Going Remote

Video-conference call scene from the movie 2001: A Space OdysseyIt’s surely not news to anyone that we’ve gone remote, taking all REL courses online as part of our effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. The University of Alabama, like so many schools nation-wide (let alone throughout the world) continues on what we call limited business operations (LBO), with academic offices closed, in-person classes suspended, students gone from the residences, and only essential employees still working on campus. (Get info on UA’s response to the pandemic.) But classes continue, thanks to a some technologies that we’ve been using.

As noted in an earlier post, each faculty member devised their own plan to revise syllabi and move to remote classes for the rest of the semester, using a variety of tools at their disposal — everything from emailed reading/writing assignments and documents in a Box folder shared with students to posting on Blackboard newly recorded commentary on a lecture’s PowerPoint slides (as did Prof. Trost), filming videos of lectures for Youtube (as did Prof. Altman), or sharing items with students on a Slack channel for the class (like Prof. Loewen). A number of faculty members have also opted to use video-conference technologies to hold virtual office hours, such as Prof. Touna, below, who met online with members of her upper-level seminar this past week, or like Prof. Simmons, who used it as part of her role as a committee member for a doctoral student.

Screenshot of stdents in an REL seminar on video-conference

In fact, these virtual meetings have also proved useful for us outside of our classes, since much of Department life happens away from the classroom. For example, the faculty and staff each had their own online organizational meetings, in anticipation of classes restarting last Monday, and the current M.A. students have been using it to get together on their own and also as part of a newly formed online meeting group (yes, it’s REL OMG!) that meets weekly, with pre-distributed articles, videos, or podcasts, and then discusses a common topic. (This coming week it’s a 2016 podcast on conspiracy theories with David Robertson joining us.) Even most of our incoming 9 M.A. students met virtually with our Graduate Director and Department Chair, to talk about the program and their coming school year. (We’ll soon be posting their pictures and descriptions of their interests on our website’s grad directory.)

Screenshot of new MA students meeting via video-conference

While there’s certainly limitations to each of these choices and technologies — How do you share a screen? Why is that audio file so incredibly big? No, not another email update from the Chair…. — making plain that none replaces the effectiveness of the in-person classroom or face-to-face seminar room, the online medium is actually a rather remarkable place if you consider what we’d be doing if this situation had hit just 5 or even 10 years ago. (We think of some local school boards with public school teachers now taking the regular bus routes to distribute hardcopy assignments to their students.) It’s because of these innovations that many of our students, both undergraduate and graduate, have been able to return to their homes, some of which are elsewhere in the country, while still continuing their semester and staying in close contact with their professors and classmates.

Another “outside the classroom” change enabled by technology was moving our annual Honors Day ceremony online; thanks to some quick thinking by Prof. Newton, with the help of some of the faculty, we were able to post a video at noon on Honors Day, celebrating the remarkable accomplishments of our students this past year — plus the hard work of our faculty and staff.

And, speaking of staff, the virtual environment also saved the day when it came time for a surprise thank you to Betty Dickey and Donna Martin, REL’s longtime staff members, who both retired this past week, after 32 years in REL for Betty and 23 for Donna. (That’s Betty, on the top left, and Donna, top right.) Yes, they thought they had yet another meeting with the Chair, on their last day of work– little did they know that everyone would pop into the meeting.

Screenshot of faculty and staff video-conference meeting

So, it was indeed a busy week in REL, but it was also a pretty good one. And we have no doubt that our students are equally busy at home, managing disrupted lives along with a full load of courses that have each employed different ways to span the distance as effectively as possible. (We posted some advice on making the switch.) We anticipate this week settling into a bit of a routine, that will last for the rest of the month, but we also trust that you’ll each be in touch with your professors if you’re having any difficulties in your courses (such as possible connectivity or internet access issues, which we know are an issue for some) — we’re all in this together and we’re here to help you successfully adapt in order to complete the semester.

Don’t hesitate to contact us. Maybe we’ll set up a Zoom meeting.