Wendy Riggs isn’t new to the remote classroom. She’s been teaching General Biology online at College of the Redwoods for 3 years. Just a few months ago, teaching a lab course like ‘Gen Bio’ online would’ve sounded like a crazy concept to many. Now it’s just reality.

Wendy Riggs

Wendy also teaches an in-person Human Physiology course which has had to go remote, too. With one course already online and one that needed to be transitioned, Wendy found herself in a somewhat controlled scramble back in March. A few months on and her experience highlights both the challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 is handing the world of higher education.

Like many of us, Wendy is working from home these days. With a high schooler and eighth grader, she’s been doing even more teaching than usual thanks to their homeschool curricula. Despite dueling for computer access and juggling lots of Zoom calls, she’s happy to report “they’re doing a great job.”

By mid-May, Wendy’s courses had wrapped for the semester and College of the Redwoods had announced that most Fall 2020 courses would be online. “My colleagues have been very supportive of each other as we all move our courses online. I’m actually meeting with a crew today to share online teaching strategies,” she said.

College of the Redwoods

Wendy is a long time LabArchives user. The platform makes her online general biology lab possible. “I’m so grateful that I already had general biology online,” she said, “My colleagues can use all the content so easily.” Naturally, that course hasn’t changed all that much since the pandemic started, though she’s become very flexible with due dates and other deadlines.

Wendy’s face to face course, Human Physiology, on the other hand had to be quickly moved online when COVID-19 hit. The lion-share of lab work and data collection for the term had luckily already been completed. With just 8 weeks to go, Wendy chose to turn that course’s lab focus to data analysis. “I was surprised by how seamlessly we were able to move Physiology online. We had to make some big adjustments, but the students were very gritty and it was interesting. It made me feel really optimistic about the future actually.”

Next fall, however, Wendy will need to adapt that course for full online instruction, which means finding ways to mimic the in-lab experience at home. She’s already activated the online version of her lecture with videos and Zoom meetings but the lab piece remains to be seen. It’s this part of online instruction that has left so many STEM instructors in the lurch and feeling down right stressed. “I’m in denial about that aspect,” Wendy said, “but I’ve got some creative energy percolating. This is an opportunity for me to start fresh and really think about how I am going to teach this course.”

It’s this approach that makes switching to online teaching feel less overwhelming. “Even if you’re not starting from scratch you can build a stronger course during this time. With new insights from the COVID situation I’m confident I’ll even improve my General Biology course, which I’ve been teaching for a long time.”

When it comes to re-creating the lab experience at home, Wendy says, LabArchives is a great place to start. It includes a collection of ready-to-use lab content and simply using a digital notebook like LabArchives is an easy way to get students doing rigorous science even if they’re not in the lab.

“LabArchives digital notebook is this really clean space. It’s an actual scientific notebook and you can build your course as you go. That’s another big thing for me,” Wendy mentioned. Even if you’ve been teaching for a long time “you improve every semester – I truly haven’t had a semester where I didn’t make significant changes to my course in LabArchives.” And you don’t have to keep track of changes either, you can just re-use your course the next semester or even share it with colleagues.

Sharing and borrowing curriculum is one solution Wendy feels is very important right now. Being able to share that curriculum remotely is key. “You can build robust activities and hand them over to someone else via LabArchives and they can make their own adjustments as needed,” she said. College of the Redwoods has one LabArchives notebook where they store shareable course content.  “Every time I hear faculty express a need for content we go to that site and try to address it.” Taking courses online presents challenges but also a huge opportunity for collaboration and innovation.

One of Wendy’s online lectures.

Overall, Wendy has a lot of positivity despite the current situation. “I’m a fan of silver linings and I think that our campus is excited about sharing innovation. We’ve come together to help each other out during this time.” It’s so easy, she says, to get into a place where you feel you don’t have enough time to try anything new. Now, we can’t stay in those “routine ruts.” 

Of course there are pain points associated with deviating from routine but Wendy feels this is an opportunity to dream up new, more accessible ways to bring learning to students. “The idea of homeschooling my own kids would’ve seemed ridiculous to me a few months ago, but now we’re doing it. We’re figuring out the new, best ways of doing things and that is generating a lot of creative energy. We’ve got lots of different brains working on these solutions, only good stuff will come out of that.”