An acting class transferred from a rehearsal space to basements and apartment living rooms across the world. An architecture studio where sketches are submitted and critiqued online. A design class exercise transfigured through the power of Facebook and even the old-fashioned phone call.

Now in their third week of teaching online, University of Maryland faculty members and instructors are continuing to tackle the unprecedented challenges of turning face-to-face courses into virtual ones. It’s a task made even harder by the extraordinary and anxiety-provoking nature of the pandemic that has necessitated the shift, yet one that has sparked creativity in teaching across all disciplines. 

“In the context of my career of almost 30 years or so being involved in undergraduate education … I don’t think I’ve ever seen more faculty collaboration or conversation about teaching, full stop,” said Robert Infantino, associate dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. 

Dean Chang, associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship, has been working with faculty members to help them turn team-based, experiential exercises and projects into ones that can work in an online setting. 

He said instructors should consider three primary questions when redesigning activities: What’s the most important learning outcome for students to achieve? What technology exists that can mimic the experience of being together in person? And how can activities be reworked to make sense asynchronously, when students might be accessing the materials across various time zones and not all at once?

For their course, “Becoming a Design Thinker,” instructors Mira Azarm and Christina Hnatov, based in the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (AIE), had to rejigger an exercise that pushed students to get out of their comfort zones and interact with strangers in person in a series of increasingly involved scenarios. With class online, Azarm and Hnatov instead asked students first to reach out to two or three Facebook friends they’d lost touch with, then to call an unfamiliar number to have a brief conversation with a volunteer on the other end, and finally to ask via a social network for a contact to teach them a simple skill, like tying a bow tie.

Students initially described the assignment as “stressful,” “awkward” and “nerve-wracking.” “The feelings … were exactly what we wanted people to feel—that sense of apprehension, uncertainty,” Azarm said—just as if they’d been approaching strangers on the street. “The idea is to get over your hesitation and apprehension of talking to somebody and realize it was worth your time.”

For architecture students, the studio design course is “the fundamental foundation of the education,” said Lindsey May, interim assistant director of UMD’s architecture program. Six to 12 students gather together with a faculty member to sketch, give and receive critiques, and learn from conversations between the faculty member and other students. 

Using software already common in the industry to revamp designs in collaboration with engineers, government officials and others who might be remote, architecture students and faculty are now able to make notes and draw on top of one another’s designs online. Critiques take place in small groups over videoconferencing, so students can apply overheard observations and ideas to their own work. 

Not all students can be online at the same time, though, leading instructors to create video lectures and other course material that can be viewed or accessed whenever a student has the time. Tammatha O’Brien, who’s teaching courses in ecology, anatomy and physiology, and endocrinology, has created video lectures and discussion boards that she hopes foster active learning by allowing everyone in the class to see the questions and responses that have been posted there.

O’Brien makes herself available to students through the discussion boards and email. “I’m trying to get to the sweet balance of reaching out to students enough that they know I’m here, but not so much that they ignore me,” she said.