Q&A: David Howe preps CANR faculty, students for remote learning

David Howe, Learning Designer in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, helps faculty adjust to online teaching

david-howe-cropAs a Learning Designer in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, David Howe provided an essential resource for CANR’s faculty, staff and students as they prepared for remote teaching. Howe said he served as a “bridge” that brought remote-learning resources at MSU to the faculty and students within the college. Howe answered several questions about how he helped prepare CANR for remote learning and how the college responded to the challenge.

Question: Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring, what plan did the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources have in place for college-wide remote learning?

David Howe: I started at MSU just two years ago, but from what I have learned, discussions about the role of online learning here have been rich and ongoing for quite some time.

Practical and experiential learning are the foundations of the culture and history at MSU. We offer students access to a diverse array of labs, agricultural and horticultural facilities, greenhouses, live animals – the list goes on – that digital representations just cannot replace. Nevertheless, some remarkable online offerings had been developed, and this has been encouraged and supported to best serve students and to progress the school’s mission.

Plus, the global nature of the research here and experience with learners from abroad has helped shape the innovative nature of the faculty and the skillset needed to deliver quality instruction from a distance.

What was your role in assisting with the college’s move to remote learning?

DH: I saw myself as a bridge.

I also have an appointment in the College of Arts and Letters, and I had been working with people in IT and at the MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning Technology. I was fortunate to have participated in the early stages of the remote teaching workshops at MSU. What I did was work with others in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs, especially Dr. Kelly Millenbah, to be sure that ANR folks get the information they needed to take advantage of the wide-ranging resources that had already existed or were being developed throughout the university.

ANR faculty, staff and graduate students flocked to the workshops and courses, which reflects their commitment to teaching, but the communication network within the college helped that happen.

What were some of the main concerns professors/students/staff/etc. had about remote learning?

DH: The concerns expressed were very much to be expected:

  • Online instruction is not as good as in-person
  • I am not adept at the technology
  • How can I translate what I teach to an online forum?
  • What if my course fails?
  • I need face-to-face interaction with students

How did you and your colleagues respond to those concerns?

DH: The concerns are understandable, and we tried to help people directly or connect them with the focused support they needed. In general, people accepted our new reality and did what they had to do. Everyone was rallying and huddling and supporting each other. The focus never left the needs of students, while still acknowledging and responding to the needs of faculty and staff.

How did the students respond?

DH: This was something we continuously tried to evaluate. It was stressful for students, of course. So many of their plans (internships, travel abroad, club participation, research experiences) were upended. They were disappointed not to be able to see their classmates and other students. They missed the face-to-face interaction with professors. Some had technical issues interfering with online instruction. Many aspects of their lives were affected, so the demands on them as students were magnified exponentially. In talking with a handful of students, I found people’s experiences to be unique and individual. I was amazed at some of the stories of resilience I heard. People can be heroically strong. The students I talked to felt that their advisors and instructors cared about them. That was something positive to hang on to.

What has been the biggest challenge shifting to online learning/teaching?

DH: Striving for equity and access for all students. The ability of every MSU student to interact with online content and participate fully in their courses is so important. Technical needs of students, like adequate computers and internet access, were challenging. We have students across time zones and international boundaries. College is already demanding, but students now have stressors in their lives like never before. Equity and access will forever be prominent.

So here we have faculty, staff and administrators who are deeply dedicated to their students and trying to care for them in ways quite likely novel to them, and simultaneously experiencing new stress both professional and personally.

There was also an emotional hurdle in accepting that this is how we will be doing instruction; not seeing students in person; not having that same flow of energy that feeds teachers excitement about teaching. We can try to replicate that, or perhaps develop a new model of interactions for the online experience, but no doubt something has been lost. For students, I can only imagine the pain of losing the social experience and sense of community that comes with being on campus.

What has impressed you most with how the college has shifted to online learning?

DH: As I mentioned earlier, people can be heroically strong. Some students’ stories were painful to hear, yet never lost hopefulness. People can also be tremendously caring even when while carrying their own heavy burdens. I am thankful to have been here at ANR in MSU during the crisis. I feel I belong here.

What is the future of online learning for MSU CANR?

DH: Online learning everywhere will never be the same. Issues of accessibility and equity require continuous attention, but we listen, we learn, we progress. Skills to provide engaging material, to design more effective learning assessment, to build an online sense of community, and to put in place other essential elements of online learning will continue to spread and develop. Learning what can be done well online, will be done in that space; and we will make even better use of our “real” space than we already do. Face-to-face instruction will change as well. We are spending more time reflecting on teaching and learning, and we are learning more about how students learn and what practices can effectively accomplish our course and programmatic objectives.

What resources stood out as pivotal to the shift?

DH: On the technology side, the basic tools were in place-D2l and the Spartan365 suite. As I said, the tools were in place, but heart made it happen. The culture of caring and collaboration at the school and the university was the big pool of resources. There were people in all directions with knowledge, skills and generosity to help.

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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