May 19, 2020
Dmitriy Ivanov

Perseverance: How Community, Compassion, and Cooperation Guided the Assumption Community through an Unprecedented Semester

In March, amid a global pandemic, Assumption was faced with making an unprecedented decision, and doing so quickly—to close the physical campus and shift to remote learning to ensure the safety of the College community. Under ideal circumstances, faculty would be allotted weeks, even months, to develop an online course; but they had just days. The combination of dedicated faculty, a swift response by the College’s Information Technology Department, outreach by the Division of Student Success, and the resilience of the students, Assumption successfully managed an unusual and unprecedented spring semester. 

Call to Action

Because of students studying abroad at its Rome, Italy, Campus, Assumption had been monitoring the rapid spread of coronavirus across the globe for months. After making the decision to suspend operations there and bring its students home from Italy in February, the College turned its attention to Worcester. Assumption extended spring break and made plans to shift to remote learning for a month, hoping to welcome students back to finish the semester. However, the rapid escalation of the pandemic forced President Francesco C. Cesareo, Ph.D., to announce that the remainder of the semester would occur online, vowing to fulfill the College’s promise to “deliver the array of services students have come to enjoy and expect,” including a robust remote learning experience.

“We had about two weeks to get faculty trained in online learning and the learning management system and move all courses online,” said Beth Peterson, instructional technology specialist in Assumption’s Informational Technology department, adding that this involved in-person trainings of the learning content management system Brightspace and Zoom training for faculty. “We helped faculty get comfortable with online tools and techniques and made sure course content was accessible to all students.” 

This meant adding more integrated tools to Brightspace and providing Zoom licenses for faculty so that they could hold synchronous classes, office hours, and advising meetings with their students. Peterson added that instructors in need of hardware were given laptops, iPads, document viewers, and any tools they required to provide the best experience for their students. 

“Assumption was in a strong position to make the rapid online pivot as we regularly use an instructional management system,” said Paula Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., professor of psychology and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

According to Dean Fitzpatrick, many faculty members regularly use Brightspace for their classes throughout the semester, and a large percentage of faculty were already trained in online instruction due to the College’s robust online summer program and online Continuing & Career Education courses, for which faculty must complete a five-week online training program to learn the best practices in online teaching.

Cinzia Pica-Smith, Ed.D., associate professor of Human Services & Rehabilitation Studies and coordinator of the Working with Children & Adolescents in Community Settings concentration, said that faculty, many who are practitioners in their fields, rallied and provided each other with expertise, support, and consultation. “I am fortunate to work alongside exceptional colleagues,” she said. “We were in regular contact with one another asking questions and providing feedback and resources. … For me this meant being able to ask them questions and think through and ‘rethink’ projects and assignments to transition these projects to an online format guided by practitioners at the forefront of this work.”

During the two-week transition, Assumption’s D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence (DCTE), which was established to enhance the quality of teaching in higher education by supporting professors across all departments, also mobilized to support faculty. Professor of English and Director of the DCTE James Lang, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Director for Grants and Research for the DCTE Sarah Cavanagh, Ph.D., hosted a Zoom event for faculty focused on thinking about final exams and projects in light of the shift online. 

“It was a good example of people coming together,” said Prof. Lang. “We presented on the pedagogical side of it, discussing what the right thing to do in terms of teaching and learning was, and Beth [Peterson] was focused how we could make that happen from a technical perspective.”

Prof. Lang said the purpose of the event was to provide resources for faculty and to give them an opportunity to get ideas on how to make the transition to online learning effectively, with a particular focus on final projects, papers, and exams that could be done in a changed online class. 

A Focus on Student Support 

During the DCTE meeting, Prof. Lang emphasized the importance of ensuring students were emotionally supported and felt connected to the community. “Prof. Cavanagh talked about the many challenges our students are facing, emotionally, in the transition, and that should inform our thinking about what we should ask them to do at the end of the semester,” he said, adding that “her presentation was a very eloquent plea for the compassion we need to have for students during this challenging time in their education.”

According to Dean Fitzpatrick, faculty were instructed to notify Assumption’s Student Success CARE team of any students who did not engage with remote instruction within the first couple days of the start of remote instruction in order to develop individualized plans for getting students engaged. “The Academic Support Center quickly trained peer tutors to be able to offer online tutoring and the Student Accessibility Office prepared a set of guidelines for faculty to follow to ensure accessibility for all students,” she said.  

Assumption also made the decision to allow students the flexibility of using the pass/no credit option for up to three classes this semester.  Students were invited to exercise the option after their grades were posted. “Many students found that having this as an option helped to ease their anxiety as they were getting accustomed to this new learning modality,” said Dean Fitzpatrick. “While the majority of students ultimately did not take advantage of the option, knowing it was available was appreciated.” 

Many professors understood the challenges, adjusted accordingly, and made themselves even more available to students. 

