UH Hilo Professors Take Advantage of Online Options in Fall

An empty classroom, with every other chair on an 'X', to indicate social distanceEmpty classroom due to COVID

By Lichen Forster

UH Hilo administration announced in September that instructors would have the option to move their hybrid/in-person sections online, following the three-day weekend around Labor Day through the end of the month.

The announcement came in response to studies on COVID-19 cases spiking after long weekends and instructor’s requests. Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported a daily triple-digit increase in Hawai'i’s cases following this year's 4th of July gatherings. Many instructors have keiki at home who are ineligible for COVID-19 vaccination, or kupuna who are more susceptible to serious health problems as a result of contracting COVID-19.

“We put in our course schedules for this fall way back in January,” said Dr. Lynn Morrison , SHARP director and professor of anthropology. “At that time we were really optimistic, because the vaccines were coming out...a lot of people chose to try face to face classes, thinking very optimistically that we were out of the woods with COVID-19.”

Dr. Sarah Marusek , public law professor, signed up to teach face-to-face classes this semester, and was looking forward to it. “Because there was a spike in cases because of the Delta variant, and drain on local hospitals, I requested to change the modality of my courses to online scheduled for this fall 2021 semester,” Marusek said. “I started making my requests in July.”

Marusek said administration was hesitant to help because students had signed up for a specific type of learning. It was only after the semester had started that requests from other professors convinced administration to make the move. “Some weeks into the semester, an administrative email was sent out following some faculty complaints that allowed for some room to put courses online, ‘sort of,’” Marusek said in response to the announcement that allowed instructors to switch their classes online for September.

After talking with her students, Marusek moved her classes online for the rest of the month and decided that they would return in October, as they could trust one another to wear masks and comply with other COVID-19 guidelines for the university.

“As a faculty member, I am somewhat reluctant to police the compliance of my students, and when the semester began inquired as to how the university would accomplish this. I was told there wasn’t enough security to do the policing. I told my students then that I wanted to teach them, not police them,” Marusek said. Morrison moved her hybrid applied anthropology class online for the month of September, and found the transition easier than Marusek’s, though she is still dissatisfied with other aspects of the university’s policies.

“I think this hybrid plan really worked for a minority of professors,” Morrison said. “And we were never really consulted on that plan.”

Morrison said that while hybrid sounds good in theory, the ability to do more than lecture to a class is undermined when instructors are trying to play to an online and in-person audience.

“We have administration implementing the best plan that they can think of, but their experience is in an office, it’s not in the classroom,” Morrison said. “It’s a little bit surprising that they never reached out to faculty that might have something to contribute in terms of our knowledge of epidemics, and people’s responses to epidemics, and formed an advisory committee.”

Other professors have not had such rocky starts to the semester, but the balancing act between providing quality education and the safety of everyone involved has still been on their minds.

“The university’s testing mandate with vaccine option certainly made me more willing to offer in-person options,” said Dr. Brian Wissman, chair and professor in the Department of Mathematics. “I also believe that the administration’s decision to allow faculty to temporarily move their classes online after labor day was a reasonable one. [...] Personally, I decided not to move my face-to-face portion online because of the size of my classroom and the relatively low student count.”

Wissman had been using a tablet and stylus for instruction pre-pandemic, as it allowed him to face his students and engage with them. This has translated well to online and hybrid instruction, and he’s been able to collaborate with the other faculty in the Mathematics department to provide quality instruction and classroom experience.

Other subjects have proven less adaptable.

Michael Marshall , chair of the Art department, has been doing completely virtual classes, and there’s been a learning curve. In fall 2020, his only studio art course, “Intro to Drawing and Painting,” proved difficult. Beyond providing students with materials, he found it difficult to make real progress with his students without in-person engagement. In spring 2021, his “Visualizing Dissent” course seemed more effective with more advanced students.

This fall, Marshall is teaching “Practices in Mixed Media,” and has been able to offer in-person meetings in one of the studio classrooms on the Manono campus.

“So far, I have had only one visit, but I anticipate this will pick up as we gain traction through the semester,” Marshall said. “Teaching science courses this way is not the best way to go; but we don’t have much of a choice,” Charles Simmons, associate professor of chemistry, told Ke Kalahea. Simmons has been doing all of his instruction online since the fall 2020 semester.

“I am in my ‘70s, so I have to be careful not to catch this disease,” Simmons said, adding, “I think the university has had a reasonable response. However, other colleges and universities, including the public schools in Hawaii, are all face to face. Why not UH Hilo?”

Many students have had difficulties with online learning, and having to switch over from in-person learning to virtual has been hard.

Sadie Wakida, a freshman history major, has had three of her five classes move online since the semester started. Having just graduated from Waiakea High School, which operated virtually from March 2020 until August 2021 (just after she graduated) Wakida is getting sick of online classes. “Since it’s been online, I haven’t been paying attention and [have been] getting distracted more,” Wakida said. “It went from, ‘she’s right there in front of me’ to ‘she’s talking on a computer screen,’ and, from last year, I think I’m just tired of that...I get it because [of] COVID, but I’d rather just have it in-person.”

“I think it just depends on the person,” said Kiane Rod, a freshman psychology major.

“I take notes during my online classes that way I can look over them. It’s still not the same as being in-person. When you have my undivided attention out of the classroom, it just feels like it’s easier to lose focus.”

A girl studys outside at the Library lanaiAcacia Quance studies on the library lanai

Several students work on laptops at an oudoor tableStudents working on their zoom classes together