In Episode 5, President Robert Iuliano explores how the College is making the transition to a remote learning platform for the remainder of the spring semester amid the global health crisis. He is joined by Sunderman Conservatory of Music Prof. and Chair of the Faculty Council Jocelyn Swigger, Prof. of Biology Ryan Kerney, and VP of Information Technology and Prof. of Computer Science Rod Tosten.
In Episode 5 of Conversations Beneath the Cupola, podcast host, Gettysburg College President Robert W. Iuliano, is joined by three faculty members—Sunderman Conservatory of Music Prof. and Chair of the Faculty Council Jocelyn Swigger, Prof. of Biology Ryan Kerney, and VP of Information Technology and Prof. of Computer Science Rod Tosten. Iuliano leads them in a discussion about the College’s transition to remote learning amid the COVID-19 health situation.
The podcast begins with Iuliano asking Swigger and Kerney how faculty are reacting to the decision to move to remote instruction. Both agree that first and foremost their focus lies on the students and providing continuity in their lives. However, this change in format will present unavoidable challenges for faculty like Swigger and Kerney whose courses rely heavily on hands-on components like labs and instrument lessons, and they share their innovative ideas with Iuliano.
Continuing the conversation, Tosten talks about the technical side of remote learning and how IT has been supporting faculty and students. In addition to training sessions for faculty, he shares that 50 smartphones with hotspot capability are available for students who do not have internet access at home.
The episode concludes with an anecdotal “Slice of Life” told through the president’s perspective. Iuliano briefly talks about how the Gettysburg College community has come together to support each other during this challenging time. Some of the efforts include a group of students starting a Facebook group to help other students find emergency housing and the College’s alumni board has started an effort to raise money to replenish the Emergency Fund to help students deal with the unexpected.
Guests featured in this episode
Jocelyn Swigger, Sunderman Conservatory of Music Prof. and Chair of the Faculty Council.
Ryan Kerney, Prof. of Biology.
Rod Tosten, VP of Information Technology and Prof. of Computer Science.
Rod Tosten: This is going to give us the time to stop and reflect and understand what’s an important, distinctive and wonderful about the Gettysburg college community.
President Bob Iuliano: Since the College’s founding in 1832 we have repeatedly demonstrated the power and resiliency of our community, proved time and time again, all that we can accomplish together. With the challenges presented by the Coronavirus, this campus’s response is in keeping with that history: rallying to support our students and advancing the Gettysburg education that is as important as it has ever been. Hi and welcome to Conversations Beneath the Cupola, a Gettysburg College podcast where we highlight the great work happening on our campus and beyond. I’m Bob Iuliano, president of Gettysburg College and your host. In this episode, we will explore how the College is making the transition to a remote learning platform for the remainder of the spring semester. I’m joined by our Vice President of Information Technology and Professor of Computer Science Rod Tosten, Sunderman Conservatory of Music Professor and Chair of the Faculty Council, Jocelyn Swigger and Professor of Biology Ryan Kerney. Jocelyn, as Chair of the Faculty Council, you see the College from a broader perspective than many people do. How do you see the faculty responding to this rather dramatic change in circumstances that seems to have been visited upon us?
Jocelyn Swigger: I think the main thing that’s on faculty’s minds is how we can help the students, and we are trying to learn as much as we can, as fast as we can so that we can. I’ve had meetings with people on Zoom where we have practice meetings to try and figure out how to run a pretend class. We’ve been doing, certainly, meetings within departments on Zoom, and Zoom may not be the only method that we use to communicate with our students, but, but that’s something that we’re really trying to get up to speed on and hopefully be as creative as we can about how we can get the information that we really want to get to our students, to our students. But I think the main thing we’re thinking about is how do we help our students and especially how do we help our students who may not have technology, may not have wifi, may not have all the resources they need. Everybody that I’ve talked to is really thinking about how we can best be flexible and creative to try and support people.
President Bob Iuliano: Ryan, what are you hearing?
Ryan Kerney: Well, early on I sent out a survey to all the students in one of my upper level courses to just take their temperature midway through the week last week and get a sense from them in terms of what, what I can do individually within this course, what they think the college should be doing, and got some terrific feedback in terms of their dedication to, commitment to continuing with their learning experience with grappling with the topics that we had laid out in the semester in our syllabus. I think that students really, students are very responsive to our efforts right now to provide continuity in their lives. And that right now based on a lot of those responses, I’ve changed some of the real objectives for the course. And I really want my students to see this as not just a distraction but something that they can engage in that they can dive into as a way of helping them sift through all this information that they get from many different sources and to become better consumers of information, better voices in my discipline, for biology. You know, to help other people understand the realities of the biological phenomena that are going on.
