Villanova Faculty Using Creative Approaches to Online Teaching During Coronavirus Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered everyday life as we know it. The need for social distancing has led to stay-at-home orders – resulting in the suspension of everything from in-person work and schooling to sporting events. Over the last several months, institutions of higher education have seen their campuses transformed from environments bustling with energy to ones of emptiness and silence.

At Villanova, University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, announced in March that classes would be conducted online for the remainder of the spring semester. The same will be true for the summer sessions. Despite the challenges created by moving all classes online, Villanova faculty are finding creative ways to teach and connect with students during this unprecedented time – some that are incorporating the topic of coronavirus into their syllabus and others that are finding interesting ways to deliver their course content in the new online format.  

As part of an ongoing feature, we will be sharing some of these innovative teaching methods and ideas.

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Three guest speakers with healthcare and industry backgrounds joined Assistant Professor of the Practice Diane Ellis' Nursing Leadership and Management in Healthcare course for seniors. “It was academe as usual until the COVID-19 pandemic struck,” Ellis said. “I had asked my guest speakers initially to address quality and safety as it relates to patient outcomes in healthcare. But when COVID-19 became our daily way of living and healthcare workers were now being referred to as heroes, it only made sense to have them address their unique and real life experiences as it relates to this current pandemic.”

A nurse educator in Surgical Services at Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, Shelley Hickey, RN, MSN (VU '07) is a former Fitzpatrick College of Nursing (FCN) faculty member, and the first speaker that day. She was able to  connect real-life scenarios that were occurring daily at her hospital and hospitals worldwide into the nursing leadership and management concepts that Ellis was teaching.  One student commented that Hickey’s lecture “was valuable because we had to think through the problems, we had to imagine what the situation was in terms of staffing and resource needs and how we could incorporate what was already available in the hospital. It brought home the complexity of this current situation.”

Lydia Kim, RN, (VU '14) is a clinical nurse working on a COVID-19 unit at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, and is also a graduate student at FCN. Kim discussed nurse residency programs in the current healthcare situation, along with concepts such as teamwork, collegiality, emotional intelligence and care of self as it relates to a new nurse transitioning into the acute care setting, especially during a pandemic such as COVID -19. Kim told the class how important networking in healthcare after graduation is, sharing experiences of networking on current research projects at the FCN, and opportunities available to her as a graduate nursing student at Villanova. Students remarked that “She helped us see our life in a few months or years, and how to stay calm in a storm, and to say yes to opportunities even if you don't know where they will take you.”

Hugh M. Davis, Ph.D. (VU ‘85), a former faculty member in the chemistry department, has more than 35 years of experience as a scientist and as a research and development executive in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Davis addressed several areas as they relate to COVID-19, such as the uniqueness of SARS CoV-2 genome and implications and concerns; the ethics of conducting gain-of-function tests with viruses; and vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic efforts and challenges. One senior said, “The things that I really appreciated about Dr. Davis's presentation were that he supplied us with real time information, taught us where to find it and most impressively, presented the articles in a non-biased, factual manner.  Dr. Davis's impressive bio didn't prohibit him from articulating his appreciation for and pride in the nursing profession, made even more special when he noted his daughter is a nurse. This was a really spectacular lecture because it gave us such unique insight into how virologists are approaching a new virus -- all from a proud Villanova alum."

Illustration of a figure in a white lab coat standing in the middle of a "moral" compass.

Dr. Peter Koch has overhauled his Ethics for Healthcare Professionals course to focus on ethical issues that are unique to pandemics like COVID-19. In addition to inviting an ICU doctor to (virtually) join their class for a Q&A, the discussion has turned to topics like the “duty to treat,” deciding which patients should get ventilators when there are not enough ventilators for everyone, etc.

Since many of the students in the class are future nurses and medical professionals, Dr. Koch says, “they are personally invested in the topics. In other years these questions might be interesting but would seem abstract and remote. However, many of my students have parents or siblings or friends in hospitals who are experiencing this exact kind of situation and so they discuss these questions at both a philosophical and personal level. We have also addressed whether they, as students who are about to graduate, have a duty to treat patients if the requirements for practicing are waived so that nurses can practice earlier than would typically be allowed. This topic clearly mattered to them because this is a choice they may have to make in the coming weeks or months.”

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A professor of continuing education in the College of Professional Studies (CPS), Erin McCloskey – a mindset and growth coach – begins her Strategic Organizational Leadership class with a pause. This simple technique can go a long way, especially during times of change like the current environment during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I enjoy empowering students to practice pause,” notes McCloskey. “At the beginning of every class, we take a few minutes in silence. The feedback I receive is positive. Students report feeling refocused, centered, and calm after the exercise. It is also seems to ‘sync’ everyone a bit more together, encouraging more engagement and unity during the class.”

McCloskey is making time for students to share how they have adapted and will also focus on non-verbal and material communication as even more essential forms of communication for effective leadership – now that most of us are not face to face.

“As leaders, we are being called to show up even more powerfully, with a need to influence beyond just the verbal.”

