MC adapts to distance learning

Maryville College adapts to distance learning

April 20, 2020

Dr. Angelia Gibson’s advanced biochemistry and molecular biology students were almost finished with their multi-week cloning project before the COVID-19 outbreak ended in-person instruction at Maryville College. Students had just transformed bacteria with their cloned DNA the week before Spring Break, and all had preliminary evidence of having successfully cloned the target gene.

“But we had two labs remaining on that project for them to isolate and analyze the cloned DNA to confirm that it had worked,” explained Gibson, an associate professor of chemistry and chair of the College’s Natural Sciences Division.

Then the College closed, and employees were asked to work (or teach) from home.

With her son’s Go-Pro camera strapped to her chest, Gibson went in to Sutton Science Center after the break and videotaped herself isolating the DNA in short clips. She ran gel electrophoresis, posted results (a photograph of the gel) with the loading order and protocols and shared with her students.

“While my students didn’t get to do [the lab work] themselves, they saw me working with their samples,” she said. “They will now analyze the results and report whether or not they got the expected clone.”

The remainder of the semester includes more videos, virtual labs and data analysis for her students. Lab instruction is difficult in a distance-learning format, she said, but the professor is thankful for science publications and organizations that have made good content freely available on the internet in response to COVID-19.

And fittingly, much of the content incorporates coronavirus research.

“Some of the more state-of-the-art labs will give students an opportunity to analyze data from techniques that are in the news, like qPCR testing and genomic analysis for COVID-19 testing or making mutations using CRISPR/Cas9,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do those labs in real life anyway, so I can take advantage of web resources and data posted in molecular biology literature and give them a chance to learn the fundamentals of data collection and analyze for these very advanced techniques.”

Such is the approach of all Maryville College faculty members in this unprecedented time:  Making the most of a difficult situation.

Still committed to quality

According to Dr. Dan Klingensmith, vice president and dean of the College, the transition to distance education from in-person instruction has not been easy, but students and faculty seem to have settled in to a routine. A survey of students after the first week of remote learning revealed that there were challenges, but most were related to students’ access to technology and home and family situations.

“We are as committed as ever to providing a high-quality education to our students,” the dean said. “The challenge is that there are so many contingencies that are out of our control and students’ control. So, we’ve had to be flexible and understanding as much as we can.”

One way that flexibility can be seen, he said, is in the number of faculty who are offering both synchronous and asynchronous learning sessions. Synchronous sessions closely mimic actual class sessions, thus maximizing actual faculty-student interactions. Asynchronous sessions maximize accessibility because they allow students to complete work on their own time.

Klingensmith said faculty members were alerted in early March that COVID-19 could force a college closure. His office organized a forum for faculty before Spring Break to discuss resources available to them should the remainder of the semester’s instruction need be delivered away from campus.

Advice and suggestions for learning remotely were gathered, posted online and shared with students in a memo Klingensmith emailed to students on March 24 – six days before the first remote classes convened.

Throughout the transition, the College’s Information Technology Team has been instrumental in providing guidance and support, he said.

“We’ve had multiple online faculty forums since we started online, basically to check in about how it’s going for faculty—many of whom are new to this as well—share the student feedback we’ve been getting and brainstorm ideas to meet unexpected challenges,” he added. “Working from home for faculty has actually been pretty tiring, because the workload is actually greater, if anything. I’ve been really proud of my faculty colleagues.”

Synchronous and asynchronous

Some faculty, like Dr. Kristin Riggsbee, visiting lecturer in health promotion, joined a Facebook group of thousands of professors that gave her access to more information about distance learning.

“I also implemented a survey with my students during Spring Break to assess for WiFi, computer access, schedule and ask for their preferences/comfort with online learning,” she said. “This allowed me to connect with them early and pinpoint students who might have increased difficulty with being successful this semester in online learning.”

As a result of her students’ responses, Riggsbee decided to teach all of her classes asynchronously. This semester, she is teaching EXS221: Nutrition Across the Life Span, EXS219: Principles of Human Nutrition and PHR236: Issues in Health Education.

In an asynchronous format, Riggsbee not only accommodates students who live in different time zones, she accommodates people who have challenges with such things as WiFi, technology and child care.

“I wanted to ensure that all students in my courses have some amount of flexibility on when to complete their coursework,” she said. “I created weekly module pages on Blackboard with course links embedded, so that students can simply click on the week that they are on and then click on any corresponding task to complete the week. The modules open on Monday morning and close every week on Sunday at 11:59 p.m. This allows students to take adequate time—on their own schedule—to complete the weekly tasks.”

Most weeks include video-recorded lectures with PowerPoint slides, chapter readings and chapter questions. Final projects will require students to plan and create presentations to convey health information to the public. She asks students to provide her with a weekly reflection journal that gives insight about how they’re progressing in the course. She does offer a live “check in” early in the week.

“The live session is not mandatory, and it is recorded,” she said. “However, I do find that students are enjoying checking in, chatting, asking questions live and just having the same interactions they would in the classroom.”

