The LCGC Blog: Living the Virtual Life: Transitions in Teaching and Research

March 31, 2020
Kevin A. Schug

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009, and most recently has been named the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science awardee.

My initial inclination was to write about something other than the current status of life, given the threats of coronavirus. However, after a month extension to the shelter-in-place was ordered by the U.S. government this past weekend, and after various e-discussions with friends and colleagues throughout the world who are experiencing similar challenges, I felt I might have something to offer to make life easier.

My initial inclination was to write about something other than the current status of life, given the threats of coronavirus. However, after a month extension to the shelter-in-place was ordered by the U.S. government this past weekend, and after various e-discussions with friends and colleagues throughout the world who are experiencing similar challenges, I felt I might have something to offer to make life easier. I have just started using virtual meeting technologies for teaching and research meetings. That said, I am also a novice with the use of various virtual platforms to deliver course content or conduct meetings, so some of this might be obvious to many of you. However, if my little bit of experience can be of value to just a few, then it is probably worth sharing. 

Before the whole coronavirus outbreak started, I had hardly familiarized myself with the two main virtual learning and communication systems that UT Arlington prefers–Microsoft Teams and Canvas. The reason for that is because I have found the preferences of the university to change a little too often. It seems like every couple of years, the university changes some platform. At first, I was gung-ho to use any new platforms that the university desired. However, after many such changes, relearning and re-entering information into new profiles and management systems lost its luster. Then, during spring break, the announcement came that all classes would be moved on-line for the rest of the semester (now, it looks like this might be the case for UT Arlington for summer 2020, as well).

I have never been a huge proponent of on-line learning, especially as it relates to learning and teaching chemistry. While I believe that lecture course content can be delivered effectively on-line, there is an undeniable need for extensive hands-on laboratory experimentation in a physical science curriculum. Additionally, face-to-face lectures are likely more engaging for the students, but I have found that just with a few sessions under my belt, I can deliver class in a manner quite similar to that which I do in a classroom, using Microsoft Teams.

I have had the honor of being a member of the University of Texas System Academy of Distinguished Teachers (ADT) since 2016. This collection of less than 40 of the top instructional faculty from across the UT System hold a wealth of knowledge about classroom and on-line instruction. As I was preparing to re-design my senior-level instrumental course for on-line delivery, I was heartened by an ADT blog from a colleague at UT El Paso (1). The main advice was to keep it simple and to try not to do too much. It is easy to become enamored (and overwhelmed) by the vast amount of technology and possibilities available for on-line instruction. The blog also emphasized keeping the channels open and to not set the stakes too high. I found this all to be extremely valuable, and I thought of this advice often as I debated how to re-organize and deliver the course.

Ultimately, I decided that lecture course instruction would be done synchronously, using Microsoft Teams. I purchased a document camera. My regular lectures in the classroom primarily use the chalkboard, so that students are encouraged to write the material, as I do. Using the document camera and setting up a “Live Event” through Microsoft Teams allows me to convey the material in a very similar fashion. The Live Event is also recorded, in case anyone wants to watch it later, or again. The notes and other class materials can be scanned and uploaded in a repository in Teams (or in Canvas–I have preferred Teams, to this point). During lectures, students can ask questions verbally or through chat. Even after just a couple of lectures, I am heartened by how responsive the students are to using these different interfaces. They obviously have a lot more experience than I do. I actually seem to get more questions on-line than I did in-person–although it is not clear whether that is because the material is harder to understand on-line or if people feel more comfortable behind their computer screen. Regardless, it provides more opportunities to reiterate key points to the students. I would recommend Microsoft Teams to anyone struggling with delivering synchronous course content. I have not yet embarked on creating any additional asynchronous lecture videos, but that would also be possible through Teams.

I have a Team for my class, and I now have a Team for my research group. We have conducted a couple of virtual research group meetings, and my students have been able to present to the group. We do this through a regular Teams meeting, since it does not need to be recorded. There are some different functionalities between regular Team meetings and Live Events that you as a teacher or group leader might want to explore. As the meeting organizer, I find it easier to use a regular Team meeting if someone else is going to present, but again, I am still getting used to all of this.

Having a Microsoft Team for my research group brought some other benefits. We have a dedicated chat thread, which moves some communication away from email and makes it easier to collate information and discussions. I have uploaded all of my group’s publications, standard operating procedures, and other pertinent documents to the Teams’ file folder. This makes it much easier to organize and keep this material available. I can easily add and subtract people from Teams as the group evolves.

As we move into still uncertain times, many of us will be finding ourselves in front of the computer even more so, as we limit face-to-face interactions. For those struggling with the technology, take heart in the vast amount of resources and advice that has been made available from those who use it regularly. I encourage anyone who needs to teach on-line or conduct regular meetings and seminars to take a look at Microsoft Teams. There may be better platforms out there, but I have found this one to be very user friendly and easy to learn. I was able to figure most of it out on my own without much need for watching or reading tutorials. Above all, I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy, as well as practicing social distancing best practices. While I do not mind this extended time at home for now, it would be nice to get back into the lab and back on a regular schedule–and to visit again with friends, colleagues, and students, in person.

Reference

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.