Photo of Dr. DenNardis's face on a video screen next to a heavily annotated piece of Latin text on her OneNote screen that she shares with her students

Dr. Valentina DeNardis is Director of Classical Studies at Villanova and an expert on using technology in education. DeNardis holds multiple Microsoft designations, including Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and Certified Microsoft Innovative Educator. She was one of only two academics invited to present on a recent remote learning webinar, “Microsoft Teams and OneNote in Higher Education.“ The other was an engineering professor from Australia.

DeNardis is currently using the One Note Class Notebook to annotate text in her Latin literature course. Students see it on the screen in real time and it’s saved automatically for them revisit online at any time. She is also using Microsoft Teams to create “a space for students to connect and share in an informal way, which I think is really crucial as we try to continue our regular classwork apart from each other and under the stress of the pandemic.”

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Once classes transferred online for Kevin Clark’s Strategic Thinking and Implementation course, all that was left were a series of cases that student teams would lead and the class would react to.  However, given the pandemic and its effect on the students, Clark decided to replace the scheduled cases with assignment focused on COVID-19. 

Students were instructed to use the strategy models and mindsets learned earlier in the semester to analyze responses to the crisis, whether that be from federal, state or local governments, firms or industries their family worked in or an area of their choosing. They would evaluate the decisions that had been made to that point and write journal reflections online. The students are to not only assess what happened, but also to use what was learned in class in order to place themselves in the leaders' positions. 

“The papers have been really solid and insightful,” Clark says.  “The reaction from the students has been positive, as this assignment repositions them from being at the will of the pandemic to actively assessing what to do about it.”

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In these uncertain times, the jobs of auditors will become even more important. In Denise Downey’s Auditing course this spring, they’ve explored case studies on public company financial reporting, the regulatory environment, and emerging technologies. And soon, Downey is planning to bring in a guest speaker to her Zoom class to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the audit environment. For example, challenges for companies to produce financial statement information remotely, considerations for auditors as their ability to interface with management in person is remove and steps accounting firms are taking to adapt and protect their people.

“This guest was planned before the pandemic on a separate topic, but given the uncertainty businesses are facing, we adapted a bit,” Downey says. “Essentially, my students are interested in how business are planning for a potential recession, what the impact is of having personnel produce the financial statement numbers remotely? How do auditors get comfortable with those numbers while working from home? They are also interested in the impact of a recession on audit firms themselves, because all public companies are mandated to have an audit in the U.S. which has historically insulated the industry a bit.

Downey is also planning to host eight guest speakers to come and work with students in Zoom breakout rooms on their plan for the CPA exam and questions related to transitioning from college to a professional service firm.

“I think the students are really looking forward to both opportunities, as many of the juniors have had their internships cut short and are considering ways they might start the CPA exam this summer, instead of waiting until they graduate,” Downey said..

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There is quite a bit of irony in Dr. Seth Matthew Fishman’s Campus Physical Environments course going online.

Fishman’s class is part of a series of 1-credit special topics courses designed for graduate students pursuing future careers in higher education and education leadership. The applied theory workshop, which introduces students to the topic of higher education physical environments and student usage, is set up to be condensed over one weekend on campus – with students submitting a final project at a later date.

With the class moving to an online format, Fishman saw potential benefits for altering the traditional course timeline. He decided to conduct half of the class through online Zoom sessions over the originally scheduled weekend and then spread the remainder of the course over three weeks – giving the students more time to process the course content.

The class has been virtually exploring campus environments, looking at ways in which physical space promotes engagement and student learning. Issues such as sustainability and diversity and inclusion are key topics integrated in the workshop. Read more on the class here.

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Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, businesses everywhere have had to adapt their supply chains and operations to meet the demands of consumers. Throughout his Operations Management course, James Reaves frequently incorporates current U.S. and global business news relating to operations management into the course. This information allows the students to see real-world business events as they occur, such as operational issues with customer service, supply chains and manufacturing.

Reaves, who was an adjunct professor at Villanova and the School of Business for 30 years and had more than 40 years of experience working in operations and management roles, recently became a full-time teaching professor with Villanova.

In late January, they started following the business news and the impact COVID-19 was beginning to have on the global business world. As COVID-19 developed into a full pandemic during the semester, students were able to study and monitor the severe impact that the pandemic has had on all aspects of operations management and the continuity of U.S. and global business operations.  

“During these uncertain times, the students know that they can have a positive impact on the various aspects of business and other challenges that the future will bring,” Reaves said.

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Many classes are taking the time to discuss how current course topics can apply to COVID-19. This is no different in Advanced Analytics with Kathleen Iacocca. She tasks her students with a question of, how can you use your knowledge to help? Text mining was a recent topic in class, so they focused on how this could be used during coronavirus. Think word analytics to derive information from the text to identify patterns. Here are some examples students came up with:

  • Insurance companies can text mine social media to understand the mental effects of social distancing and provide support services to groups where necessary
  • Text mining can scan medical transcripts to find if certain preexisting conditions are related to more serious cases of COVID-19
  • Text mining can scan medical transcripts to look at early symptoms of COVID-19 to predict which ones will later be admitted to the hospital
  • News outlets can mine comments and social media so see what the most pressing concerns are of Americans (e.g. death rate, COVID-19 symptoms, economy)

One team of students plans on using COVID-19 data for their final project.  

