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Going virtual: Distance learning amid COVID-19 pandemic

Texas A&M faculty, student share success, challenges in moving classes online

April 27, 2020

By Kimber Solana

Image of Dr. Logan’s class on Zoom
In session: Dr. Shaun Logan, top left, teaches Human Structure, Function, And Disease II via Zoom. An average of 50-60 students log on, including first-year dental student Malcolm Youngblood, top right.
Dallas — When Malcolm Youngblood takes a quiz, he logs on to ExamSoft, the assessment software he always used as a first-year dental student at Texas A&M College of Dentistry.
   
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s taking additional steps. First, instead of the classroom, he’s settled at a desk in his home. Then using his phone, he logs on to Zoom where a faculty member can provide an exam password and monitor him through the video communication service. Lastly, an artificial intelligence program will record him at his desk, where suspicious movements are flagged, to ensure test-taking remains fair.
   
“It’s very sophisticated,” Mr. Youngblood said. “It knows if something on your desk is a scratch paper, and that it’s OK to use it.”
   
This has been the new reality for him and his fellow dental students — like many others in dental schools around the country — since returning from spring break on March 23. The university had made an executive decision to keep students off campus which was followed by a stay-at-home order by Dallas County, and a statewide order that extended it indefinitely.
   
But even before spring break, Mr. Youngblood said, he and his classmates anticipated attending online classes after faculty members updated students on what could happen during and after spring break.
   
Photo of Mr. Youngblood
Mr. Youngblood
In fact, weeks prior to the break, Dr. Shaun Logan was already mentally strategizing on how she was going to teach her course virtually.
   
Dr. Logan, assistant professor in the department of biomedical sciences at Texas A&M College of Dentistry, said the university and its instructional design team was coordinating and putting together training sessions for faculty and students, ensuring they have the tools and capabilities to conduct distance learning.
   
“The college of dentistry was very proactive,” Dr. Logan said. “When we heard the official word that we were going online, I felt ready.”
   
Dr. Logan teaches Human Structure, Function, and Disease II, the main course this semester for first-year dental students, including Mr. Youngblood. It combines medical, physiology, histology, growth and development, embryology, neuroscience and pathology.
   
She had two options: prerecord her class or conduct it live on Zoom. She chose the latter.
   
“My classes tend to be very interactive. I know all my students by name. I use slides and engage students with questions and share stories from my own personal history,” Dr. Logan said. “I wanted to keep my sessions very similar to what was happening in an in-person class. I wanted to emulate that.”
   
Image of Dr. Logan
Dr. Logan
On the chat function, Dr. Logan said, the students are very active, often asking questions and responding with answers.
   
To minimize any technology issues, Dr. Logan said she still goes to her office on campus where she logs in on Zoom. On there, she can see an average of 50-60 students in their own boxes on screen. Some show their faces, others include unique backgrounds, while some pick comical images, like Mr. Youngblood whose screen is a photo of a store’s shelves full of toilet paper.
   
“So far, it’s been going pretty well,” said Mr. Youngblood, who serves as curriculum co-chair with first-year student Luis Sauto. The two students and class president Yara Qubti meet weekly with faculty and department chairs to provide feedback on what’s working and receive updates to share with their class.

Currently, the biggest challenge for Mr. Youngblood has been staying disciplined with his schedule.

“We can easily watch Netflix instead of studying,” he said. “And I’ve been guilty of that.”

On a typical week day, Mr. Youngblood said he tries to maintain a semblance of a schedule. He would do a few pullups after waking up. He’d eat some breakfast and go outside for a walk. Then there’s lunch and dinner.
   
In between those activities, the first-year dental student is attending his five dental courses online or studying. While Dr. Logan’s sessions are live via Zoom, other courses are a mixture of newly prerecorded sessions and those recorded from previous years.
   
Image of Dr. Logan’s class on Zoom
Interactive: “My main question was, ‘Would we have the capacity or bandwidth to handle all these students on at the same time?’” Dr. Logan said. “So far, it has not been a problem at all.” 
“Except for a few minor technical glitches, it has gone very smoothly,” he said. “I think, for our entire class, the change wasn’t too difficult because we’re in a generation that is so used to this technology.”
   
When Dr. Logan learned of the possibility of moving her class online, she had some initial concerns.
   
“My main question was, ‘Would we have the capacity or bandwidth to handle all these students on at the same time?’” she said. “So far, it has not been a problem at all.”
   
Despite the ongoing success, there are some things that simply can’t be replaced by distance learning.
   
“You can’t see the facial expressions as clearly on screen,” Dr. Logan said. “You miss those ‘a-ha’ moments. A mentor of mine said to me that’s the most satisfying part about teaching. When you have long days and are tired, those moments when you see in person students engaging and wanting to learn, that tells you you’re making a difference.”
   
As for Mr. Youngblood, there are two things that are irreplaceable.
   
“I miss my classmates,” he said. “I really do.”
   
And he misses the restorative laboratory.
   
“We still have our regular lectures, but I miss our practicals and working on our hand skills,” Mr. Youngblood said, adding they are still learning concepts and techniques. “Due to a recent curriculum change, my class is ahead of where students were last year. When things ease back in, we only have a few projects to finish up and our practicals.”
   
The current semester is scheduled to end in mid-May, with the summer semester beginning about two weeks later. When and how the dental school opens up remains unknown.
   
“We’re preparing for everything,” Dr. Logan said. “When we do open back up, we have to be ready.”