University students worry about exams and grades, about research and lab work, about finding a good summer internship. They’ve never had to worry about their schools suddenly shutting down, their classmates and friends scattering across thousands of miles, their chances for an internship evaporating.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.
Geoscience departments everywhere scrambled to keep education alive while the pandemic spread rapidly across Europe and the United States.
With classrooms closed, virtual instruction developed as the primary teaching method. Use of the online videoconferencing and webinar tool Zoom became so ubiquitous that students began to say they were attending Zoom University.
Daniel Stockli is a professor in geological sciences at the University of Texas-Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences and director of the school’s geo- and thermochronometry laboratory. Stockli said he was tasked with leading the transition to online education.
“We had just two weeks to basically turn our entire in-person class offerings into online courses – not an easy feat, but our team managed to provide the faculty and teaching assistants with the necessary philosophical, technical and pedagogic tools and help them transition 100 percent of our courses,” he reported.
Stockli said the transition team ran numerous internal, technical online webinars to:
- Teach instructors how to use Zoom for live or recorded lectures,
- Use the learning-management platform Canvas “and all its possibilities,”
- Use the Panopto video platform to share pre-recorded content with students,
- Edit recordings via different platforms that instructors were used to, and,
- Demonstrate how to draw and write online using drawing tablets.
“It took a village to make it happen,” Stockli observed.
“This might not be an approach some might have taken voluntarily, but everybody rose to the occasion with the necessary assistance, guidance and resources. I have been very impressed. I have colleagues in their 80s teaching online!” he said.
As Good As the Real Thing?
Virtual online teaching has enabled instructors to continue educating students, but it hasn’t fully duplicated the classroom experience, said Margot Gerritsen, professor and senior associate dean in Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University.
“I am hopeful that online learning is more effective than we fear, but think it may not be as effective as we hope,” Gerritsen commented.
“On a personal note, my three classes are OK. I teach with Zoom, and that has been working OK. Students like the immediate feedback available through the chat option, they like that the lectures are all recorded so they can go back and review the lecture if they missed something,” she said.
Most students miss face-to-face interaction, she noted.
“It is tough in a Zoom class to really develop a community. We try, through breakouts, through team projects,” she said.
Gerritsen said most classes use interactive tools like breakout sessions, chat rooms and check-ins, and also allow students to “raise their hands” by signaling online to ask questions, just as in a normal classroom.
“Many classes set up study groups, or help facilitate. In my classes, we share time zones we are in and most students find peers in similar time zones,” she said.
Paul Mann, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston, said his group uses software tools Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
“Our Conjugate Basins, Tectonics, and Hydrocarbons (Project) group of 20 persons is working efficiently from home,” Mann said.
“We are fortunate in that we use mainly seismic and well data on workstations which we can remotely access in our now-deleted lab on the UH campus. We meet as a group on Fridays using Microsoft Teams for each student to report on their progress,” he added.
Thesis proposal and defense meetings, for both master’s and doctorate degrees, “are also done usually with Zoom connecting the student and committee in their houses. We have done enough of these that this is almost feeling like the norm,” Mann said.
Some universities were able to complete most or all field work by the time classes were shut down and completed other activities just under the wire.
“Our EAS Imperial Barrel Award class was able to complete the final run-up to the competition on Friday (April 3) completely online – and with the students safely isolated from one another in their homes. Our team came in second in the Gulf Coast section,” Mann said.
“Kudos to the AAPG Gulf Coast IBA organizers for running that so efficiently,” he added.
“Lab work now relies more on show and tell via teleconferencing. Remedial work will likely be needed in future semesters for classes like petrology that require hands-on experience with the microscope,” Mann noted.
“Field-based trips were largely complete by the start of the virus. Field exercise are now more software based – i.e., Google Earth,” he said.
“Field” Work Without the Field
Geoscience students have been hard hit by the loss of field work and lab work opportunities as well as the interruption of research, instructors agree. Those may be the biggest problems in Earth science education today, said Lynn Soreghan, professor, director and chair of the School of Geosciences at the University of Oklahoma.
“The primary challenge for those of us in geosciences is the loss of the ability to hold field trips and in-person labs. Of course, the situation is far from ideal, but we are handling it and hopefully will emerge as better teachers for having had to do so,” Soreghan said.