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Professor Barby Hobyak-Roche is very aware of the limitations of her dance students as it pertains to space in their homes. She created this video with her family to prove that you can dance anywhere! 

For Professor Hobyak-Roche, "This transition for my courses goes beyond just becoming online at the moment- many of my students are in bedrooms, in kitchens, in garages, basements, outside...some of them in very tight quarters. They are dealing with BOTH a computer screen instead of human contact in a class environment AND tight physical space. Virtual connection is a gift- yet dance and theater are experiential. A living, present art form and language. 

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Adding COVID-19 to the curriculum was an easy adjustment for adjunct professor and MD, Robert Leggiadro, who teaches a Capstone course for Comprehensive Science majors called Readings in Epidemiology. He is covering coronavirus from various perspectives, including the science behind COVID-19 and the government and community response.

Dr. Leggiadro has taught his students about the origins of the virus, what it is and how it’s spread. The class also focused on the health impact, including the criteria used for patient evaluation and testing, and the management systems in place to limit the spread of the disease, such social distancing and quarantine. They also spent time comparing COVID-19 to other viruses, such as SARS and MERS, as well as the learning about the global surveillance systems in place to monitor for emerging respiratory viruses. 

The students were given the opportunity to weigh in on lessons learned through their writing. Dr. Leggiadro provided an optional extra credit writing assignment to his class and was impressed with the thoughtful, timely responses he received. 

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It all started on March 11 before the start of the NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder when it became known that one of the Jazz players, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for coronavirus. That sent a shockwave throughout the sports world as leagues, events and tournaments were postponed or canceled for the foreseeable future. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo were even postponed to 2021. 

Andrew Brandt, Executive Director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Charles Widger School of Law, teaches a sports law course. He said he threw away the syllabus once the Gobert situation came to light. In his course over the last month, they’ve discussed topics affecting professional and collegiate sports. Topics have ranged from player compensation, TV rights, paying arena workers, collective bargaining agreement impacts on players playing and players taking pay cuts. He also had an insurance recovery lawyer join his class via Zoom to discuss insurance recovery from canceled sporting events. 

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The switch to online courses has presented a unique challenge to faculty teaching classes with performance elements: How can they best bring students’ creativity to life in this new format? "I think the performance classes have a particular challenge in all this," says Bess Rowen, PhD, assistant professor of Theatre, who made changes to her Creativity course.

Rowen’s original syllabus called for students to bring in poems that inspired them and turn their poems into a brief performance piece with movement and sound. Instead, she had her students create virtual performance pieces, which they acted out for their classmates over Zoom.

"The results were awesome,” Rowen says. “Some had repeated themes, others used images, musical cues or gestures. Some included found images, others made images themselves, and still others used live action.”

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Steven McGuire, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in Villanova’s Augustine and Culture Seminar (ACS) program, altered the syllabus in his ACS Moderns section to have his students read Albert Camus’s The Plague.

“It’s a great story of love and solidarity in desperate times,” McGuire says.

His goal is to help his students understand and deal with the societal impact of coronavirus and think about how they, as individuals, want to respond to the global crisis. McGuire started a class blog as a way for students to discuss the book and share their experiences this semester.

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Vanessa Boschi, PhD, an assistant research professor in the Department of Chemistry, teaches Environmental Chemistry at the University. Given the current social distancing guidelines, along with her need for some fresh air, Boschi decided to take a trip to Valley Forge National Park in King of Prussia, Pa., where she put together a short lesson that she shared on YouTube.

This is the first in a series of light-hearted and informative videos she plans to make in creative places to keep her students’ spirits up – and to inspire other educators to do the same. 

“I was hoping it would bring a bit of levity to otherwise difficult times while also being educational,” said Boschi. “As professors, we wear different hats. Not only are we educators but we also play the role of mentors and even counselors at different times.”

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Engineering professors David Dinehart and Jim O’Brien are keeping students actively engaged online in their “Engineering in a Humanistic Context” course. The students are currently focused on developing technical solutions to assist refugees and asylum seekers. More specifically, the students are working on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects with Catholic Relief Services (CRS): in Uganda, at a site with 300,000 refugees, and with Global Response Management, a non-profit in Texas, for a group of 2,000 asylum seekers just over the border in Matamoros, Mexico.  

The faculty and students in the course recently met virtually via Zoom with CRS professionals on the ground in Uganda, Guatemala and Panama to discuss the challenges of refugee camp solutions. The class brought their Villanova spirit to the Zoom call with unique video backgrounds (see photo).

Faculty from across disciplines have come together and provided guidance to the students from various perspectives. For instance, Engineering professor Virginia Smith spoke with the class about her background with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and provided the group with training on how to use Geographic Information Systems. Nursing professor Bette Marini provided insight and advice on COVID-19 and the meaning of flattening the curve.

“The students have not skipped a beat with transitioning to Zoom, showing continued professionalism and meaningful class participation," said Dinehart. "It’s been a great example of the Villanova community coming together and staying together via Zoom."

Note: Continue to check back for more examples of the creativity Villanova faculty have brought to their online teaching.