“I relied heavily on my background in community counseling and realized that this semester would be challenging in that students would be particularly vulnerable to stressors,” explained Prof. Pica-Smith, who provided students with her cell phone number and accepted texts, phone calls, FaceTime, and Zoom video chat appointments throughout the day and early evening. “Our students weren’t just negotiating the challenges of online learning, they were also moving residences, facing the prospect of an uncertain job market, experiencing unemployment and food insecurity in their families and communities, caring for ill family members within a larger struggling healthcare system, and adding many household responsibilities to their proverbial plates without community infrastructure for support. Understanding this level of stress, these realities, I knew that I had to make myself much more available to my students.” 

Lily O’Connor ’21, an English and Spanish double-major with a minor in philosophy from Longmeadow, was one of many students who struggled with the details of the new arrangement. “The process of switching over was difficult for me, because I have two younger sisters at home,” she said. “It was sometimes hard to get a strong connection on the Wi-Fi, since we were all on it. That was an added difficulty that I did not consider until it was happening and my Wi-Fi connection was weak.”

O’Connor added that it took a few weeks to settle into her new normal. “I am thankful that the College and professors were very helpful with their explanations and assistance,” she said. “It took me a little bit to really settle into my schedule for the rest of the semester, but I think that professors and the College did a good job, given how abrupt, and different these changes were.” 

For Leamarie Gordon, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, understanding her students’ situations was paramount, so she sent them a survey asking about access to various technology and assigned texts. “Perhaps most important, I included an open-ended question where students could confidentially share any individual concerns,” she said. “I contacted students who disclosed various challenges they were facing, and fortunately many were addressed by simple solutions like flexibility with due dates where possible, or a reassurance that I related to their experience and I was there to help.”

Despite the circumstances, Prof. Gordon held fast to her goals: “Figuring out the best way to help each student stay connected and thinking about what course elements could be reasonably restructured to assist both students and me – while keeping progress toward each course’s learning goals,” she said. 

Flexibility and Innovative Thinking

In the switch to remote learning, faculty took a variety of approaches in order to deliver to students the high-quality Assumption education for which the College is renowned. While some courses ran synchronously via Zoom, meeting during their regularly scheduled times or even just once a week; others were done asynchronously, with structured assignments completed through the online platform; or used a hybrid approach. Some professors shifted their entire syllabi to accommodate students, while others tried to remain as normal as possible.

“I made every attempt to keep my students comfortable in this different environment assuring them that we would get through this together,” said Paul Bailey, MBA, visiting instructor of marketing, who encouraged students to contact him through email or phone with any problems. “My goal was to be energized and enthused about what I am lecturing as I do in person and wanted my students to have the same experience online as if they were in class.”

Prof. Bailey said his philosophy in transitioning from classroom to online was simplicity; he kept things as normal as possible and using Zoom, his lecture time remained the same as if they were still meeting on campus. “I called on them to participate in my lectures and discussions as they would do in the classroom,” he said. “On a bright note, I also experienced some students who were quiet in class opening up online.  This could be because they were adding to our class discussion from the privacy of their home and not in front of their peers.”

Prof. Lang, who also witnessed meaningful discussion posts from students he wouldn’t have necessarily heard from in the classroom, said he relied on structure to help his students succeed remotely. “I kept things pretty organized,” he said, adding that posted video lectures, video announcements of what was important for that class, and video responses to discussion posts on Brightspace. “I chose asynchronous just because students were at home and they might not have been available because of working or caring for family members during the time we would usually meet. I think it was good to have some synchronous stuff, to have the connection and the community, and some asynchronous stuff to have some flexibility.”

Associate Professor of Spanish Maryanne Leone, Ph.D., adjusted in order to honor the community she and her students built during the first half of the semester. She reviewed her syllabi to decide which class sessions would work best in an asynchronous format and which she could teach synchronously and redesigned others to adjust to the online environment. “We met together on Zoom every week to week and a half and I recorded the sessions for students who could not attend or wanted to review the information discussed in class,” she said. “I also wanted to allow for flexibility because I assumed that students would have greater responsibilities at home and might also be working.” 

While Angela Kaufman-Parks, Ph.D., assistant professor of criminology, chose the asynchronous route, she remained in constant contact with her students. “I elected to have students work on the material at their own pace opposed to holding synchronous class sessions as I wanted to be cognizant of the fact that some students could not meet during certain times or for various reasons,” she said, explaining that she added depth and additional resources to her PowerPoint presentations, produced audio lectures, provided in-depth written lecture notes on Brightspace, and extended many deadlines for students. “I posted announcements to students in all my classes at least two to three times per week reminding them of the material they should be learning for that day and encouraging them to ask me any questions should they have them.”  She also checked the discussion boards daily and expanded her office hours for two hours each day, with the option to make an appointment outside of those times. 

