Chemistry Prof. Norbert Furumo finds the formula for online teaching

Associate Professor of Chemistry Norbert Furumo acknowledges that online classes can be tough, but that it should not discourage students from continuing to pursue an education. “Students must treat online classes like they would a face-to-face class, stay the track.”

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Norbert Furumo in his office with visual of handwritten notes on monitor.
Norbert Furumo displays an example of his handwritten notes that he shares with students in his online classes. He still uses an iPad with the Apple Pencil and an app called Notability just like he did in face-to-face classes. But to boost his online teaching, he now posts those lecture notes from each class using Laulima, the long-established distance learning platform of the UH System. Courtesy photo, click to enlarge.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the ways educators approach teaching and, as an effect, how students learn. While there is no singular, absolute methodology, many educators have been putting in the time and effort to perfect their personal distance learning techniques.

One such teacher is Norbert Furumo, an associate professor of chemistry and chair of the department at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. He quickly discovered last semester that the conversion to delivering classes in an online space wasn’t just a major adjustment for students, but for educators too. Upon news of the corona virus impacting his ability to meet with his students in-person, he says a little panic set in.

“I was not familiar with Zoom or Google Classroom and I wasn’t sure how serious this COVID outbreak would be,” he says. “I did my best to finish the lecture and lab classes by posting fairly simple lecture recordings and giving students mock data so they could complete their lab reports. I didn’t feel at all comfortable doing things this way and I was hopeful we would get back to face-to-face teaching soon.”

But what started out as two weeks of online learning following last semester’s spring break, quickly turned into a semester-long change, a cancelled in-person commencement ceremony, and an open-ended extension of these same plans through the fall and into the spring 2021 semester.

Adapting to new ways of teaching

Having to face the truth that online classes were more permanent than he initially thought, Furumo began to adapt to the environment in which he was teaching. And that started with learning about Zoom, the ubiquitous video conference platform now a staple in education.

“Last spring I didn’t use Zoom because I didn’t know anything about it,” Furumo explains. “I made asynchronous recordings and posted them, but they weren’t very good.”

But his persistence at adapting proved valuable.

“Last summer I taught General Chemistry I and II fully online synchronously using Zoom,” he says. “I learned how to record and post my Zoom lectures, as well as set up online testing.”

To administer exams online, Furumo has found success with a online tool called OWL by Cengage. He finds it to be sophisticated yet fairly easy to use.

Furumo also realized early on that teaching online requires a more structured format. When classes were face-to-face, he didn’t typically set up a detailed schedule of what each lecture would cover, but rather set the pace based on how much time students needed to learn. The pace would slow down if there were a lot of questions, or speed up if everyone learned the lesson quickly.

But for online teaching, he plans courses out in greater detail and with a higher degree of organization. “I found that when you can’t see your students, you have to be more structured to keep them on schedule,” he says.

He still uses an iPad with the Apple Pencil and an app called Notability just like he did face-to-face. But to boost his online teaching, he writes and posts those lecture notes from each class using Laulima, the long-established distance learning platform of the UH System.

With everything done online, Furumo has discovered enhanced flexibility for him and his students. “I can do my lectures from home or my office while students can attend from anywhere. If students have a work conflict, they can watch the recorded lecture, even though I advise them to attend every lecture when possible.”

Furumo’s students have taken note of this flexibility. In an anonymous survey last spring, where students commented on how well their educators were adjusting to the new online format, one student praises Furumo by saying he “did an excellent job teaching online and doing his best to be accommodating.”

The student also noted the professor’s “vested interest” in his students and stated his appreciation of Furumo’s structured curriculum. They expressed that regular email updates, daily required lectures, and an established Zoom meeting schedule were especially helpful.

Advice to students: stay on track

Furumo earned his bachelor of science in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his doctor of philosophy in biochemistry from the University of Akron. This was followed by a two year post-doc at the University of California-Berkeley. Before moving to Hilo in 2005, he was a tenured associate professor at Eastern Illinois University for 16 years.

He came to Hilo because his wife Kimberly Furumo had accepted a faculty position at the UH Hilo College of Business and Economics, and for a year, he did research for the Research Corporation of the University of Hawai‘i (RCUH).  “My research focused on the biochemistry of fruit browning and developing methods to prevent it. We were particularly interested in lychee,” he says. He also worked with high school students and undergraduate students in measuring vitamin C levels in a wide variety of fruits grown in Hawai‘i.

He then landed a tenure-track position in the UH Hilo Department of Chemistry.

And now after almost 15 years of face-to-face teaching, the chemistry professor has found the formula for successful online teaching. Furumo acknowledges that online classes can be tough, but that it should not discourage students from continuing to pursue an education. “Students must treat online classes like they would a face-to-face class. Attend every Zoom lecture and keep your camera on, ask questions, and participate. Treat it as if you are having a one-on-one with your professor, because in some ways, you are.”

Associate Professor Furumo also advises students to continue to work toward their degrees. “Do not sit out a semester or two because classes are online. Online classes may be around for a while so stay on track to achieve your life’s goals.”

 

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.