An interview on the quick and challenging transition to remote teaching that JCU faculty faces during the COVID-19 pandemic
By Marilù Ciabattoni / Staff Writer
As we all know, the transition from in-person classes to online-learning wasn’t that easy for the JCU community. Some students lamented a lack of organization of the faculty in facilitating and accommodating students and their needs. Understandably so, many students claimed to have struggles following classes and earning the grades they deserved, given the harsh and confusing circumstances caused by this unexpected global crisis.
However, just like a coin, every story had two sides, and the story of how JCU has thrived during the pandemic crises wouldn’t be complete without the perspective of those on the other side of the screen: the faculty. In all the mayhem, managing classes and finding a way to continue the semester in the smoothest way possible wasn’t as easy as it may sound. So, we decided to interview Professor Carlos Dews, Chair of the English Department and Director of the JCU Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation, to learn about his role in the sudden switch to remote classes.
Almost overnight, he became the Head of the Remote Teaching Taskforce, thanks to the previous experience he had nearly twenty years prior in lecturing for an online University. Established by President Franco Pavoncello and Dean and V.P. for Academics Mary Merva to respond to the need for the university’s classes to be offered online, the Remote Teaching Taskforce was originally made up of representatives from the library, registrar’s office, IT support, and the administration to address the immediate need to move classes online. It was later expanded to include a significant number of faculty, representing all the academic departments. The Taskforce currently has thirty-two members.
Professor Dews, what happened at JCU at the beginning of March 2020, right before the beginning of Spring Break?
As soon as it became clear that the Italian government was going to close schools because of the rising number of cases, the University had a meeting where we were just speculating about what we should do—should that happen. And since I knew that I had a lot of experience teaching online, I wrote to the Dean and the President and volunteered to take some of the responsibility in the transition to remote teaching. They immediately replied and formed a task force and asked me to be the head of the Remote Teaching Taskforce, which was created in less than 48 hours. Then, we immediately started meeting and putting in place the plan. We were lucky to have all of Spring Break to prepare for classes to resume remotely the week after.
Is it fair to say that you were expecting such a thing to happen considering the news coming from China and in Milan that the situation was quickly worsening?
I have to say that everyone has stepped up to the challenge. The administration had been anticipating what was going to happen, but personally, until we got the news in that meeting that we were facing this, I had done very little thinking about it. So, we really had to get up to speed very quickly to get things going, mainly because John Cabot had never taught classes online before. Because of that, we had very few people with the experience of teaching online, so it was a learning experience for almost everybody.
What previous experience did you have with online teaching that made you want to volunteer to take the lead in the task force?
Right before I came to Rome, there was a four-year period when I taught primarily online for the University of Maryland University College (now called University of Maryland Global Campus) that provided distance education to U.S. Military people and their families all over the world. I was spending a year or two in Argentina, and then I knew I was going to do an MFA in New York for a couple years. I needed to support myself through that time, because I had taken a leave from my university in Florida, where I was serving as Chair of the English Department. So, I got a job teaching at the University of Maryland, teaching both creative writing and literature classes.
Was the technology similar to the one we use now at John Cabot?
As far back as 2003, surprisingly, the system the University of Maryland had used is similar to what we are using now with Moodle. With the exception that they had their own propriety software, it’s a very similar system and the classes were similarly taught—maybe with a little less audio and visual components—and they were all asynchronous. So, for about 4 years, I taught a full-time load of classes for the University College, and that’s how I gained the experience. However, I would have never thought I’d have to call upon that experience again until the pandemic happened.
Tell us which the challenges you faced while teaching other professors on how to use required platforms such as Teams and Moodle. How did they react to this radical change and what do you think could have been improved in the process?
I have been very impressed by the attitude that the professors had. Everyone has been cooperative even though this change has put a lot of people outside of their comfort zone and has required them to teach in a way that they wouldn’t choose to. Despite all of that, professors have really stepped up and met the challenge, especially the technological hurdles. Since in the faculty of JCU there’s a huge range of differences of familiarity and comforts with the use of technology, we had to overcome all of that. And then there is also some pedagogical issues depending on the subject matters, some subjects are easier to move online than others. And then some things related to John Cabot’s position in Rome have made things even more difficult because we teach a lot of on-site classes, from studio art classes to lots of art history courses. So, professors had to not only re-think their classes but also embrace technology that in most cases they didn’t have to before.
How did you resolve these issues for this Fall semester?
There was a big difference between the Spring term and this Fall in that, at first the big challenge was for professors to figure out how to make their classes asynchronous because students were scattered all over the world. It was a big challenge for professors to convert their course content into something that could have been accessed when people were available to do so. A lot of professors had to record their lectures, a lot had to find supplemental material to provide to students instead of the lecturing as they would normally do. Some of that has gone away, and I think professors nor students liked to access things asynchronously; so, one of the things that is a great improvement this semester is to be able to teach classes live.
Even though they might be using cameras and people being at a distance, at least there is a live aspect and interaction between the professor and students both in the classroom and remotely. It has presented new technological challenges because we have the new technology in the classrooms, like Teams integrated into Moodle and so on, which are additional challenges that the professors didn’t face in the Spring, because they were mostly doing their teaching from home and could do things on their own time. So, the two semesters are very different, but I think it’s a more humane way we’re going about it this Fall, and we’ve learned from students’ and professors’ feedback on how to make things much easier this Fall as opposed to last Spring.
What are your plans for the Spring 2021 semester? In your opinion, which direction will JCU be taking in the foreseeable future?
It so much depends on the situation that is going on in the world with COVID, but I do know that the plan at the moment is to go ahead with the Spring term as we did with this Fall term. And, of course, this can change. I think we’re planning on having a regular Spring term, meaning the length of the term should be the same, it won’t be compacted as it was this term, and then, depending on the situation, either deliver the courses exactly like we’re doing at the moment – with a hybrid version of the classroom – depending on social distancing regulations.
The plan is to have everything in place so we can adapt and deliver the classes however the circumstances require. And I’m hopeful that we will be so much more accustomed to classroom technology and delivering classes using Moodle and Teams, that maybe the Spring term will seem much easier for everybody, both for students for whom it will be familiar territory and for professors, because we will be adapted with all the technology that—even if we have a problem—we know how to fix it. So, I’m hopeful that the Spring will seem much more comfortable and normal than the beginning of this term has been because we’ve been adjusting to so many new things at the same time.
What do you think about the general reactions you received from JCU students?
I’ve already complimented the faculty on how well I think they’ve adapted and learned to deliver the classes the way we have, but the same should go for the students, who have been very flexible. They’ve been very good at letting us know what the problems and frustrations are so that we can try to address them. As Head of the Remote Teaching Taskforce, I’ve been in constant contact with members of the Student Government, with whom I meet once a week, to get feedback from students to be fed back into the system so that we can address the frustrations that they have had.
It’s been a very successful relationship and students for the most part have been very cooperative, very open to the new technologies, but still very vocal when they encountered problems and let us know what they are so we can address them. So, I commend the students as well for all their hard work and for their flexibility and good attitude in adjusting to all of this.
Professor Dews received his B.A. in Humanities from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. and Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Minnesota. He then completed an MFA in Fiction Writing at the New School University in New York City in 2008. He has been teaching at JCU since 2008 and has served various terms as the Chair of the English Department. In September, he published his latest novel, Hush, with Negative Capability Press.