Students learning to navigate, adapt to challenges of remote education

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—From lecture halls to living rooms, the move to distance education has changed the learning environment for Western Michigan University students. While today’s students are often technologically savvy and comfortable with online communication, it's still been a challenging transition for many. WMUx—the evolution of Extended University Programs—spearheaded a campuswide effort to make the shift as smooth as possible.

A screenshot from an online German class showing several students.

Sabine Lenzner’s Beginning German II class.

"The WMUx and Office of Information Technology teams have partnered with dozens of offices from across the University to make sure students have access to services, including academic advising, tutoring and other academic support teams," says Dr. Edwin Martini, associate provost for WMUx.

A number of resources are now available to improve student success. They include information about maximizing the educational experience and minimizing stress and anxiety. Plans are also in motion for a weekly email communication explaining various services and resources being offered.

"Our staff and faculty have come together to do whatever is necessary to serve our students during this difficult time," Martini says.

Engineering Success

Learning via WebEx meeting isn't rocket science. If it was, Grace Dybing says her aerospace engineering instructors would pass with flying colors.

"I think that they have done a great job with getting their classes online, and now when I put on my headphones, it's just like being in the classroom," she says, adding professors have been able to keep the classes active by using chat functions.

Grace Dybing works on her computer alongside her dog, Zeke.

"My project-based classes have changed a bit more, and anything that was supposed to be a group presentation has become more challenging. But my professors have lots of ideas on how to make it work."

Dybing, who graduates this semester, found software that allows her and her senior design project partner to control their lab computer remotely. She also learned some new skills to help record lessons for the labs she runs as a teaching assistant.

"Learning how to edit the videos has definitely made me think creatively and in different ways than I'm used to," she says, joking that she could fall back on a career as a Youtuber.

Dybing admits being nervous when she first heard about the shift to distance education, but she's discovered the silver lining in new opportunities—like being able to go back and listen to lectures after class because they're recorded now.

"Now that we are beginning to figure out how to complete our projects, it's only a minor inconvenience," Dybing says. "I think the faculty are working really hard to give us the best education they can, and it shows."

It's not surprising the WMU community is stepping up to adapt to this challenge. That, she says, is what Broncos do.

"They stick together in herds and put up a strong fight when threatened. I think our professors in particular, but also our maintenance and custodial staff, Dining Services and Residence Life, are doing a great job of getting us through this."

New Spin on Learning

Jolin Cramer participates in a dance class in her living room.

Dance is about conveying and evoking emotion through movement. Senior dance major Jolin Cramer has plenty of inspiration with the changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Personally, my biggest challenge is dealing with the grief of leaving my senior year behind,” she says. “It was hard to process being a production major with no more productions, a dancer with no more performances and a student with no more warm-ups, naps in the student lounge or improv jams with my friends.”

Cramer has come to terms with the fact the end of her college career will look a little different than she planned.

“My graduation dress came in the mail the day commencement was postponed—that hit hard. I was sad for a while and everything felt like a simulation, but then I got inspired. Inspired by my friends, faculty and people from all over the world who I have never met.”

Cramer dances in her room.

While classes have changed through distance learning, Cramer has come to find comfort in sharing space with her classmates—even if that space is on a computer screen.

“I am pleasantly surprised by the efforts of the College of Fine Arts and their commitment to giving us the best possible education they can,” Cramer says. “As students who are privileged with great studio spaces, virtual dance classes can be difficult, but we found a new way to normalize the circumstance and ‘crank our personal volume’ during a time of uncertainty.”

Cramer’s classes meet every day at 9 and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., during which students push their furniture aside or find a spot in the basement to dance in unison. Those sessions have quickly become her favorite moments in the day.

“We reflect on our classes and incorporate certain tasks into our daily life.”

One class even had a virtual birthday party for a professor. She and other students each held a candle and sang happy birthday, blowing out the flames in unison. Those classmates have become her family, and WMU, says Cramer, has become home.

“I have always been of the mindset that this is something much bigger than all of us,” she says. “I am not surprised by the constant support, uplifting messages and desire to help from the community. It’s overwhelming in the best way to know that we are all in this together.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.