Ryan Kerney: And so while we’re not doing a course directly on virology or infectious disease or anything, there is a lot of learning opportunity in terms of talking about how the cell is structure d and how things work on a very mechanistic basis as it applies then to these larger societal issues that we’re all grappling with right now.
President Bob Iuliano: So on a pragmatic basis, it sounds like that means that your syllabus is changing. How are you thinking about then the associated changes presumably in the reading material and the other curricular aspects that are associated with students getting the background that they need to engage in those conversations?
Ryan Kerney: Well, my course that I’m really grappling with right now went open access this year. And so we’re really fortunate in that I’m not having to scan textbook chapters for people that have left their, their texts in a dorm room. And I know other people are, and I’m pretty sensitive to that in that, you know, you do need to scramble right now to figure out how best to get the right material in front of them. But then too, I would say with the changing goals that we have for our students right now, you know, primarily as per Jocelyn’s comments, we’re interested in ensuring that they have stability, that they have a safe space and that they’re addressing their own mental health needs. That they are able to, yes, still learn biology, but also that we’re accommodating them, especially those that, you know, that sometimes fall between the cracks. Those we don’t know what their home situation is. You know, everybody puts on a strong face, everybody wants to project being together, but everybody’s got their own drama. And so we want to make sure that those that are in unsafe or insecure or just tenuous situations now are being listened to and that we can help them as a faculty.
President Bob Iuliano: Thank you for that. And I know that’s authentic. And I know that part of what we’re trying to think about as a College is how do we enhance our advising at a moment in time when these stresses are real and when we don’t have the benefit of the physical proximity to students. You know you can see students in a different way when they’re in your classroom. So we have to figure out how to do this. And I know, Jocelyn, we’ve talked about this at the faculty council level and it’s work that we’re going to have to continue.
President Bob Iuliano: So you both teach courses. I mean, this is a place that very much emphasizes hands on education. That’s fundamental to who we are. But you all teach courses that are on the far end of that. In any case, Jocelyn, you teach piano. Ryan, you teach a course with a lab based component to it. So how are you thinking about making this adjustment in a virtual environment where the pedagogy that you engage in may need to change in such a significant way?
Jocelyn Swigger: So for my students who have access to a piano and have quiet and the ability to concentrate so they can practice, and have the technology, it’s actually going to be relatively straight forward to do a piano lesson. I’ll be able to see them play, hear them play. I won’t, unfortunately, be able to sing along with them or play along with them the way I normally do in a lesson. And I certainly won’t be able to say, okay, let me move you like a puppet and move your thumb this way. Of course I won’t be able to do that. But I will be able to, you know, put my hand up in front of my screen in front of my camera and show them what the hand does. I’ll also be able to...if I have a scan of their score, I can do screen share on the Zoom, and I can write fingerings and suggestions on their score as I’m listening, and then share that with them.
Jocelyn Swigger: So for the students who have the technology and have that capability, I think it’s going to be relatively a smooth transition for me. For the students who don’t have a piano, and some students come and take piano lessons here and they don’t have a piano in their home life, then we’re going to have to get more creative. And I do have the luxury of meeting with each of my students one-on-one every week. So I’m going to work with them and figure out what it is that they need. Ands I was thinking about...actually I sent out a survey also, but I just sent it out this morning, so I haven’t gotten responses yet, but I sent a list of questions to my piano students and one of them was, are you interested in doing a big research project about Beethoven? Because this happens to be Beethoven’s 250th birthday and we’re going to do a piano concert in December, which is his birthday, where every student plays Beethoven and there happens to be this really cool and everybody can look at it. It’s out there, it’s free.
Jocelyn Swigger: There’s this really, really wonderful digital Beethoven archive. If Google Beethoven digital archive, you’ll find it and you have to click translate to English if your German isn’t very good. But once you do that, there’s all this information, there’s manuscripts, there are letters, there are different versions of the piece. You can see the first edition and compare it to. There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of information there. So it might be that everybody says, yes, we want to do this research project. Or it might be that a couple of the students who don’t have access to a piano might become sort of the musicologists who write the big program notes for the concert. It might be something like that. There are also various...again, depending on what people have online, there are various places online where you can do music theory and where you can do sight reading practice. And so there may be some ways that I can have students work on that. I’m certainly thinking about having students record themselves and then send me the recording if the wifi doesn’t work. So it will be trickier with the students who don’t have the simple set up the camera, do the piano lesson. But, I’m hopeful that we can find things for them to learn.