“So far, I’ve found the videoconferencing to be working quite well. I am teaching a graduate course with about a dozen students, and we are easily able to discuss, and the students can do presentations by sharing their screen, so that part is working fine,” she noted.
Where field trips were delayed, universities had to face the prospect of canceling field work until after the summer if the pandemic persisted. Many schools struggled to create a virtual field experience.
“Our field camp instructors are having to scramble to figure out how to run ‘field’ camp without the field – which is course is an oxymoronic situation for, I think, nearly all geoscientists. But there is no going around COVID-19, so we must do what we can to ensure students are staying on their degree programs and not being delayed by this,” Soreghan said.
“Fortunately, our situation is not unique, so field camp directors around the nation have held several videoconferences to help one another and brainstorm ideas to try to make the experience as enriching as possible under the circumstances,” she added.
That “sharing” aspect of the current situation has been a happy development, according to Stockli.
“People are well-connected and a national and international network of helping each other kicked in pretty quickly,” he said. It is “really rather inspiring how people are sharing content or making content freely available. I think this crisis brought the best out of a lot of people.”
Thomas Lapen, professor of geology and chair of the University of Houston’s EAS Department, said “overall, folks are coping as best they can. There is no substitute for direct observation of real materials, direct face-to-face interactions, hands-on activities.”
“Most of these issues are being addressed with virtual experiences. For example, taking videos of petrographic thin-section analyses and having the students report on these as if they were the ones making the observations,” he said.
The university has developed virtual field trips for its introductory geology course “for folks who could not attend the actual field trips, but it is no substitute for the real trips. Overall, there is no substitute for hands-on experiences and learning,” Lapen observed.
“With no classroom access due to the pandemic, we do our best to deliver the course materials, but there are major limits on our ability to deliver our full curriculum. Once it is safe to begin face-to-face and experiential learning, we will go back to focusing on these modes of course delivery,” he said.
Stanford is preparing to allow research to ramp up in a controlled manner, but lab teaching “definitely will take a hit this spring,” said Stephan Graham, professor and dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences at the university.
“That said, the silver lining for our lab researchers is that this period is providing a great window for synthesizing data and writing up lab results,” Graham noted.
“Online teaching will work for lecture classes and seminars, but it is much more difficult for lab classes. Our lab-oriented faculty are working to find creative alternatives,” he said.
Another concern is that if closures in response to the coronavirus run into the summer, travel restrictions will persist and prevent summer field seasons.
That would “greatly impact graduate student and faculty research, and has the potential to set back students who work in seasonally sensitive areas by up to a year. No one wants that, but it looks to be a real possibility right now,” Graham said.
Researchers also worried about corporate funding for their programs as the oil industry became increasingly cash strapped, following a pandemic-induced collapse of demand. Some research programs supporting industry suddenly faced an uncertain future
“Equally catastrophic is the fact that many oil and gas companies are suffering and have withdrawn from consortia and contracts. The impact of this is difficult to foresee at the moment, but the short- and long-term damage could be unprecedented,” Stockli said.
Universities began moving student exams online, without a clear roadmap on how to proceed beyond emphasizing the importance of their own honor codes. Some schools introduced across-the-board pass/fail grading, while others gave students the choice of either accepting a letter grade or an ungraded, for-credit-only option.
“At Stanford, we have the honor code and this is valid still at distance, too. Even on campus, we do not proctor exams actively. Students get a bit of extra time to scan and submit their work,” Gerritsen commented.
Stockli said, “Assessment/testing will likely be one of the biggest hurdles. Expectations have to be adjusted, fairness maintained and the honor code upheld. It will take faculty and students to cooperate and be patient and understanding.”
Universities started to cancel their scheduled public commencement exercises as early as March – another blow to many seniors and graduate students completing their studies. As the semester drew toward a close in late April, the outlook for research papers and final exams remained uncertain.
Overall, most instructors seemed to consider their efforts at virtual education an unwelcome challenge but a qualified success.
“Clearly this is a very difficult situation for everybody. The students didn’t sign up for this and neither did the faculty, but none of us had a choice,” Stockli observed.
“We all have a responsibility to make it happen – meaning to maintain high standards in education and give the students an as-good-as-possible educational experience to help them achieve their goals. Period,” he said.