Students, administrators and staff at schools across the University of Maine System didn’t know what to expect when campuses launched remote learning semesters this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Faculty and administrators worried that students would become disengaged. Students felt anxious about their grades and were faced with new challenges having to return home, including lack of internet access, having to care for loved ones and added work stress.

“I think a lot of people were scared they would get really bad grades and it would reflect on their transcripts and just ruin their college careers,” said Maryan Isack, who graduated last weekend from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in health sciences.

With the semester now drawing to a close eight weeks later, students like Isack as well as faculty and the universities themselves have a better sense of how things went.

Withdrawal rates indicate almost all students were able to finish their semesters without dropping significant numbers of classes.

Of about 21,100 undergraduates across Maine’s seven campuses, almost 350 students dropped, for a semester retention rate of 98.4 percent, the same as last spring.

The number of credit hours students completed this semester also didn’t vary greatly from last spring. A total of 252,600 undergraduate credit hours were attempted systemwide this spring, and all but around 10,100 were completed for a rate of 96 percent. Last spring 95.6 percent of credit hours were completed.

Students and faculty said extended pass/fail options, offered at many schools around the country in response to the outbreak, and outreach for students was key to keeping them enrolled and completing their classes.

 

And while many are eager for an in-person return to campuses in the fall, some say the experiment in remote learning could shape class offerings in the future.

“We had never done this before,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, president of the University of Maine. “Faculty were amazing. They figured out how to do everything from online learning to what you would call remote learning with assignments students could manage to complete in some way no matter their location. We really had no idea what to expect, but the student perseverance through the semester has been remarkable.”

The university system doesn’t have a full count yet on how many students took advantage of extended pass/fail options. Some campuses, including the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington, are still allowing students to choose pass/fail after grades come in.

At the University of Maine, however, the number of students taking at least one class pass/fail skyrocketed to 2,817 out of 8,508 undergraduates. Only two students took pass/fail classes last spring, which normally can’t count toward a major, minor or general education requirement.

Libby Bischof, a professor of history and executive director of the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine, said about one-third of her art history class students this semester opted for pass/fail.

“I think a lot of students, especially those going on to graduate school, were really worried about the pass/fail option,” she said. “I sort of explained to them that spring 2020 is going to be an asterisk on every transcript around the world. Nobody is going to judge you for taking a pass/fail in spring 2020.”

As a faculty member, Bischof had to re-think how she would deliver course materials to students. Instead of guest speakers and trips to museums and galleries, Bischof restructured the class so students could complete work on their own schedule.

She worked with the library to put more reading materials online and recorded podcasts to deliver information. She also mailed students their graded papers so they could see her handwriting and maintain a tangible, physical connection with her.

Normally, faculty who teach online design their classes differently than they would an in-person class. There might be more work students can complete on their own and at their own pace rather than lectures, for example.

But with the sudden need to transition to remote learning, USM Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Jeannine Uzzi said faculty didn’t have time to redesign their courses. In the class she taught this semester, students asked for a Zoom conference at the time they would normally meet.

“Zoom conferencing isn’t the best kind of online teaching,” she said. “It’s not how I would have designed the class but that’s what the students wanted so that’s what I did.

“I think this semester faculty tried to keep things as expected and as stable as possible for students and as a result, myself included, I did not do the type of teaching I would have done if I had designed the class as an online class.”

Isack, who was enrolled in six classes this semester, choose to do only one of them pass/fail – an anatomy lab that she said wasn’t well-suited to online – while she choose to be graded in her other classes and not jeopardize her GPA for graduate school.

Isack said the pass/fail option helped students stay enrolled, but it didn’t necessarily make classes easier. Some classes, like statistics, were “very doable” online, Isack said, while others were difficult.

“Overall it was a lot more difficult just due to the nature of it all being online,” Isack said. “I think it was a lot more time consuming. Each class sort of required a bit more time reading directions and going through the lessons.”

Riley Sample, a student at the University of Maine in Orono, also found online classes harder. Lectures were often recorded, not live, and Sample said he would frequently attend online office hours so he could ask questions. As a mentor for other students, he said, some struggled with time management after leaving campus.

“I think we will have more opportunities for online classes if we want (in the future), but I don’t think we will ever fully switch to online,” he said. “Having that in-person contact with a professor I think is really important and networking, building those social networks in college is a huge part of it, almost more so than learning itself.”

George Criner, associate dean of instruction for the College of Natural Sciences, Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Maine, said when classes went remote it became more difficult to maintain relationships between faculty and students, especially as some students faced challenges like a lack of internet at home or more serious problems, like homelessness.

“It was just a big change to be uprooted and have to go on such short notice,” Criner said.

His college, which enrolls about 2,500 undergraduates, stepped up outreach when students were home with emails encouraging students to ask for help if they were struggling. Faculty were encouraged to include more “engagement homework,” such as quizzes, to take the place of attendance.

“I wouldn’t say we were pestering faculty but like once a week we would say, ‘Hey, if you have students who are not engaging, let us know,’ ” Criner said. In addition to the pass/fail option and student mentor program, Criner said the university’s counseling center held Zoom meetings and made phone calls to stay in touch with students.

Jessica Freeborn, a recent graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington, returned home to Brockton, Massachusetts, in March and found herself having to balance chores and share internet access with her sister, a college freshman, and her mother, a teacher working from home.

“Us all trying to be on the internet and use Zoom at the same time was challenging,” she said. “I’m lucky to have a great support system at home but not all students do.”

In one case, after a storm wiped out power in her area, Freeborn said she asked her professors for flexibility handing in assignments.

“They were very open to extensions,” she said. They would ask, ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ They were offering it up for students and I think the most important part was they were saying, ‘If you need to talk to someone about stuff going on at home, or if you’re stressed about something, let me know.'”

Overall, Freeborn said her experience learning remotely was positive. Her classes met virtually, including a chemistry lab where the professor walked students through simulations of experiments. There were opportunities for students to cook meals or do crafts together at the same time to keep in touch. Freeborn also did job interviews via Zoom and has accepted an offer to teach first grade in Vermont.

She said she expects Farmington to offer more classes online in the future, but that for the most part students are eager for an in-person return to campus.

“We all miss our professors, our community, being in those classes with our peers and walking out of class on your last final,” Freeborn said. “I think with virtual learning they tried so hard to make sure we felt like we’re still there, but it’s just not the same.”

 

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: