Classroom Stories: Light as a Wave
Classroom Stories: Electron Transitions in the Atom

COVID-19 and Elementary Astronomy

By Stacy Palen

Well, this isn’t going the way we planned! Goodness!

As you may recall, I was already teaching in a substandard environment for the semester and now everything has moved online. Raise your hand if you were ready for that to happen! Yeah, me neither!

We were about four weeks away from the end of the semester when the University shut down face-to-face classes. That’s so very sad because I was almost ready to talk about black holes. Now all of cosmology will be done online without me getting to see their shocked faces.

I’m finding that the shift for “Astronomy 101” has not been so bad. It turns out I’ve been preparing for this for over a decade.

All of their work (except for exams) is coming in via Smartwork. I’ve beefed up those assignments a bit to include more work with the simulations and the videos that come with the textbook. This is easy to do in Smartwork by using the “Add Questions” tool, then using the Series filter to identify Video (VID) and Explorations (EX) questions, the latter of which make frequent use of animations and simulations.

I’ve opted to do everything asynchronously in order to accommodate our students, many of whom are non-traditional. Most of them have other stressors, like home-schooling their children, losing their jobs, caregiving, or even just having to share their computer with everyone else in their household.

It turns out a significant fraction of them don’t even have computers at home. I feel that asking 70 such students to all meet online at a specific time is asking for too much right now. I’m available online for virtual office hours during class and at several other times during the week.

My more advanced students have taken me up on this, but my elementary students have not.

The first assignment of the new online regime came in last week, and all but six students completed their assignment on time. I was very surprised that so many turned it in, actually, given that we had a large earthquake here in Utah the day it was due!

I gave all six an extension, and then contacted them by email. Two got back to me right away, noting that they fell behind, and have since completed the assignment. Two of the six are serial offenders: they are often late or skip assignments. It’s possible the other two are sick.

I’ve opened up all of the assignments through the end of the term, so if the students get a chance to work ahead, they can. Several of them have worked all the way to the end of the course, and I’ll open up the final exam early so that they can finish it.

There’s been a lot of talk among our faculty about proctoring and cheating and so on. For years I’ve given take-home, open-book, open-note exams; the average is around a 70%. If they are cheating, they aren’t doing it well. And this time around? I just can’t be anxious about it.

The most successful thing I’ve done so far is simply to send an email to every student “individually” (this is easy to do in the Canvas Inbox), just checking in, independently of any assignments.

They were very responsive to this and shared with me some of the things that are overwhelming them right now (pandemics, earthquakes, you know, the usual...). That was valuable to me to help re-calibrate my expectations.

I’ve always thought that my job is to leave them loving astronomy and wanting to know more. This semester, that goes double. More than ever, they need the perspective that only astronomy can teach them.

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