Five Online Learning Quick Takes with Digital Blue Guru Dr. Barri Bumgarner

Dr. Barri Bumgarner, Digital Blue Coordinator and Apple Academy Learning Specialist, is at the helm of temporary changes to educational delivery at Westminster College during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read below about how she’s preparing the College to meet the challenges of online learning during this unprecedented time.

How did the recent, sudden training go for the Digital Blue Distance Learning Program after it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was worsening?

Immediately following an emergency faculty meeting a little more than a week ago, it was incredible to see 14 Westminster students along with six faculty members working with many professors who attended. Coulter 205 was teeming with students and teachers learning together. Many more faculty came to the Digital Blue Lab from 9 a.m. to noon on Friday, March 13, for help transitioning to teaching online. Cori Tynes from the Department of Information Technology also assisted folks in the Digital Blue Lab on Friday afternoon.

What are some positives about Westminster students learning online in this format right now? 

Any innovative learning our Blue Jays are doing helps them in today’s professional landscape. There are very few jobs that don’t implement 21st-century technology skills. For several years, our students have already been learning using digital tools. And in the past two years, they’ve been using the Canvas platform actively in most of their classes. Now that we all have a common device, we are outfitted and ready for this challenge.

This unfortunate disease situation is also pushing a few reluctant professors to embrace what it means to teach effectively online. The biggest positive, however, is how few have balked since we had Digital Blue already in place. During our emergency faculty meeting, several folks blurted, “Thank God for Digital Blue!” It made me really proud, but more than anything, it justified how important it was that we did it in the first place. Allowing it to aid us in this trying time is indicative of a program that proves its importance.

What potential challenges are students and faculty facing as courses are taught in this new format while we undergo this stressful time in history?

We don’t want folks to underestimate the stress this has put on students. It’s important that the first week be a soft launch and focus on what it means to connect virtually. Chat with students, read to them, listen to them, ask them questions and allow them to ask their own questions. We will also be at the mercy of wifi/connectivity. Not all of our students will have it at home. This might be tricky at first. But a lot of companies have offered free internet. We need to show students grace to help them cope with the pressure and stress right now.

The courses with by far the biggest challenges are labs and physical fitness courses. Some things simply cannot be replicated in a virtual setting. So these professors/instructors will have to adjust their objectives and learning outcomes. Public schools are encountering that same obstacle.

One biology teacher in an area high school said she would be doing demos, having students view videos of dissections and still testing them on their knowledge of the labeled points. It’s not the same, but it’s a way to shift thinking. A PE teacher is embracing how to practice mental health. But another option is to have students video-record themselves doing physical activity (yoga, pilates, Zumba, playing frisbee, bouncing a basketball and shooting hoops, anything) and then posting their physical activity on the class page for others to see. The physical activity is a great release PLUS viewing their peers would be fun and entertaining.

How is Westminster faring compared to other universities and colleges who are transitioning to online learning at this time?

We consistently offer quality online classes and hybrids. They have been incredibly effective. The ones I’ve taught have gone really well. Right now, I have been contacted by 13 different K-16 teachers/professors to see what we’re doing and what programs we suggest for online teaching and learning. This shows how our Digital Blue initiative has put us in the forefront of the digital landscape. Folks view our program with respect. As for what we will use, our initial tools advocate using Conferences in Canvas as well as face-to-face meetings in Microsoft TEAMS, Flipgrid and Zoom. These tools will allow professors to meet with students, teach anything on their computer and also see the students while they’re teaching. Canvas Conferences is essentially a virtual space, and the only element missing is physical shared space.

Wholly online programs are often viewed with skepticism by the public and other higher education institutions. For example, the idea that a teacher could learn to teach online and get their education degree or certification without being in a real classroom defies what it means to learn to teach in a constructivist setting. Research has proven that kids learn by doing. How can that be replicated in an online setting? Most of us wouldn’t want a surgeon who learned online. I would want to know he or she had labs and practicals. So the best learning is a combination of so many things. Blended learning, like what we’re doing now, can balance that.

Where can students or faculty go to receive technical support during this time?  

To continue supporting online teaching and learning, Nick Watson, Executive Director of Information Technology, is making house calls as needed for faculty, staff and students who live in the area. Fulton/JC area faculty were able to visit IT last week to get help as well. Several of us have also offered to do house calls. Any Westminster professor or adjunct need only contact us, and we will come to them for a tutorial (while practicing hand washing and social distancing). We’re all in this together. Our students need us, and the more united and consistent we can be for them, the better. So in a nutshell, Digital Blue delivers!

For Digital Blue assistance or for more information on the program, contact Barri.Bumgarner@westminster-mo.edu. For other technical questions, email Nick.Watson@westminster-mo.edu.

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