COVID connections: Learning and public outreach flourish at TU during the pandemic -
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COVID connections: Learning and public outreach flourish at TU during the pandemic

Remain six feet apart. Do not hug. Do not kiss. Wear a mask. Bump elbows if you must, but that’s not recommended either. Do not gather in groups larger than 10. Remain inside your small social bubble. Do not breathe on others. Do not be breathed upon.

During the nightmare that is 2020, humans have learned a new lexicon of rules and prohibitions that have upended the interpersonal conventions of daily life they largely took for granted during the times before COVID-19 raced like wildfire across the planet. Now, in this moment of uncertainty, worry, sickness and death, many people are yearning for connections to others.

At The University of Tulsa, the last several months have, despite the challenges, offered up a handful of inspiring examples of resilience that are focused on enabling connections, both in “the classroom” as well as between the university and the wider public.

The silver lining of online learning

The concept of the classroom has evolved between March and now. The system is not perfect; however, for some students, certain aspects can be seen as a positive change.

Thanks to online software, such as Collaborate, students can interact with their professors face to face at appointed times, but from the safety of their own homes. Zoom meetings, too, have become standard for enabling students to work together while staying safely apart. In some cases, asynchronous classes have allowed for more schedule flexibility for students.

Ryle Gwaltney, a nursing sophomore, remarked that she has come to favor remote learning for several reasons: “Before classes moved online, I had a problem with seeing the board, talking up in class and remembering what was previously taught. But everyone has their own learning style, and online classes have worked well for me. With the ability to pause, rewind and rewatch lectures, interact with the class via a chat box and actually being able to see and remember what was being taught, my classes have been going great.”

Nine English graduate students in a ZOOM screen capture
Graduate students from as far away as South Korea in an English course during fall 2020

TU’s faculty members, too, have adapted and, in many cases, thrived. Media Studies Chair Benjamin Peters believes the lessons learned as a result of the shift to online teaching might influence in-person instruction in years to come.

“There is no question that the pandemic has underscored how valuable in-person teaching is,” Peters said. “Still, going forward, professors will likely be more nimble and capable of using online teaching platforms, as well as accommodating learning needs online. There is no way to make a lab or an in-person activity go entirely online. But, under certain conditions, online discussion can draw out the otherwise introverted.” Another silver lining, Peters noted, might be that more instructors will incorporate online elements into their in-person teaching, such as tools that let students rank-order their questions during a lecture.

Digital technology is also proving useful for helping students outside the classroom. According to Sara Beam, an applied assistant professor of English, the University Writing Program, which she directs, is deploying digital technology for engaging students remotely in three main ways.

The first, she said, entails “remediating text, or asking students to adapt a text from one mode of communication into a different form, such as written text to spoken word.” The goal here is to increase students’ engagement with and awareness of how different forms work and relate. The University Writing Program has also been leveraging different options for discussion participation, including enabling students to post text, images, video and audio to discussion boards.

Finally, this semester Beam has recognized more opportunities for incorporating feedback mechanisms to see how the students feel about learning styles. Noted Beam, “we just passed the middle of the semester and many of us used survey tools to ask students for feedback so we can streamline and target instruction moving forward.”

Extended reach

The COVID-19 pandemic has also meant TU is hosting online panels, lectures and other events that would have previously been held on campus. While fewer people get to enjoy the beauty of TU’s 200 acres in person, the online experiences can be enjoyed by anybody, anywhere, thus helping expand the university’s cultural and academic resources into the community.

Screen shot of an academic article and a man wearing a blue shirt
Native American Law panel on the McGirt decision

For example, the most recent Presidential Lecture Series (PLS) presentation by Wes Moore, the chief executive officer of the Robin Hood Foundation, was the first PLS event ever held online. It drew in an audience of over 1,250 viewers from all across the nation.

Events delivered by TU’s Office of Diversity and Engagement have also experienced the expanded reach afforded by digital technology. Diversity Officer Amanda Chastang noted that a Native American Law panel she recently hosted along with other online discussions have been well-received by audiences both within the TU community and beyond.

Ease of access is a big plus when it comes to staging such events. “People only need the internet and a computer to tune in, even if they are not in the local area,” said Chastang. “We also can develop events pretty quickly as we don’t have to worry about providing food or room reservations and adhere to all of the procedural processes that go along with that. Additionally, it is really nice to have the option of recording events. If folks have conflicting schedules and are unable to attend ‘live events,’ there is the option of providing a recording, which has been really helpful.”

Participants in an Oklahoma Center for the Humanities seminar pictured in a ZOOM screen capture
Oklahoma Center for the Humanities seminar participants

For its part, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities (OCH) has made the best of the dire COVID-19 situation to broaden its talent pool and expand the reach of its programming. Tara C. Aveilhe, the OCH’s assistant director, observed, “via Zoom, we are now able to accept research fellows from anywhere in the U.S. and reach wider audiences for our events.” This year, for example, the OCH’s research fellows include Janine Utell of Widener University in Pennsylvania, which would not have been possible in years previous.

Sean Latham, the OCH’s director, added, “we recently had a terrific event that was digital attended by around 150 people. We were shocked to see that the audience was international and spread across several states. It’s the first time we’ve realized that OCH events might have a national audience for some of our events.” Looking toward life after the pandemic, the OCH plans to take what it has learned from this experience and continue offering digital events so that more people can get involved.

The sobering reality

Despite all these silver linings, at the end of the day, the entire TU community is deeply cognizant of the human tragedy at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every crisis, the phrase famously goes, is an opportunity,” Peters remarked. “But, also, let’s not miss the point here: the pandemic and our response to it have largely been a human disaster. In just the U.S. alone, thousands of lives have been lost and livelihoods have been destroyed. There is so much suffering that cannot and should not be forgotten.”

For more about how TU is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit ResilienTU.