Like Gibson, she is finding natural ways to incorporate COVID-19 into coursework.

“One thing that I have lectured about in Nutrition Across the Life Span is the prevalence, pathophysiology and nutritional treatment of chronic disease patterns in adults and older adults,” Riggsbee said. “Although this is something I would have discussed readily in both nutrition classes, I have connected why these diseases may be providing additional problems with patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Further, we have discussed the pathophysiology of aging and how it impacts the immune system, which would put these vulnerable populations at an even higher risk,” she added. “Even more importantly than that, we have discussed the ability of everyone to get adequate sleep, eat well, still be physically active and decrease stress levels in such a challenging time to protect our immune response.”

Dr.  Heather McMahon also decided to teach asynchronously and has organized lessons for the rest of the semester into learning modules that students move through weekly. A theatre professor, she is teaching THT209: Play Analysis, THT311: Directing and THT316: Theatre History II this semester.

McMahon also has online office hours and individual meetings with students using video conferencing.

“The other thing I’ve started is just trying to check in with my students frequently,” she said. “I’m trying to make sure they aren’t missing anything and just check that they have what they need.”

Faculty members have found that students in some classes want synchronous instruction and can commit to coming together, virtually, on the same days and times.

Dr. Aaron Astor, associate professor of history, is teaching HIS307: History of the U.S. South: 1600-Present synchronously, and it enabled him to move what was previously scheduled to be a Skype interview with an author to a Zoom video conference with everyone.

“In this course, students are reading five or six books throughout, and I ask them to write a short paper in response to each one,” Astor explained. “One of the books is Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930 by Tammy Ingram, a history professor at the University of Charleston. Through Zoom, we had an hour-long conversation that wouldn’t have been any better than if we’d been in class.”

To prepare for the class, Astor had each student prepare two questions for Ingram. In this class, he said, Zoom facilitates not only a connection between students but “a connection to a wider world of scholars.”

Missing connection

It’s that connection to his students, though, that has made the move to distance learning the most difficult, Astor said, describing it as a “mental toll.” Astor, Gibson, McMahon and Riggsbee all agree—they miss their students.

“The thing I love about being a teacher is being in the classroom and learning together,” McMahon said. “Since I’ve decided to use the online discussion boards to replace our usual in-class conversations, it is taking some getting used to—for me and for the students.”

Gibson also misses the efficiency of in-person instruction.

“Entering tests and questions into the course management program is a beast—harder than just typing up or printing out a test,” she said. “Our amazing administrative assistant [Brenda Eingle] has been doing this for a lot of our faculty, so that has helped.”

Cameron Moore ’20, a senior biology major, is enrolled in one of Gibson’s classes and has found the asynchronous format of her class to be helpful. At home in Clinton, Tenn., he and three other family members are sharing the WiFi connection, which doesn’t reliably support Zoom sessions at the same time.

“So when a situation arises where my mother or I need the internet for school, one of us volunteers to go to my grandfather’s house down the street and use his WiFi,” he explained.

Moore misses his friends, professors and the staff members at MC; he misses being in the microbiology lab, the “peaceful place” where he worked and could take a mental break from school pressures.

“I also really miss band classes,” he said. “Getting to play my instrument with my band friends and Dr. [Eric] Simpson is something I will miss, especially since I’m graduating.”

Eleanor Forester ’21, a junior history major, is finishing her semester online at her home in Memphis, Tenn.

She participated in the Zoom interview of Tammy Ingram and said she loved it.

“I felt like I was at a Clayton [Center for the Arts] lecture series but in my own home,” she said. “It is pretty incredible to think about what modern technology has allowed us to do; I got to ask an author in New York City about her writing process as I consider my own undergraduate thesis, all from hundreds of miles away.”

But given a choice, Forester would be back on campus in a hurry.

“I miss the College every day,” she said. “Springtime in Maryville is my favorite, and I’m sad that I won’t get to study at the solar decks anymore until next fall. I miss my friends and my professors and [Campus Minister] Anne McKee – all people who make me work hard and make me feel valued and understood.”

For her, distance learning does not “stack up” against face-to-face instruction because it doesn’t support the personal relationships that she has come to rely on.

Space matters, too, she pointed out.

“The most challenging aspect of this transition has been finding a new source of motivation and drive to get the work done,” she explained. “I know that for many students, the space in which we do work matters a lot. It is hard to change your mindset to ‘work-mode’ when you are stuck in a small house, and it is hard to place value on a homework assignment when the world feels so uncertain and dark.” 

Moore, who will be enrolling in the microbiology Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in the fall, is taking the time to rest. With the absence of extracurricular activities that normally kept him busy from morning to night, he’s now focusing on school work—and perspective.

“Being at MC these past four years has been a wonderful experience for me, and I am thankful I got to spend the time I did there with the friends, faculty and staff I have met,” he said. “I may have ‘lost’ the last few weeks of my senior year, but I had the best four years, so what are a few weeks in the grand scheme of things?”

Written by Karen Beaty Eldridge '94, Executive Director for Marketing & Communications


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”