Virtual solutions: Four stories of challenge and opportunity


Henry M. Cowles, assistant professor of history, used to hold his 125-student undergraduate class in the Biological Sciences Building.

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Now, his students converge remotely from their homes all across the United States and in other countries, watching lectures and working in small groups in what has become a new reality for higher education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You kind of miss the face-to-face, in-person interaction,” Cowles said. “The best thing about it is the energy my GSIs (graduate student instructors) and the students have been bringing to it. They’ve been cracking jokes, engaging with the reading, checking in with each other. It’s heartening to see all that energy.

“Is it exactly the same as an experience in the classroom? No. For me, it’s been up and down. But I truly do feel like the students are making the most of it.”

As universities around the country transitioned to online instruction, faculty and staff members had to quickly change how they teach and work. The shift has been filled with challenges, but also new opportunities.

Here’s a look at some of those stories at U-M:

No lab? No problem

Ginger Shultz knew she had to act fast.

Headshot of Ginger Schultz
Ginger Shultz

It was Friday, March 13. U-M was moving to online instruction the following Monday, which meant Shultz’s 771 Organic Chemistry II students no longer would be able to perform experiments in a laboratory.  

Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry, and three graduate student instructors gathered in Room A606 in the Willard H. Dow Chemistry & Laboratory Building and wrote out a plan on a chalkboard. Each person then conducted an experiment that another person recorded on their cell phone.

“We did four weeks of experiments in about four hours,” Shultz said.

Shultz’s students have been watching videos of the experiments and documenting their observations in their lab notebooks, along with analyzing companion data sets she emails to them. Shultz said the format seems to be working well.  

“It’s not exactly the same” as being in a lab, she said. “There’s missing pieces we can’t give them, but we’re doing the best that we can.”

Like many professors, Shultz has expanded her office hours – now conducted virtually – to accommodate students in different time zones.

Shultz said she’s concerned about those students whose lives have been the most seriously disrupted. Some students have sick family members at home. One student had to find a job because their parents lost theirs.

Another student, freshman Jennifer Phillips of Temperance, Michigan, is trying to juggle schoolwork and the stress of not knowing whether she’ll be tapped to help with the government’s pandemic response as an EMT and member of the Michigan Army National Guard. Phillips explained her situation to Shultz.

“We had a 20-minute conversation over BlueJeans,” Phillips said. “She was very understanding and reassuring. She said, ‘I’m here for you, whatever happens.’

“I feel like this is the Michigan difference. Everything seems to be going wrong in the world, but there are still people checking up on you, who care about your well-being.”

The music plays on

The 10 students in Michael Hopkins’ string techniques course had already learned about the cello and bass, and were about to start a unit on the viola when U-M canceled in-person classes. Five students left campus to return home before they had a chance to check out their instruments from him.

Headshot of Michael Hopkins
Michael Hopkins

So Hopkins, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music Education, rented five violas from Ann Arbor-based SHAR Music and shipped them across the country.

“The hands-on experience of learning to play the instrument and the pedagogy of teaching the instrument, you can’t just talk about it,” he said. “You have to experience it.”

Violas in hand, the students were soon able to pick up where they left off – with a few adjustments. Group music lessons didn’t work well over video conferencing platforms.

“People cannot perform together in a program like Zoom or BlueJeans because there’s too much latency in the sound, a disconnect between audio and video,” Hopkins said. “So I scheduled individual private lessons with all the students in the class, and I teach it that way. It takes more time, but we’re making good progress.”

The students record videos of themselves playing and upload them to Google Drive. Live lessons occur through Facetime or Zoom.

“We have been experimenting with trying to find the apps where the instruments sound the best,” Hopkins said.

In another class, the challenges have been more complicated. Hopkins’ junior-level students are no longer able to conduct fieldwork in a public middle school, so they have been working on score study and other alternative assignments. 

Like Hopkins, Colleen Conway, professor of music education, teaches a class in which students who hope to become music educators learn to play several instruments. Because of the disruption this semester, she plans to create a new instrument review boot camp for students when they return to campus in the fall.

“Having to change what you do and how you do it leads to other ways of trying new things, which can be positive,” Conway said.

Ford School’s virtual outreach

The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy’s annual Spring Preview in April is a chance for newly admitted students to tour the school and meet faculty, current students and alumni.

This year, staff hustled over two weeks to convert the daylong event into a series of 12 interactive webinars. The webinars included panel discussions with faculty, staff and alumni and several opportunities for prospective students to connect with current students.

The initiative was led by the Ford School’s communications, student academic services and graduate career services teams. They had never previously used Zoom for webinars and learned on-the-fly.  

“Our biggest challenge switching to virtual was to show the warmth and engagement of faculty and staff because that is one of our community’s strengths,” said Rebecca Cohen, senior communications and outreach strategist for the Ford School. “The speed at which we had to change course was also challenging. Our team really came together to showcase the Ford School in a new way.”

Ford School Dean Michael Barr has been keeping in touch with students, faculty and staff through daily emails that contain not only news and updates, but also light-hearted personal messages. He has asked people to send their favorite poems and joked about his fondness for romantic comedy movies.

Barr also highlights examples of how people in the Ford School family are serving the public good through pandemic-related policy work.

The emails help people feel connected to each other and reflect Barr’s warm leadership style and the school’s sense of community, said Elisabeth Gerber, associate dean for research and policy engagement.

Gerber said the Ford School is committed to supporting students in every way possible. When some soon-to-be graduates lost job offers because of the pandemic, the school reached out to donors about contributing to an emergency fund to support students’ needs.

“I’m very proud of the school,” Gerber said. “We put students first in every decision we make.”  

‘Being mindful of inequalities’

Cowles, the assistant history professor, last taught his undergraduate class, called American Addictions, in person on March 10.

Headshot of Henry Cowles
Henry Cowles

When the university announced the next day it was moving courses online, he hurriedly created a module on Canvas. Some of his students helped him test it. 

Today, Cowles’ students watch lectures on Canvas and participate in small-group discussions and writing assignments through Google Docs. The transition has been relatively smooth.

“I got lucky,” Cowles said. “My Thursdays were always collaborative group projects with a digital component. The students were always writing op-eds together on Google Docs. Now, they write and talk over Zoom and Skype.”

Addiction and mental health are key topics in the course. Students who were personally struggling in those areas would sometimes pull Cowles aside after class.

“Before the pandemic, I would have conversations with individual students about things going on with their families, about their own attempts to navigate those issues,” Cowles said. “A lot of that is so much more difficult, if not impossible, over digital media.

“We’re doing the best we can, but the personal, face-to-face interactions that are some of the most rewarding have evaporated.”

Cowles said the pandemic has highlighted everyday inequities. For instance, some students may not have access to the same technology at home as they had on campus.

He said it’s important to be flexible and remember that everyone has been impacted differently.

“It’s being mindful of inequalities and asymmetries in the department, across the university and how people will be experiencing this,” he said. “It’s that really important combination of being as adaptable as you can be, and recognizing that that is your adaptability, and not everyone is in the same position.”


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