Chandler educators adjust to online learning The Chandler Arizonan

Chandler educators adjust to online learning

Chandler educators adjust to online learning

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

When the news came that Chandler-Gilbert Community College would be shifting to online instruction for the rest of the semester, Mike McFavilen immediately jumped into action.

The chemistry instructor spent the following days taping hours of lectures from inside his tiny home office and then posting them to his YouTube account.

“I pretty much dropped everything else and just started recording,” McFavilen recalled.

He quickly adjusted to a new routine: wake up at 5 a.m., start recording lectures, and get as much done before his 3-year-old son interrupted him. Despite the hectic schedule, McFavilen managed to get 21 hours of content uploaded in less than 10 days.

His circumstances are a bit more chaotic than other Chandler teachers quickly transitioning to online instruction amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

McFavilen’s wife is about to give birth to their second child, which will sequester the father for a two-week paternity leave while his students resume their classes online.

Since McFavilen’s technically not supposed to work while on leave, he’s had to plan out the rest of the semester within a handful of days.

“If I don’t have stuff planned out now,” he said, “I’m not going to be able to get it planned out after the fact.”

Educators all across Arizona are scrambling to transfer their curriculum virtually so students can still finish up the spring semester without the COVID-19 crisis disrupting their credits.

From preschools to universities, teachers at all levels are strategizing as to how to continue instructing, but without a classroom.

Though McFavilen’s managed to generate a wealth of online content, he knows there are still some elements of chemistry best taught in a lab and can’t be mimicked at home.

Students may be able to watch scientists simulate experiments through videos, but McFavilen said it’s not the same as working in a lab with their own hands.

“It doesn’t quite fly,” he said. “You actually have to do those actions.”

There are simply too many liabilities that come with having students conduct experiments at home, McFavilen added, and so he’ll probably forego any lab assignments for the rest of the semester.

As a result, his department may have to adjust science courses next year to ensure students get any lab training they missed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ll probably have to do more hand-holding in future semesters,” he said.

Matthew Frable, a music teacher at Chandler’s Seton Catholic Preparatory High School, has also struggled finding ways to transition hands-on activities to an online format for his students.

He’s accustomed to moving around his classroom, watching students practice their instruments and listening for them to hit the right notes — all of which is difficult to do from a computer.

“Making the change so quickly was difficult because I had very little material prepared that easily transitioned to online learning,” Frable recalled. “We just had a few days’ notice before we had to be teaching online.”

The school bought a few extra keyboards for Frable to loan out to students who didn’t have pianos at home.

That has made it easier to assign songs for students to practice, Frable noted, but it’s not quite the same as having everyone play together as an ensemble.

“I think students are also struggling with having to spend so much time at the computer sitting still,” Frable said. “They also miss the social aspect of seeing their friends.”

Seton Principal Victor Serna said his school is taking a “balanced” approach to online learning by not overwhelming students with too much work during a stressful time.

Seton teachers post assignments online at 9 a.m. and students have until the following afternoon to finish it.

The Chandler Unified School District has chosen not to penalize students who don’t submit online assignments for the rest of the school year or let bad grades impact their overall score.

CUSD teachers have been told to email out a number of math and English assignments throughout the week.

But scores on these assignments will only count for secondary students if it positively boosts their grade. Assignments won’t count at all for elementary students. 

At the college level, instructors like Nichole Neal plan to continue grading her students the same as before the switch to online instruction.

Neal teaches engineering courses at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and said they’ve entertained the idea of handing out “pass” or “fail” grades this semester.

But students at this level still need to be held responsible for their work, Neal said, so she plans to continue issuing letter grades. 

She’s begun recording live lectures from her home, where students can hear Neal go through PowerPoint presentations and explain upcoming assignments. Her students are in the middle of working on a group project that has them designing solar-energy homes in Chandler.

It’s been difficult making sure students are still showing their work from home, Neal said, but she’s found some ways to work around this barrier.

She plans to have students digitally send her photos of their scratch work so Neal can physically see how they arrived at an answer.

“It’s challenging us in a good way to use the different forms of technology that we typically may not use in our face-to-face classes,” Neal said.

The college’s engineering department was already in the process of offering a fully-online program as an option by the fall 2021.

So, the COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly pushed faculty toward a direction they were already headed, Neal added, and forced instructors to think how they can better engage with students virtually.

Yet, some educators like Mike McFavilen will always prefer teaching students face-to-face inside a classroom.

He feels like he can better respond to a student’s needs and reactions when he’s standing in front of them. If they appear too bored, McFavilen can instantly improvise something to better get their attention.

“You can change and reflect based off of what you’re seeing in that classroom,” he said. “Online, I don’t have that flexibility.”

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