adobe, Word, and Excel.
“Many of our faculty have never relied on technology in this way before. So, at first there are obvious concerns from faculty: what if something broke, or didn’t work the way they thought it would?” Barto says. “But the more we got in and practiced with them, the more comfortable we saw them become with these new tools.”
And these new tools, Troyer says, ended up prompting some bigger discussions about new possibilities for innovation and course redesign. As a result, Trinity's Collaborative also offered a series of bootcamps and workshops on best practices for Trinity's new learning models, such as backward design, community of inquiry, or flipped classrooms.
“It was amazing to watch, just over the short time in the summer, how much our thoughts changed,” Troyer says. "At first, with so much uncertainty related to the pandemic, we thought there would be more completely asynchronous, online learning--and then, I think many of us hoped we could return back to having students completely in the classroom. Ultimately though, we realized that we were going to need to adopt a much more flexible situation with TigerFlex. But through it all, our faculty stayed adaptable."
Designing a New Model
One of those faculty that Troyer points to as an example of that flexibility is human communication and theatre professor Scott Neale.
Neale, who walked back from peaceful sabbatical in spring 2020 into an unfolding nightmare, had previously relied on a completely hands-on, tactile experience in the classroom. Neale teaches courses such as Intro to Set Design, Theatrical Scene Painting, Experimental Design and Principles of Design. Each semester, his students create design elements for physical spaces inside and outside of theater such as museum exhibits, theme parks, restaurant and retail design, along with designing three-dimensional spaces that you can walk through and look at.
Or, as Neale jokes, “all the things affected by COVID-19 right now.”
Traditionally, Neale’s classes have relied on in-person use of art supplies and tools. His groups had used computers and tech before, but mostly just worked with design software for class projects. And the bulk of his students’ work has centered around building scale models of design ideas. “I ask my students to think three-dimensionally,” Neale says, “and the best way to wrap your brain around that is to be able to hold it.”
This fall, Neale’s “Introduction to Set Design” was a TigerFlex course—holding both in-person and remote students who ran a wide gamut between experienced theater majors and newcomers. “It’s fun, you get your hands dirty, it’s creative, and a lot of them have never built a model before,” Neale says of his course. “It challenges students to think with both sides of the brain. You create a concept, but then distill it down into something that has to actually be built. You’re both a dreamer and an architect.”
With many of his students isolated in their residence halls or hometowns, Neale felt it was still important that students had physical tools to work with.
“We’ve been living in this digital Zoom world for so long that it’s exhausting. For students that have never worked in three-dimensions before, it is so important to give them something to hold in their hand instead of just looking at a 3D model on a computer screen,” he says.
So, Neale came up with a “scene design kit”—a cardboard box with everything students needed to work on their course projects, ranging from architects scale rulers, drafting triangles and T-Squares to pieces of black foam core, matte board, cardboard, drafting paper, tape, glue, and Exacto knives. For students living off campus or out of state, Neale shipped to them.
While these kits served as a valuable resource, Neale was also able to use some of Trinity’s new videoconferencing technology to connect his students with another invaluable resource: industry stars.
“The live theatre industry is more or less on an extended hold right now. It will re-open again, but no one is doing live theater right now. So I’ve invited several Broadway designers to speak to the class, and to my surprise, most of them have said yes,” Neale says. “We’ve had multiple Tony Award winners such as David Gallo, the set designer for Sesame Street, and we have these discussions about their experiences working in theater. Our students have loved that—they’re usually a little quieter, but once you get them going, they’re pretty enthralled about it.”
Part of the reason so many guest speakers have signed on is that they aren’t working right now, Neale notes, tongue-in-cheek. So, the one downside to this new guest speaker model is that when these professionals get called back up, his class’ schedule can get a bit wacky.
“Our last guest had to reschedule because she got a last-minute call from Lin-Manuel Miranda, so of course, I’m like, ‘Ok, fine—your top priority is not my scenic design class.” Neale laughs. “But there are still all these opportunities for these people to give back to the theatre community, so we’re appreciative of all the time we can get with them.”
Neale is just one of many Trinity faculty who have adapted their teaching to the COVID-19 era.
Across campus, Barto and Troyer say that learning looks completely different than it did just a few months ago.
Classes are stocked with videoconferencing units and tripod cameras with microphones, while professors are mic'd up with personal lavaliers for quality audio. This commitment to technology is not a gimmick, Troyer says—it’s a crucial method for ensuring students at home have an equal share of the Trinity experience to those students still on campus.
“This is no longer a temporary band-aid—this is a paradigm shift,” Troyer says. “We’re not thinking about ‘I have students in person, but I need to incorporate a few who are out of the class.’ Now, we’re trying to build our classes with those remote students at the forefront to make things more equitable.”
“People are still trying to figure out whether they’re ready to embrace this paradigm shift,” Troyer continues. “We haven’t mastered this model, and we have a significant way to go as a university. We’re going to continue improving—next semester, we’re going to need to be just as flexible as we were this year. If we need to push more classes online, we’ll be able to do so. And if we get to bring back more in person, we’ll be ready for that too.”
While Barto and Troyer are excited about the potential for innovation they’ve seen this year, they also caution that the pandemic has not affected every course, subject, and faculty member equally.
“There are still a few faculty who are feeling a sort of disconnect between their in-person learners and their remote students,” Barto says. “ITS has got to find ways to keep helping our faculty engage both of these groups equitably.”
“And our faculty and teaching staff, we’re also all at or approaching bandwidth capacity,” Troyer says. “So, the Collaborative is still asking, how do we balance our best teaching practices with understanding that they might not work the same way for everybody?”
Still, professors like Neale are focusing on the upcoming spring semester as a chance to improve their courses even further.
“The thing I’ve really improved this semester is communicating with my students—I actually prefer using Zoom for certain things like office hours, which makes me more accessible,” Neale says. “I can do breakout sessions with individual students during group projects, check on their progress, and talk to them one-on-one. So I’m nervous about the upcoming spring, but also looking forward to it.”
Barto says the one thing campus can take away from the lessons learned on the battlefield of 2020 is that change in the classroom isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I am not excited about being in a pandemic, but I am excited about the technology we’ve been able to put in the hands of our faculty and our staff,” Barto says. “Yes, many of these changes happened fast, but the trends of this type of technology were set in motion a long time ago—the pandemic simply sped up that process.”
Barto acknowledges that Trinity’s shift to more tech-friendly, digital forms of learning takes a lot of work from both faculty and staff. But ultimately, now that the triage is over and the “band-aids” have been ripped off, campus can do more than heal: it can start getting stronger.
“Professors are really eager to come and learn about all this technology we have available, so I’m not having to beg anyone to come to my training anymore,” Barto says. “No one wants to be in a pandemic, but this mission—our mission—has brought us together.”