For Benjamin J. Knurr, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, the transition required some quick thinking regarding the laboratory portions of his courses. “For General Chemistry, we decided to record ourselves performing the remaining three experiments and allow the students to watch the experiments, collect the necessary data, and then complete their reports,” he explained. For his Physical Chemistry class, Prof. Knurr said the data analysis was the focus of the experiments, so he provided students copies of previous data from which they could perform the necessary analysis and make connections between lecture and lab.

“For the lecture portion of my courses, I quickly went out and bought a current version iPad with the pencil so that I could effectively project my lectures on Zoom,” he said, hoping it would help him replicate the white board he uses to elicit participation. Prof. Knurr, who held synchronous classes but also recorded his lectures for those who could not attend live, also assigned paper homework, which they could upload to Brightspace or email him, in an effort to keep things as normal as possible. “I was then able to use my tablet to grade the assignments, making various comments, writing on it like normal, and providing feedback, and then send the feedback to students.” 

Some faculty and students had to get a little creative with how they tackled their courses. Rachel Berthiaume ’20, a marketing major with a concentration in digital marketing from Leicester, was in the Theatre Workshop class with Associate Professor of English Paul Shields, Ph.D., which was to perform Everyman as the final project. “We spent some time trying to figure out how we were going to go about the play, since we could no longer perform the play as we intended,” she said, adding that the class had been working hard behind the scenes prior to the shift to remote learning. 

“We ended up creating and performing our play through Zoom,” she said, explaining that when it was decided what was needed for each scene (sound effects, backdrops, etc.), they began rehearsals and then recorded each scene with Prof. Shields over Zoom. He, along with the students on the “stage crew” are now editing the full piece. “It was a challenge but it is still in the process and I’m excited to see it all put together.” 

Christopher Gilbert, Ph.D., assistant professor of English, “completely revamped my own instructional materials in order to create provocative discussion prompts and/or writing exercises that students completed on a weekly basis in forums on Brightspace.” One example of his innovation was in the capstone seminar for Communication & Media, in which he guides seniors through a group project of producing a podcast series that airs on WCUW. According to Prof. Gilbert, students are organized into a production team of writers, editors, researchers, studio managers, hosts, and so on, and “they collaborate to create a podcast series with three episodes all tied together with a clear and present narrative arc and all credited to each individual student. The transition to remote learning meant none of us could get together in person, use the Media Center, or do anything else close to what it usually takes to produce a podcast.” 

Prof. Gilbert and his students converted the three-part podcast series into a 13-part podcast series, with each student being responsible for his or her own episode. “We innovated by holding Zoom meetings, individual and whole group, to pitch ideas, talk through scripts, and detail best practices in things like interviewing over Skype or bringing media clips into an episode,” he explained. 

Calvin Milliner ’20, an English, writing and mass communications major from Harlem, NY, said having to create his own podcast gave him skills and built confidence. Milliner had chosen to work on the technical side of the podcast, behind the scenes where he is most comfortable. However, when the coronavirus forced a change in plans, Milliner knew he had no choice but adapt to the circumstances. “Being able to perform under pressure or adapt, in this case, led me to creating a very insightful episode for our podcast,” he said. “I’d say this experience gave me the confidence to want to be more and not just [stay in the background], to go out there and work and see the talent in myself. … All together, the podcast came out very good and this improvisation gave many people a voice and opportunity in just creating their own podcast.”

“To innovate is not simply to introduce new things or do things in unique ways. To innovate is also to renew, and even to restore,” said Prof. Gilbert. “The 13-part podcast series set to air on WCUW this summer is a testament to how my students and I renewed our commitment to the learning outcomes of the course, and in a manner that probably gave them even more confidence as communication practitioners than they might have gotten from the semester if it had carried on as usual.”

Resiliency Under Unique Circumstances 

Faculty and students demonstrated tremendous resiliency and perseverance during the switch to remote learning, and many positive experiences and lessons were learned amid the unprecedented situation. 

Though Nicole Duquette ’20, a health sciences major from Webster, missed the face-to-face interaction with her professors, she knew she had their support as well as that of her peers. “Overall, I knew that everyone was working hard to help us succeed,” she said. “I believe that Assumption college staff, and specifically President Cesareo, went above and beyond to keep students informed and comfortable despite the difficulty of the situation.”

Like their students, professors missed the lively, meaningful discussions and engagement that happens face-to-face in the classroom. However, the swift mobilization of the community and dedication of all involved demonstrated what makes Assumption special.  

“While this was by far the strangest, most unusual, and most challenging semester I have ever experienced at Assumption, I also saw the best of our community,” said Prof. Pica-Smith. “I witnessed my students’ adaptability, capacity to work hard, and kindness towards one another and towards me. I saw them take on extra responsibilities at home while continuing their academic work. I experienced the generosity of my department’s chair and colleagues as they consistently provided their expertise, logistical support, leadership and emotional support. Likewise, across the institution colleagues, staff, and administrators worked around the clock to provide technical support, guidance, and leadership. Together, we supported our students and each other.”