By Sala Levin
Maryland Today

A cell biology course with a living textbook. A music class where performers can play together in different rooms without video delays. Online games that build storytelling skills. A journalism initiative to infuse data reporting throughout its curriculum.

With nearly 80% of classes at the University of Maryland to be held fully online this fall, faculty members are exploring new avenues such as these to enhance the virtual learning experience, with new forms of support from the university.

Teaching innovation grants are allowing faculty members and instructors to reenvision and revamp courses incorporating educational technologies. And to keep the innovation flowing, the Breakthrough H.E.A.R.T. (Higher Ed Accelerator: Reimagining Tomorrow) Incubator is giving educators the opportunity to workshop their wildest ideas for teaching in an online environment.

Teaching innovation grants funded by the Division of Academic Affairs are designed to bolster a wide swath of faculty with differing levels of digital competencies, said Marcio Oliveira, assistant vice president for academic technology and innovation. Of the 309 proposals submitted, 286 were at least partly funded, with an average grant size of $13,000. There will be 65,000 cumulative seats in the classes taught by the 753 instructors who received funding. 

UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism was awarded eight grants, totaling $175,795, and benefiting 1,026 cumulative student seats. Twenty-four full-time and part-time faculty and two Ph.D. students from Merrill College were funded to transform skills courses, research methods classes and its Capital News Service.

Most of Merrill’s proposals were collaborative, and a number of them will help the college more quickly achieve one of its key goals — to spread data journalism and data visualization throughout the curriculum. The focus of weaving data reporting and visualization into its curriculum is borne from the college’s push to be out front of the evolving world of journalism, and to help combat the inability to conduct in-person interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The primary question put to faculty was, “What do you need to reimagine and reshape the future of teaching and learning at the university?” Oliveira said. 

To maximize the grants’ impact, proposals for courses with high enrollment across multiple majors and those with high rates of withdrawal or D or F grades were given priority, said Oliveira. So too were courses that typically emphasize in-person instruction and interaction: labs, performance-based classes or studio courses, for example. 

“The work and time that faculty put into their courses this summer will transform how the university teaches for years to come,” said Rafael Lorente, Merrill College’s associate dean for academic affairs and chair of the committee that reviewed all of the campus proposals.

A Merrill College team, for instance, is transforming core reporting and writing courses previously taught in person to ensure they incorporate tools for one-on-one digital editing and real-time feedback when taught online. Additional lessons are also being integrated to equip students with techniques for effective interviews conducted at a distance. 

“A student might ask an interview subject to walk around their home, using a laptop and Zoom video to show flood water damage, while answering questions about the devastation,” Merrill College Senior Lecturer Chris Harvey said.

That same team is integrating spreadsheets into lessons on writing stories about county budgets and crime trends. 

“We want students to become adept at using Google and Excel spreadsheets in their early journalism classes, so we can build on those foundations in upper-level capstones that focus on data analysis,” Harvey said.  

Several grants covered chamber music performance courses that are typically “highly collaborative and very much about being in one room,” said Patrick Warfield, professor of musicology and associate director of the School of Music. The low sound quality and time lag inherent to platforms like Zoom make playing together nearly impossible, but with the help of the grants, the school is investing in technologies that will allow students to produce high-quality recordings and potentially play together “in close to real time,” Warfield said.

Some new courses are getting a boost, too. Antony Jose, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics, will teach “Systems View of Cell Biology,” an upper-level class on how to create quantitative simulations—like modeling what happens on a cellular level when our bodies absorb glucose. The Google Docs-based format of the class means that “students will modify the syllabus and material that they’re studying,” said Jose, to convey that “it’s not like somebody figured everything out and it’s in a textbook and you study that; it’s a live subject that keeps changing as you’re learning it.”

Incubating New Ideas 

Faculty, staff and students who participated in the two-week H.E.A.R.T. Incubator, led by the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, came with “projects with endless challenges and no obvious solutions because those projects typically require them to be out interacting with others in the real world,” said Dean Chang, associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Eight teams participated in the first round of the incubator June 17-30, tackling topics such as study abroad, engineering design, service learning, teaching music in Maryland public schools, preventing the spread of COVID-19 by influencing student behavior, and enhancing the first-year experience for students not in living-learning programs.

Each team brainstormed a radical concept for an online experience — ranging from full-blown plans to tiny kernels. They then mocked up and tested those concepts with a group of about 20 students to refine — or in some cases, revise from scratch — their ideas for implementation this fall.

For Sarah Kirby ’21, the incubator represented a chance to revamp a component of the Science, Technology and Society College Park Scholars program, for which she serves as a TA. Hoping to create a service-learning opportunity without physically going into neighboring communities, Kirby’s team worked on a plan for students to interview stakeholders in, say, the public school system about how COVID-19 has affected their work, and then generate a project based on what they learned. 

“We’re teaching them interviewing skills, but since it’s online, we wanted to convert that to online,” Kirby said. 

Madlen Simon, professor of architecture, was on a team focusing on how to teach design thinking in a virtual environment. “The question we were asking was how do we create the team experience, build empathy, collaborate and test our prototypes effectively online,” Simon said.

Her group developed a game that involved each student telling their team a story of an experience that evoked a particular emotion, filming the narrative and sharing it with the class, asking viewers to listen actively and map their emotional journey as the story unfolds. 

Simon pointed to the experience of learning while doing as critical to the development of her team’s idea. “In this experience, we were both figuring out what it feels like to be a student as well as figuring out how to be good teachers,” she said. “A real benefit of the incubator experience was to … see through the eyes of the students.” 

NOTE: The original version of this article was published by Maryland Today on Aug. 4, 2020. Merrill College added details regarding its grants to this version of the story.