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ADAPTING TO CHANGE: The challenges of online teaching, and learning.

Last Spring, as physical distancing measures were implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, NC State University announced in mid-March that campus would not reopen.  Spring Break was extended a week to allow instructors and students to adjust to what would become the new normal, with all lectures and labs to be delivered and received online. Zoom, the online meeting application, became a household word. Now, as we near completion of Fall semester which was almost entirely online, instructors and students continue to adapt.

The most challenging aspect of online learning for me has been sticking to a routine. Previously, going to class and other activities provided a nice structure that I could rely on to organize my day. Now as I’ve shifted into online learning, being in my room for a majority of the day has blurred the lines between work and leisure. This is something that I’ve had to focus on, and I feel I’ve gotten better at as the semester progressed.        Carter Howe, Senior in Civil Engineering

The sudden switch to online classes has been challenging for students AND instructors.  Instead of lecturing or learning in a classroom, people found themselves working and learning from home. Concerns included locating a reliable wi-fi connection, finding a space to set up a home office that was private, quiet and well lit, and learning to work around the schedules of your family and/or housemates. Beyond process considerations, there was also an emotional toll for many instructors and students. Lecturing to a sea of digital faces on Zoom offered little feedback for instructors, and students reported feeling isolated and de-motivated.

I tried to garner engagement from students during lectures on Zoom, but you can’t force it. If you try to force interaction and it doesn’t work, now you’re hanging on a ledge. You have to learn to strike a balance.  Steve Welton, Lecturer

At the end of the Spring semester, the Undergraduate Program Committee (UPC) conducted a survey of CCEE instructors to gather information about the experiences and lessons learned related to converting their teaching to online. “We gathered information about hardware used, teaching methods, exams, quizzes and homework assignments,” said Dr. Min Liu, who oversaw the survey. “Although there is plenty of information available about online teaching, it was valuable to share our own experiences in the department, because we teach similar groups of students on closely related topics.”

Based on survey results and informal sharing, UPC conducted a 1.5 hour workshop entitled “Sharing Our Own Experience – Online Teaching Workshop” for CCEE instructors. Drs. Tarek Aziz and Johnathan Miller, and Lecturer Steve Welton, shared their methods as related to streaming platforms Zoom and Mediasite – a classroom capture program that NC State has a license to use. They also shared their individual ways of recording or streaming their lectures, often using two cameras so that one camera captures the instructor while another shows relevant documents. They shared tips about how to set up the cameras to keep students’ attention. There was also discussion about how to engage students and encourage participation.

Steve Welton’s home office set-up where he created a document camera by attaching a camera to a drafting lamp. He uses two cameras when he lectures online.

“One way of keeping students engaged is to create assignments, such as guided problems, that have to be completed during class time,” Aziz relayed.   He went on to explain that one of the biggest challenges he faced during Spring semester was administering exams. “I use Moodle to administer exams that include both short quizzes with multiple choice answers, and longer written portions, with time limits that students have to follow,” Aziz said.  Moodle is a free and open-source learning management system. He explained that exams can be graded in Moodle or an application called Gradescope.

Welton said the hardest part for him was the lack of interaction and engagement from students without the face-to-face connection. “Students can become extremely passive with online lectures, so I tried to develop problems that we worked in class. I would get their help to run numbers and gradually build a problem with their input.  I used a document camera to build the problem during the lecture,” Welton said. In the case of large class sizes, he created breakout rooms, which is available on the Zoom platform. The idea was to encourage student participation in smaller groups. “What I found was that, in the higher-level classes where you have juniors and seniors who already know their colleagues, it can work well. If you throw freshman and sophomores together, who are strangers, it can be a tough situation,” Welton said.

The online workshop organized by UPC was recorded and made available to all CCEE instructors who could not attend the initial session. Dr. Min Liu also shared a summary of the workshop at a faculty meeting. “Some of the general findings that came out of the survey and the workshop was the need to provide students with plenty of information about the structure of the course, and a schedule with important dates such as quizzes and exams, and set those up in Moodle,” Liu said. “We also encouraged all our lecturers to survey their students at the beginning of the semester to be aware of any internet accessibility challenges. All lectures should be recorded for later viewing in case there were problems with signals or schedules for any reason. We also want to make sure we encourage all our students to ask questions, and we reminded ourselves to be patient and understanding during this time.”

For me, the most challenging aspect of online learning is being alert and motivated to learn from a place where I would usually rest and relax. My instructors have done well with keeping the class engaged and interested despite not being in the same room. Some professors could do better with offering incentives to be in class with graded participation.

Chloe Stokes, Senior in Environmental Engineering


Most common challenges undergraduate students face during online classes.

  • Technical issues.
  • Distractions and time management.
  • Staying motivated.
  • Understanding course expectations.
  • Lack of in-person interaction.
  • Adapting to unfamiliar technology.
  • Uncertainty about the future.