Professor Rich Cardullo, right, performed experiments on himself in order to teach his human physiology course remotely.
he rapid closure of campus on March 13 came directly before finals week of winter quarter, meaning exams for roughly 3,000 courses had to be moved online and spring classes drastically modified to be taught remotely. The Exploration Center for Innovative Teaching & Engagement, or XCITE — a unit within the Undergraduate Education office formed in November to assist faculty with course development and technology integration — quickly became a vital player in UCR’s sudden transition to remote learning, spearheading the development of online platforms and supplying training and resources for instructors. XCITE personnel were also charged with providing technological support and assisting instructors with redesigning courses, among other services, in coordination with teams from UCR Library’s Teaching and Learning Services.
“We would typically have months, if not years to prepare for such a transition, and we were trying to do it in a couple of weeks,” said Richard Edwards, director of XCITE. Edwards also co-leads the continuity of teaching task force, a collaboration between XCITE; Information Technology Solutions, or ITS; and UCR Library, which formed in response to the shutdown.
“We convened multiple task forces very quickly, and there is a lot of cooperation across campus,” he said. “It really takes a lot of people coming together very quickly to make any of this possible.”
Brigham Willis, senior associate dean of medical education for the School of Medicine, not only had to convert his own courses to accommodate remote learning, but also assist with the conversion of the entire school’s curriculum.
“We had to do a lot of faculty development and purchased a number of online platforms for adjunctive learning through external vendors,” he said, noting the school acquired software allowing students to treat virtual patients. “It’s not the same as a real patient, but it at least gives some experience in lieu of being live with patients.”
Faculty and students were presented with unique challenges both in maintaining an effective learning environment and managing the range of obstacles caused by the pandemic itself.
“It’s been kind of a rollercoaster,” Cardoso said. “After some classes I felt … the students are learning so much, and then other times … the students are not learning anything, and they are bored. I’ve had to learn to manage my emotions.”
Willis noted students will need real-life experiences in clinics and hospitals to complete their training.
“It’s pretty much impossible to replicate,” he said.
Early on, Cardullo thought getting up to speed would be the hardest challenge, but he discovered keeping students engaged when they start becoming “Zoom weary” has been the most difficult task. Not being able to interact with his students in person has also been a big adjustment.
“I tell my students, ‘I know you all are graduating, but I hope someday we get to meet,’” he said. “There really is no substitute.”
Marina Joseph, a third-year biology student in both of Cardullo’s classes, has found it difficult to stay connected to other students through a screen. She’s also had trouble finding a quiet place to study and take exams.
“If Orbach and Rivera (libraries) were people, I would tell them I really miss them, and that I’ll never take them for granted again,” Joseph said.
While Ritter has dealt with a number of technological hiccups that come with teaching a music course online, his toughest task is trying to accommodate and support students with immense personal challenges due to the pandemic.
“Students are in such radically different personal living and learning situations right now,” he said. “I have students sitting around bored wishing they were back in school, but I also have three students who have COVID-19 right now — two of them are sisters who lost their father. Trying to balance keeping students engaged and not leaving in the dust students who are facing unimaginable circumstances has been a real challenge.”
“I told them, ‘Let’s be honest, you’ve always wanted to see the professor get hurt — well this time, you’re going to see the professor bleed for you, so it’s not all bad,’” Cardullo said. “We try to keep it light. They’re stressed enough.”
In addition to virtual patient software, the School of Medicine faculty used telehealth extensively, allowing students to join physicians on telemedicine calls with actual patients, Willis said. They have also focused on teaching concepts through online interactive learning modules, seminars, and small group sessions to teach clinical skills such as patient interviewing and physical diagnosis. The anatomy instructional team even put together a program to replace in-person dissection using 3D virtual anatomy tools and videos in a matter of days.
“It was really inspiring to see the whole faculty come together and come up with a viable online alternative for these things that are really hard to do,” he said.
Ritter said the music department had to invent ways for students to play together remotely. Some instructors have started prerecording sections of music that students can use to practice.
“Students get almost like a karaoke track,” he said.
Brittenny De La Cruz, a senior neuroscience major in Ritter’s music course, said she’s surprised at how much she enjoyed taking the class from home.
“It’s been a pretty wonderful experience to be honest,” she said. “I really enjoy the time (Ritter) takes in providing us with examples of music going on in the world with regards to the coronavirus. It’s nice that he isn’t trying to avoid the topic or ignore the circumstances we are facing.”
Following the shutdown, more than 1,000 instructors began moving their courses to the learning management system iLearn, so UCR’s 25,000 students could continue their education. ITS staff expanded the capabilities of iLearn to accommodate the surge in traffic. Additionally, about 4,500 Zoom Pro licenses were issued to better facilitate remote courses and interactions between faculty, students, and staff. UCR also implemented the Loan2Learn program, which offered more than 360 laptops to students without access to devices that could support remote learning. Nearly 170 mobile hotspots were made available to students without access to Wi-Fi, and the websites Keep Teaching and Keep Learning were developed as informational hubs for students and faculty, respectively.