President Bob Iuliano: And I think what you’ve just said encapsulates part of what I’ve already seen the College do, which is this is going to be different. It’s going to require some creativity on the part of the faculty to um, meet students where they are technologically and emotionally and intellectually. Different doesn’t necessarily mean altogether worse either though it’s just going to be different. We’re going to find different ways to engage students through different means. It’s never going to be quite the same as the residential environment. There’s no substitute for that given what we are. But I go into this period with a sense of optimism that we are going to be as open as possible to other ways of connecting that will ensure that this experience still remains a rich one for our students. And you’re already thinking along those ways. So Ryan, labs, it’s going to be really hard to dissect a frog. I’m not sure you do that, but dissect a frog over the internet.
Ryan Kerney: Yeah. I have three live animal labs scheduled for the end of the semester and we our classes on embryology and developmental biology. So it requires breeding in the staggered way, very differently related, you know, distantly related species and having the embryos timed and ready for class in order for them to do various experiments, manipulations, none of which is going to work. And so having to back burner that right away was a bit of cold water. And on top of those two, we have independent projects that all 18 of these students do as a capstone experience within the major, which every year is an outrageous hustle to get them set up and asking the right questions and doing the right, literature review and having to just scrap all that is, is definitely logistically tricky. But, as per Jocelyn’s approach, I mean, we also approach our research within the sciences through experimentation, developing new information, showing the world new phenomena or trends that had otherwise been overlooked.
Ryan Kerney: And also essentially synthesizing existing information that’s out there, you know, providing review articles or background that is going to help move the ball forward when sort of seeing the forest for more than the trees. And so I’ve had a writing project that’s been on the back burner for years. And I’ve always meant to dedicate some time and attention and it is time. I have sort of been working all morning on establishing a rubric outline for them to research this question from multiple different systems to own their own system that they’re researching. And then hopefully we can bring it together in doing a lot of leg work for what would be really my original research that I work on with students, but in a classroom setting through a large synthesis project. So I’m hoping that this works out. It is tricky to have, you know, 18 people go out and find and synthesize and bring back information into one cohesive whole. But knowing my students, I think that they’re going to rise to the occasion.
President Bob Iuliano: One of the things students say constantly even before this, and I’ve heard them say a lot recently, is just how important the relationship with the faculty members are to their development. And you can tell by this conversation why that’s so. It was sort of the dedication that you guys both have to this to your students really shines through. A basic logistical question. You’re going to start your computer on Monday or Tuesday whenever you first teach. , What’s that first class going to look like?
Jocelyn Swigger: I think there’s going to be a lot of, Oh wait, can you hear me? Oh, hi. You made it here. Can you hear me? I think there will be a lot of that.
President Bob Iuliano: It wouldn’t surprise me. Ryan, you said earlier that part of it too is just going to be checking in, making sure everyone is doing okay. And you all figuring out, how am I gonna use this technology? Now that your trial runs over. It’s, you know...not the spring training games any longer, but the regular season games.
Ryan Kerney: It will be a lot of checking in though. I mean, I feel like right now I’m being very aspirational. I’m trying to kind of drop back on some of my expectations for all of the great stuff we’re going to be able to do over the next couple of weeks and that they may not be hitting the ground running in the same way that I am. And it’s like, oh great, now we finally have the opportunity to try out X, Y, and Z if I am coming in too hard, you know, or if, you know, I can in any way kind of gauge through just that opening conversation just where they are. I know that their generation gets pinned as being, you know, on spring break right now and with a sort of devil may care attitude, but it’s just not the case with our students. And so I know that a lot of them are particularly concerned about their families and I don’t want to overwhelm...and in many conversations with faculty, the point of what we’re trying to do for the rest of the semester is to be a net benefit to their lives.
President Bob Iuliano: That’s very helpful. One last question. One of your colleagues wrote to me and ended it with the following quote. “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” I think he meant that to buck me up here. Do you guys see any breathtaking opportunities here? Or maybe the better way of saying that is, what’s the good that can come out of this transformation in the way that we are about to teach and engage our students?
Jocelyn Swigger: Well, I have a couple of things that I think maybe will be important. One is: one of my biggest challenges with my students has always been, and I’ve certainly heard this from other faculty, that the students are sleep deprived all the time. All the time. And I’ve never taught a room full of students where everybody got enough sleep. And I wonder if this might be a chance for everybody to hit reset and actually find out what kind of person and learner you are when you get enough sleep.
President Bob Iuliano: That makes a lot of sense, though recognize we will have this challenge. Some of our students will be in different time zones, we’re going to have to accommodate that as well.
