Coronavirus closure requires technological adaptation


Matt Sutton

Students, staff and faculty are all adjusting to an upcoming month of digital learning. Photo couresty of UNO Communications

As the University of Nebraska at Omaha transitions its classes online due to COVID-19, departments have been scrambling to make sense of all the required logistical needs to limit the effects of teaching students outside the classroom.

Jodi Sangster, Ph.D., a postgraduate researcher with the Department of Civil Engineering, said the transition is mostly being handled by individual departments with the university allocating funds to each to purchase supplies like cameras, microphones and software to help with distance education.

In Sangster’s department, certain staff have been designated to help professors who are less technologically savvy. She said each department is responsible for developing their own strategies.

“Only a few professors may have problems, but it may be a much bigger issue for other departments,” Sangster said.

For the more technical classes and labs offered at the Peter Kiewit Institute, various faculty have had planning meetings to figure out what is needed. Luckily for Sangster, she only teaches one class.

“It doesn’t require a lot of tech, so I have been largely left free of the discussions unless people need advice or help,” she said.

Harmon Maher, Ph.D., a geology professor, suggested the biggest difficulty he faces with adjusting is an added time requirement.

“The reason that time is the biggest challenge is that to develop and deliver online materials and learning experiences is very time consuming, easily double to triple what it takes for equivalent on-campus delivery,” Maher said. “For now, the perfect must not be the enemy of the good, and the challenge is to recognize and deliver the essential material.”

Maher said he believes most of his immediate associates are well-equipped to overcome technological strains. Still, some labs in his department typically require more hands-on learning. For example, physical geology labs have rock specimens for students to identify, presenting a unique challenge in the adjustment of coursework.

Maher said software-based labs create their own set of challenges, particularly for upper-division science courses that often use expensive and sophisticated software.

All meetings for the remainder of the semester are being moved to a distance format. SustainUNO, the campus sustainability club, conducted its most recent meeting virtually, planning to meet that way the rest of the semester. Since this is the first time the group has had a presence on campus in two years, it hopes to still find ways to leave a mark. Members recently improvised a digital climate strike on March 13 in lieu of an in-person protest.

The annual Plant Science Symposium at the UNL Innovation Campus, originally planned for March 16, also moved online. After campus closure announcements, the all-day event was substituted with a half-day series on March 17 using a webinar format.

With nearly every aspect of university life affected by the coronavirus, technology will play a central role as students and faculty attempt to evade becoming infected. Social distancing is the community priority.

Grounded in case studies from the 1918 Spanish Flu, evidence shows that the sooner cities shut down public gathering spaces, the less the potential exists for spreading the virus.

Fortunately, the university is doing its part in limiting the potential spread of infection.