March 25, 2020

Successfully navigating uncharted territory

UW-Superior classrooms may be empty due to efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, but a vibrant 'virtual campus' is emerging at UW-Superior.

UW-Superior classrooms may be empty due to efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, but a vibrant 'virtual campus' is emerging at UW-Superior.

UWS transitions to new ‘virtual’ reality amidst COVID-19 pandemic

The University of Wisconsin-Superior entered uncharted territory a little less than two weeks ago when Chancellor Renée Wachter announced on March 11 that spring break was being extended one week and classes would resume in an alternate format on March 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Behind the scenes, an Emergency Response Team made up of administration, staff and faculty went into action. Meeting twice daily at minimum, the team consulted with local, state, and national agencies, monitored updates and breaking news, and swiftly made numerous moves to help safeguard the campus community.  

“I have been incredibly impressed and grateful for how our faculty and staff have responded and dug in to do whatever has been needed to ensure our students are safe, supported, and will receive the quality education they’ve come to expect from UW-Superior,” said Chancellor Wachter. “I often say we are a ‘Small, but Mighty’ university, but perhaps never before has it been demonstrated more clearly than now.”  

In less than two weeks, UW-Superior’s physical campus went from a busy, energetic hub of student activity to stoically quiet, and seemingly vacant. While this was difficult, it was done with intentionality and purpose to help combat the world’s new invisible enemy, COVID-19. 

A swift move 

The Dean of Students, Residence Life, International Students offices, and many others worked nearly around the clock to encourage students to return home or to an off-campus location, while ensuring they knew how to do so safely and efficiently. For those who were unable to leave or had nowhere to go, administration reviewed students' applications to stay case-by-case and made sure they would continue to have food and other necessities. To date, 483 students (76 percent of those who were living on campus at the start of the semester) have moved out of residence halls or are scheduled to do so soon. 

UW-Superior is known for having the second highest percentage of international students in the UW System, right behind UW-Madison. These students have had to make excruciating decisions to determine whether it would be better to return to their home countries or stay at UW-Superior. Salisa Hochstetler, assistant director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, worked one-on-one with students to help them weigh pros and cons and make travel arrangements. To date, 20 of the university's 60 international students have decided to returned to their homes or are currently making plans.  

With a huge number of changes and vast amounts of information to communicate, the university created a COVID-19 website, updating it multiple times daily. Email, social media and texts have also been used to provide timely information to the campus community.

“UWS has done a tremendous job at informing students and allowing us to get up-to-date information,” said Makenzie Hill, senior interdisciplinary studies major (criminal justice, psychology, health and human services). “It truly has provided me clarity with where we are at as a university and student-wise.” 

Students weren’t the only ones packing boxes and moving home. Non-essential employees, those who do not physically have to work on campus to keep the university in operation, transitioned to telecommuting arrangements. In all, 400 out of a total of 481 employees are currently working from home. 

“The safety of our students and staff have been at the core of every decision that has been made in this unprecedented situation,” said Cory Kempf, Human Resources director. “UW-Superior's employees are our greatest asset, and in a matter of two weeks we transitioned most of our workforce to work successfully from home. This significant work shift allows us to continue to serve our students and the university's mission.”

Transitioning to online

While students and staff have been transitioning to remote work and learning arrangements, instructors have been working nonstop to transition 400, or 70 percent, of spring semester courses online. The university’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) is supporting instructors through the process with expertise, tools and resources, and a Digital Strategies team of master online instructors are providing one-on-one consultation with those who are less experienced with the online modality. 

“My biggest challenge so far has been redesigning my applied behavioral analysis course,” said Eleni Pinnow, psychology professor. “It’s an Academic Service-Learning class and in the past, my students did hands-on work at the Douglas County Humane Society and Superior Middle School. Obviously, that no longer works, but I have it all figured out. Instead of the client being out in the community, students will be their own client. We’ll be using Heads Up, a mindfulness app and other resources. I think it will work really well.” 

“The hardest part is I already miss seeing my students,” she said. “I’ve been with some of them for four years and I won’t get to spend that last semester with them. That makes me very sad.” 

Other instructors are also finding innovative ways to teach course content. Danielle Karvonen, health and human performance senior lecturer, is using an app called Map My Walk for her group fitness class. Anne Dugan, visual arts instructor, will be teaching from an empty greenhouse on her organic food farm. “I ripped-up my class syllabus and started over,” she said.  “We’re going to look at art in times of crises and how we can use art to connect with those in the community who are going to have a really hard time with all of this.” 

UW-Superior was one of the earliest leaders within the UW System to develop online programs. With decades of experience, a recent switch to a more flexible and easier-to-use platform called Canvas, and established resources and masters in the art of online teaching, UWS is ready to meet the challenge that COVID-19 has unexpectedly created. 

“Our world-class instructors immediately stepped up to the challenge and are doing a fabulous job of converting their face-to-face classes to online. Our instructors have always made students and their learning job number one, and they certainly proved it this week,” said Maria Cuzzo, interim provost. “We pledge that our students will experience high quality education in our classes—as they always have.  We are superior at serving our students and meeting them where they are to be successful in their academics.” 

UW-Superior classrooms may be empty due to efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, but a vibrant 'virtual campus' is emerging at UW-Superior.

UW-Superior classrooms may be empty due to efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, but a vibrant 'virtual campus' is emerging at UW-Superior.

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