Jocelyn Swigger: Certainly, but I just wonder that. So that’s something, that’s one thing that I wonder. And then another thing that I think maybe can come out of this is really a sense of what’s important. I’m seeing on my Facebook feed, and I realize that the students don’t use Facebook as much as my generation, but there’s this incredible outpouring of support for each other and also so much creativity happening. I mean, look, this is the kind of situation that’s tailor made for a classical musician, right? Because what we do is we sit in a room by ourselves and we practice. But I really do think that maybe this can can show how important music and the arts are to us as a daily human need. I certainly feel that.
President Bob Iuliano: I suspect it will also reinforce, though this community doesn’t need much of that, but reinforce the importance of togetherness and supporting one another and what it means to be here in this place, doing these things together. Again, I think people already will feel the loss, but being away I think will highlight it and I think bring a different attitude and energy when we come back on the fall. Ryan, what about from your perspective?
Ryan Kerney: Well, you know, with this awful situation, one thing that has really come to light is a near universal acknowledgement of the relevance and need for scientific literacy. Whereas it’s been marginalized piecemeal for the last 25 years here and there as everybody’s entitled to their own perspective and eventually facts that there is a hard and fast need for data and for understanding and analyzing and also for respecting and trusting the modelers and the epidemiologists that are tirelessly trying to just figure out what’s going on. So that type of information literacy is definitely an opportunity as something that we see now. You know, all of our students give far more attention to their information consumption. But the very non-scientific opportunity right now is really just this opportunity to increase our empathy to think very much more about what these individuals that we’re interacting with are going through and to put ourselves into their shoes as much as possible.
President Bob Iuliano: Thank you for that. We were going to have an event in Philadelphia, which I was going to really focus my attention on the importance of scientific literacy and how current events have demonstrated that it matters profoundly and that we remain committed here and we hope more broadly to evidence-based decision making. I will come back to that topic when circumstances permit. Again, let me say that this conversation reminds me of how fortunate our students are to have you and your colleagues as people who will shepherd them through this process, but more generally who have guided them already throughout their academic careers.
Ryan Kerney: Well, thanks so much.
Jocelyn Swigger: Thanks Bob.
President Bob Iuliano: So Rod, for the last couple of years the college has taught what we call summer hybrid. Can you say a word or two about what those are and whether there’s anything from that experience that may help guide us as we think about the transformation that’s happening now on our campus?
Rod Tosten: Sure. But first of all, I’d like to thank all the faculty for their work, their patience ,and willingness and dedication to our move to remote learning. It’s just been incredible to watch. The summer hybrid courses or courses normally taught during the semester, but in an online and condensed format where faculty and students interact synchronously and asynchronously using technology for a five-week period over the summer. The experiences and the lessons learned from the summer hybrid course initiative and also the classroom flipping initiative that we had are invaluable to us. We were able to establish best practices, support materials that we’re able to use immediately and already having the Moodle learning management system. We settled on Zoom for engagement and a program called screencast-O-Matic for capturing faculty lectures.
President Bob Iuliano: And so you start with a little bit of a head start but still...you know, in my prior life I was involved in the creation and launch of edX, which was a joint venture between Harvard and MIT to begin an online learning platform. And I know how much time and effort and work went into the launch of that. We’ve given you two weeks to help dramatically transform the way in which the college is going to teach for the rest of the semester. How are you doing it and where do you feel like you are on that ramp up to Monday, which is when we go live?
Rod Tosten: Right now sitting this week, we’re as prepared as we can be at the moment fr for Monday. We’ll learn on Monday and Tuesday how well we were prepared, but we we’re confident and the faculty are confident and IT, again, is confident. The real challenge over the last week was helping faculty to do what we call lifting, shifting and scaling. We had to help faculty to lift and shift their teaching and learning environment from a physical space to a virtual space by offering workshops for the faculty. When we did those both in person, and we did those virtually over the past several days, we had to scale up our cloud-based teaching and learning tools and increase the number, for example, of laptops available to the campus. We also had to scale up the number of trained IT members to support students and faculty as they grow into this new environment.
President Bob Iuliano: Let me say, as someone who stopped by and watched your team at work training a group of faculty members, two things: One is the team was phenomenal. Again, they dropped everything to get this going and then you were commenting on the faculty. The mood in that room was just superb. People were there, determined to learn, upbeat almost about the commitment that they have to the students, and they are going to meet it. They’re gonna meet it as best they can. So your team deserves just an enormous amount of credit for the work that they’re doing. Just to be clear though, as I understand the work that you’re doing, it’s not just making sure that the technology is ready and available. You’re also helping on the pedagogical side as well. And so, can you say a word or two about that? Because teaching in an online environment isn’t necessarily exactly the same as teaching in a classroom.
