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Distance learning obstacle for some

Access to online tools a challenge by Jaime Adame | March 15, 2020 at 3:17 a.m.
FILE — The bell tower on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

FAYETTEVILLE -- Take-home kits with art supplies and loaner laptops will help some students complete the final weeks of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville spring semester, an associate dean said Friday.

Public universities throughout the state have either suspended in-person classes or announced a date to do so this month because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. The largest private universities and the state's two biggest two-year colleges have taken similar action.

For many college students, remote instruction will begin Monday. Faculty members and administrators described the power of online learning technology while also noting its limitations. They also said they are responding to concerns about whether students can access the tools they need to learn.

"All the faculty have polled their students, do they have a laptop, can they access any type of digital interaction? We're deploying laptops to students that need them and iPads, and purchasing more as necessary," said Jeannie Hulen, associate dean in the UA-Fayetteville J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of ceramics in the UA School of Art.

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"Our highest priority is the student with the least amount of access," Hulen said. UA-Fayetteville classes move to remote instruction Monday through the spring semester, which ends with finals May 4-7. The suspension of in-person classes was announced Thursday. The UA-Fayetteville spring break is March 23-27.

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley said the university would help students with any technology access problems, "whether that's use of a device or access to a computer lab," if the university moves to remote teaching.

UA-Fort Smith announced Friday the suspension of on-campus classes through next week and through its scheduled spring break March 23-27, with an announcement scheduled for March 26 about whether classes will resume in-person or online beginning March 30.

Like many universities, UA-Fort Smith uses what's called a learning management system, a type of online application that allows for each course taught to have a "course shell" that can then be filled with various types of teaching content provided by instructors, Riley said.

Through the shell, students access course materials in an application called Blackboard, Riley said. Technology allows for online video and discussion, she said.

"Truly, you can have a very similar environment online to an in-class environment," Riley said.

Fran Hagstrom, chairman of the UA-Fayetteville faculty senate and an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, said Blackboard allows for custom presentation of material, depending on a student's needs.

"You can actually individualize tests and you deliver those in Blackboard in a very individual way, so if I have someone who has a hearing impairment, I could deliver the test in a different visual modality," Hagstrom said.

In a statement, Laura James, director of the UA-Fayetteville Center for Educational Access, said "we are in the process of communicating with faculty and students on how to facilitate accommodations during this transition."

The number of students registered to receive some type of academic accommodation has generally been increasing in recent years, UA officials have said. Data released in 2018 by the university showed 2,879 students registered with the educational access center in calendar year 2016, when the university's fall enrollment was 27,194.

Academic accommodations vary widely. They include extra time for tests, access to lecture notes by other students and assistive technology that can translate text to audio, for example.

"There are some accommodations that may not be applicable for online classes, but this is very dependent upon the specific course structure," James said, adding that "it may take time to identify a plan for some students with less common accommodations."

Hagstrom said there are concerns about students needing an online connection to complete the semester. In more rural areas, "your service could be very, very slow," she said.

She said the learning management system technology now works on an object owned by nearly all students: a smartphone.

Hulen, who this semester is teaching a UA-Fayetteville course on a ceramic-forming technique, said "there's obviously no substitution for face-to-face training when it comes to studio art."

But faculty members have worked to provide a few hundred take-home kits for students with materials like clay, paper and paints, she said. A kit varies depending on the course, she said, but it includes items normally stored in UA-Fayetteville's studio facilities.

"They'll take it home, and they can actually still make objects at home," Hulen said.

Michael Riha, chairman of the UA-Fayetteville Department of Theatre, said advanced acting courses involve creating scenes with other actors, which won't be possible.

Some courses were geared toward a final performance that now will never happen, Riha said.

It will take time to make the transition away from in-person instruction, he said.

"They said be ready for online or remote instruction Monday. That's just not a reality for many faculty who've taught for 25 years face-to-face," Riha said.

The curriculum of some courses will have to be adjusted, he said, though many courses already involve lots of writing. Widely available video-conferencing technology like Skype and Zoom will likely be used, he said.

He said instructors must also consider how students are coping with the anxiety of the global pandemic.

"I don't think this is a time for us to demand extreme rigor when there are plenty of other things that they're worried about," Riha said.

Edith Avalos, 23, a first-year transfer student at UA-Fayetteville from Rogers, said she's taken online courses previously.

"It seemed more difficult for me," said Avalos, a computer science major, adding that "I'm concerned about how I'm going to do" with the new format.

"It's just so unexpected. We have so many questions about what's going to happen next," she said.

Tori Griffths, 24, said she's studying classical studies and history at UA-Fayetteville.

"Personally, I'm bummed out. I really enjoy face-to-face interactions when it comes to learning," Griffiths said.

She said with courses that involve a lot of writing, "work-wise, it's already kind of set up through our Blackboard online source where we turn everything in."

Hagstrom said some faculty members may feel a bit clumsy about working with all of the technology, but the university is providing staff members help to make the transition.

UA-Fayetteville, the state's largest university with about 27,500 students, has 38 staff members and three co-directors of its teaching support center helping faculty members with preparations, a spokesman said.

Students will do their part, Hagstrom said.

"Teaching and learning is a collaborative thing that happens, and our students really do want to learn. I think they're going to step up to the challenge, and I think our faculty will too," Hagstrom said.

Metro on 03/15/2020

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