Mercer faculty and staff prepare to transition to online courses

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Macon campus

Mercer suspended classes for most students this week, but the University has been anything but quiet. Faculty and staff are busily preparing to move courses online.

Amid developments related to the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, all instruction will be delivered virtually from March 23 to April 3. By April 3, a decision will be made about whether to extend online formats until the end of the spring term. Classes were suspended March 16-20 to allow time for faculty to adapt coursework to a virtual format.

“We’ve been around since 1833 because we know how to handle challenges,” said Dr. Susan Codone, director of the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which is responsible for faculty support.

Mercer already uses Canvas as the learning management system for all its courses and Zoom for video-conferencing needs, Dr. Codone said. Professors can choose to host live classes on Zoom for their students, post pre-recorded lectures or do a combination. They can also instruct students to meet on Zoom to do group work.

Courses with labs may move  to simulations or data analysis, and alternative formats may be established for studio courses like art, with such decisions made by each of Mercer’s 12 schools and colleges.

The first thing the Center for Teaching and Learning did was develop a virtual instructional continuity guide for faculty. The Center also created a course readiness rating scale to identify which classes and professors needed help with the transition. Some of Mercer’s courses already have online components and can go fully online with ease, while other face-to-face courses are requiring more involved work for the transition, Dr. Codone said.

The next step was identifying support personnel. Five Mercer schools have their own instructional designers to aid faculty, and the other schools are being assisted by staff from Mercer’s Information Technology (IT) Department. In addition, a “human chain” of professors with advanced tech experience in each school have stepped up to coach their colleagues.

For example, technical communication professor Dr. Jennifer Goode, who has been teaching graduate courses online for years (confirm this with her) provided School of Engineering faculty with a “triage guide” and corresponding videos to introduce them to online teaching, tackle the basics of Canvas and Zoom, and explain how to move their content to Canvas. She also offered a live online training session and has been available for one-on-one help.

“I’ve been coordinating with faculty and staff in the individual schools and colleges, and we have identified a number of people to be helpers,” Dr. Codone said. “The deans are exercising a high level of responsibility for making sure their faculty are ready.”

Dr. Codone and Mercer IT have been offering multiple tech workshops for faculty each day. Mercer IT extended its support hours and compiled resources like Mercer-approved collaboration tools and on-demand tutorials on Canvas and Zoom.

“What we’re encouraging faculty to do is to plan a week at a time so they don’t get overwhelmed,” Dr. Codone said. “Get next week posted and do it well, with a high standard of quality. I think it’s going pretty well.”

Professors will be communicating clearly and regularly with students through live video sessions, email, phone calls, virtual office hours and other methods. Advising for next fall will be done virtually as well. They want students to know that they’re committed to delivering quality instruction and relating to them in as they would for face-to-face classes.

“Our number one priority is taking care of Mercer students and teaching them well,” Dr. Codone said.

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Andrea Honaker