Rod Tosten: You’re absolutely correct. You know, the first step is to teach faculty the tools, the nuts and bolts of the tools that they’ll be using and the technology they’ll be using. But second, it’s reminding them how to apply those tools to the learning goals of their course and to achieving those learning goals, and for the students to learn. The workshops, again, have two focuses, one is to teach the tools. How do you do it? How do you set it? What buttons you should press? And then also how do you take those tools and apply them?
President Bob Iuliano: And I’m confident given everything that I’ve seen that the faculty is better off by virtue of your team’s engagement. And I know that because I’ve heard from faculty who have commented just with extraordinary admiration. I asked our faculty colleagues what they saw as possible opportunities here. As you think about this Rod, both from two perches, you are both a vice president responsible for IT, but also a member of our faculty. How do you think about the opportunities that may be here?
Rod Tosten: Reflection is the key opportunity that I see. The ability and the opportunity for us to decide what are the new important relationships we’ve established and what are those relationships, you know, what did we miss from being virtual and not together here on campus? What didn’t we miss from being virtual? You know, what are the personal interactions we gained from physically being together and what should we treasure and ensure exist into the future? Moving through our daily routine and through our semester routines, we don’t necessarily take the time and stop and reflect and this is going to give us the time to stop and reflect and understand what’s important, distinctive, and wonderful about the Gettysburg college community.
President Bob Iuliano: I agree with that. And I’d also say that I hope that all of us can not just do it personally, but create a structured opportunity for students to do that work as well. One last question from me, and that is you are an alum of the College. You’ve been working here for a good long time. I’m not going to put you on the spot and ask you how many years. What advice do you have for students as they undertake this transition that’s beginning for them already, but at least in the academic side, we’ll really launch on Monday,
Rod Tosten: 30 years...I’ll just share that then be honest about it. And I guess it goes back to a previous question. My advice for students is to recognize that their relationships with faculty are important. The faculty have incredible expertise and enthusiasm for the course materials, and the faculty’s authenticity will carry the whole class to success. And to really make sure that they key in and make sure that that relationship with their faculty are there.
President Bob Iuliano: So I said the last question, but you have now worked with me long enough to know never to believe me when I say that. Are we focused very much on the faculty technology side? I just want you to say a word or two about what I think is the really careful and good work you’re doing on the students side as well.
Rod Tosten: Well, thank you that. And I have to say one of my main concerns, I was always confident in faculty, always confident in IT, but the one concern I had was for students, to ensure that they had what they needed to be able to learn. And the key to that was internet access. We called and called and called and eventually found a salesperson that could deliver...and I’m holding it in my hand, 50 smartphones that have hotspot capabilities and they just came in this morning and we were cheering around it and we’ll be able to deliver these to the students. It’s the bare bone internet capability, but it will work for students and we’ll be able to get these into the hands of students that need them. We already have two students that these are getting shipped out today and overnighted to them so that they’ll have them tomorrow. This has just been a rabbit pulled out of the hat and a miracle for us to have these devices.
President Bob Iuliano: You know, you say it’s a rabbit pull out of the hat, but what I’ve learned from watching you over the seven months I’ve been on campus is there a lot of rabbits in your hats. And I’m confident that we’re going to have some bumps in the road as we move forward, but I’m also confident that with your leadership and your team, we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that our students and faculty are able to do what we’re here to do, which is to make sure we’re giving them the best education that we can. So Rod, thank you.
Rod Tosten: Thank you.
President Bob Iuliano: For those of you who are veteran subscribers to this podcast, you know that I end each conversation with what we call a slice of life. Something that speaks to what makes this such a special place to study, to teach, to work, and to live. Since the announcement of the decision to teach remotely, I have seen example after example of this campus coming together. A group of students have started a Facebook group to help other students find emergency housing. It already has 240 members. Our alumni board has started an effort to raise money to replenish the Emergency Fund which helps students deal with the unexpected ,of which there has been plenty this past few weeks. A balloon floats in my office, a gift from students simply to say thank you to the faculty and my team for all they’re doing at this moment. We’re all measured by how we respond to times of challenge. The members of this community have once again demonstrated the character of this College. Determined, supportive and forward looking. It’s early days but I am looking forward to seeing the yet unimagined ways in which Gettysburgians will pull together and make clear to the students we have just admitted to the class of 24 how fortunate they are should they decide to join this special community.
President Bob Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting gettysburg.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email email@example.com. Thank you. And until next time.