In transitioning to online teaching, biologist Jenni Guillen creates an environment conducive to learning

Initially concerned with students’ stress levels, biology instructor Jenni Guillen has taken measures to create a new type of student-centered pedagogy. 

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Jenni Guillen in classroom with skeleton over her right shoulder, blackboard in distance.
Jenni Guillen. Courtesy photo.

Just like every other teacher in the world, biologist Jenni Guillen was forced to adjust to limitations the COVID-19 pandemic brought to educational institutions. No longer able to meet with her students in person, the instructor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is overcoming these difficult circumstances with a combination of experience, patience, and most of all, a commitment to providing her students with the best quality education she can.

“In spring 2020, when all of the courses were moved online, I was initially concerned for the students’ stress load,” shares Guillen. “It was a lot for the students to completely change the modality of their courses. My main goal was to help my students by making the transition from in-person to online as smooth as possible in order to help reduce anxiety and stress from their lives.”

Guillen is an alumna of UH Hilo where she received her bachelor of arts in biology. She received her master of science in immunology/microbiology and doctor of philosophy in epidemiology from UH Mānoa. Beginning her teaching career in 2003, she has taught a variety of courses including general biology, immunology, biostatistics, and human anatomy and physiology. She officially began teaching at UH Hilo in 2013. In addition to teaching, she researches biomarkers in cancer cell lines.

Creating an environment conducive to learning

Wanting to see her students succeed in the face of the current unprecedented challenges, Guillen has taken new measures to create an environment conducive to learning. She has completed several professional development courses for online course development, implemented the use of Zoom for class discussions, and has students share ideas through Pinboard.

One of Guillen’s main priorities has been to keep the programs she requires students to operate user-friendly. Her current curriculum reflects this consideration but also parallels her pre-pandemic plans. Course components like the assignments, Laulima tools (the long-established UH online learning platform), resources, and electronic textbook are all the same, the biggest differences being that conversations are over video chat and assessments are taken at home.

Keeping these aspects of class true to its original form has allowed for a sense of consistency, something that seems to come scarce these days.

Guillen is also keen to pay attention to what students do and do not respond well. She notes, “Students really like the checklists, so I always include those now. I try to make the platforms streamline, yet informative, and easy to navigate through.”

It is not surprising that this compassion and mindfulness for student welfare that Guillen has adopted has yielded very positive results. In a anonymous survey about the spring semester, when the transition to online teaching came swiftly, students named the professors they felt transitioned best to online instruction. One student notes that Guillen was one of the professors who was “really prepared for this.”

“I had a really smooth transition to being online, good setup for live lectures that showed the PowerPoint, her voice, group chat student participation, and recordings of the lecture that could be accessed afterward,” reports the student, who notes that students in the class did not have to show their faces during video lectures. “I’m not very comfortable with people looking at [me] while I’m at home. It was very flexible and easy to still get a good lecture without feeling any pressure.”

The student also notes that Guillen knows how difficult it is to learn everything online, “so she was very prepared,” providing well thought-out explanations for the transition, and always being available to students.

Though transitioning to online instruction has been a mostly positive experience for her students, it was not without its fair share of setbacks. Guillen explains that in a student’s schedule, classes are completely different from one another, not only in terms of content, but how the course is designed. Some classes use discussion boards, some use modules, some only use resources.

“The biggest obstacle I face is fully understanding what the students are going through with respect to their classes,” explains Guillen. “The interface of the courses can be very organized or a bit confusing and difficult to know where to find everything.” She says by recognizing this issue, she is able to overcome it and do better.

Tips for colleagues and students

Navigating the ins and outs of distance learning has been a challenge for everyone, but there are some ways to enhance the experience. To her fellow instructors, Guillen suggests joining an online group with other educators, either on Laulima or on another platform. “I’m a member of a few and I love it because we share so many ideas. It changes the scenario of one person creating one or more courses into several educators collaborating together to build each other’s courses.”

Dealing with the ramifications of these trying times can no doubt be overwhelming. To get through each day, Guillen urges students to draw inspiration from the wise words of Henry Ford: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Guillen elaborates by saying, “If something doesn’t work well in school or work, don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes and try it again with the wisdom you’ve gained from the journey.”

 

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.