The Art (and Science) of Distance Learning

The Art (and Science) of Distance Learning

Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics Aaron Weinstein records an episode of his educational podcast "Plugging into Politics."

Fairfield faculty and students pivot to innovative virtual learning, creating remarkable teaching moments along the way.

When we teach, we emphasize applications to current events, and right now there is a massive, confusing, and understandably scary current event...I see it as my job to help students understand what is happening by applying our studies to the situation.

— Dr. Aaron Weinstein, visiting assistant professor of politics

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced universities across the country to make a rapid transition to remote learning last spring, Fairfield’s College of Arts and Sciences faculty stood poised, ready, and determined for success. Building upon the University’s pre-existing infrastructure and professional experience in online education, faculty and staff immediately sprang into action and made the dramatic pivot to online learning with both speed and creativity in a matter of six days.

Hundreds of faculty members swiftly modified their courses to include remote instruction, and in many cases, developed creative new ways to engage students in a virtual capacity. Professors’ home offices and dining rooms quickly transitioned into classrooms, and students turned their bedrooms, basements, and kitchens into study halls — together, doing their best to put aside distractions and keep the academic work of the University on track.

The first priority for Assistant Professor of Physics Robert Nazarian, PhD, was to check in with his general physics students to gather their thoughts on the transition process. Accustomed to working collaboratively in the classroom, his students expressed concern about developing a sense of community in the class’ online format. After consulting with his colleagues on the best way to keep this spirit of collaboration alive, Dr. Nazarian implemented Zoom’s “breakout rooms” feature for small-group collaboration as a way of modeling what his students were accustomed to in the classroom.

“I took a poll on whether to select groups randomly or the same as class, and it was split right down the middle, so I alternated,” he explained. “I tried to include both, to get different points of view and get them to think differently about problems and problem-solving strategies.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Nazarian’s colleague, Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics Robert Cordery, PhD, worked with his colleagues to conduct and record five lab experiments and two in-class demonstrations for students to view online. Sharing the videos — which ranged in topic from magnetic force to light diffraction — with his physics colleagues, Dr. Cordery used the virtual collaboration tool Quip to observe how students were preparing their lab reports and to offer feedback. 

Professors in the English and Visual and Performing Arts Departments also took an innovative approach to distance learning by offering students a creative alternative to the traditional essay-based final. Inspired by a popular social media trend, art history Professors Philip Eliasoph, PhD, Michelle DiMarzo, PhD, and Marice Rose, PhD, as well as English professor and E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences Emily Orlando, PhD, challenged their students to recreate famous literary and artistic works as tableaux vivants, using household items and their natural creativity.

French for “living pictures,” tableaux vivants have become a popular activity that prompts people to reinterpret iconic masterpieces and post their version next to the original on social media. In Dr. Orlando’s literature course, "Edith Wharton and Her Circle," students were issued a take-home exam instructing them to create a tableau vivant of a scene from a literary work or work of art they had studied during the semester. Students had the option of closely recreating the original or transforming it for a modern audience, and were required to submit an explanatory essay discussing the tableau's connection to at least one literary or visual text.

“My aim was to encourage students to engage with our readings from the 19th and 20th centuries in a creative and kinesthetic way,” Dr. Orlando said. “I was so pleased with the results that I have pledged to find a way to assign this project again, with or without a pandemic.” 

Equally delighted by the inventiveness of their students’ tableau vivant exams, Drs. Eliasoph, Rose, and DiMarzo each chose three top contenders from their classes for submission to a competition organized by Art History and Visual Culture Professor Katherine A. Schwab, PhD. A panel of Fairfield University Art Museum judges evaluated the submissions on creativity and awarded gold, silver, and bronze distinctions.

“In this time of uncertainty, stress, and sadness, I was glad to participate in giving our students a creative outlet,” Dr. Rose said.

When it comes to creativity, the Visual and Performing Arts Department’s theatre program has experienced what could be considered the most dramatic change in curriculum. Like most performances across the U.S., Theatre Fairfield’s spring production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was forced to close the curtain on its live performances just weeks before its scheduled premiere in April. Although initially heartbroken, the production’s cast and crew remained determined to share their months of hard work and creativity with audiences. Holding fast to the age-old adage that the show must go on, they combined their artistic talents to create a new and immersive virtual theatrical experience called TITUS Online.

Hosted on Theatre Fairfield’s websiteTITUS Online offered patrons a digital dive into the show’s production using a compilation of rehearsal footage, combat training videos and photography, cast and creative team profiles, 3-D set models, costume renderings, and more. Updated with new content on a regular basis, the website also featured an online dramaturgy that provided an in-depth analysis of the play’s history and inner workings, as well as student essays examining the tragedy’s commentary on race, sexism, and brutality in Elizabethan England. 

As theaters across the country continue to remain dormant, Theatre Fairfield has also had to change their programming for the Fall 2020 semester.

“Theatre Fairfield will be totally virtual for the fall semester,” explained Martha LoMonaco, PhD, professor of visual and performing arts. “Both of our shows, Love and Imagination and Director’s Cut, will be conducted completely online, from auditions through performances. Our first priority is the safety of all personnel. We want everyone to stay healthy.”

More than just a logistical challenge, the Covid-19 pandemic is also a worldwide historical event that many professors have incorporated directly into their coursework. Assistant Professor of History Silvia Marsans-Sakly, PhD, adapted her class curriculum to offer students the chance to document their own history of living through the pandemic.

“I decided that I could not waste this historic opportunity to have students experience what it is like to create history, so I gave them all a research task of documenting and analyzing their experience of Covid-19 in 250-500 words every day (except weekends),” she explained. With instruction to write for audiences 100 years from now, Dr. Marsans-Sakly requested her students “keep a journal incorporating their individual experience and analyses of the pandemic from their disciplinary perspective using three outside sources, including articles, social media posts, pictures, memes, short videos, etc.” 

Recognizing that the shift to distance learning would require a fresh and innovative approach to educating and connecting with students, Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics Aaron Weinstein, PhD, and Assistant Professor of Politics Gayle Alberda, PhD, developed an informative podcast that used the pandemic as a means to teach and explain public policy to students. With themes ranging from the virus’s effect on federalism, the U.S. economy, environmental policies, and the 2020 election, Dr. Alberda and Dr. Weinstein navigated their new virtual territory with the help of expert guests, including Olugbenga Ajilore, PhD, senior economist for Center for American Progress, and political leaders like Connecticut State Senator William Haskell (D-26). 

“When we teach, we emphasize applications to current events, and right now there is a massive, confusing, and understandably scary current event," Dr. Weinstein explained. "Political science can help us understand the world, and I see it as my job to help students understand what is happening by applying our studies to the situation.”

Taking the initiative to utilize the pandemic as a teaching tool even further, biology Professor Brian Walker, PhD, and Patrick Kelley ’76 MD, DrPH, distinguished fellow in nursing and heath studies, developed a brand new health studies course this fall titled “Special Topics in Health Studies: The Corona Pandemic.” Using lectures, panel discussion guest speakers, and written and video assignments, the course sets out to explore the biological and public health background for the pandemic, as well as relevant aspects of clinical care, prevention, governance, economics, and ethics.  

Despite the many challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties presented by the pandemic this past year, one thing remains clear. The College’s Ignatian mission to transform the world through education — and educate the whole person — is alive and well at Fairfield.

Tags:  College of Arts & Sciences


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