Texas A&M’s massive, yet lightning-fast move to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was a heroic accomplishment led by two provost office staff members who are former College of Architecture students: Jocelyn Widmer ’07 and Tamara Cuellar Garza ’02.
In early March, as the threat of coronavirus in the U.S. grew ever larger and the term “social distancing” entered Americans’ vocabulary, Widmer and Garza received an urgent directive from university administrators on March 5: find a way to move all 57,871 Aggies in 13,790 classes led by 2,988 faculty online.
Five days later, after many late nights and countless hours, they launched KeepTeaching, a website for faculty to learn how to shift courses online. It was complete with training and virtual support, resources for faculty to test and streamline their lesson plans, and more.
“It was a blur getting that out,” said Garza, creative manager for provost communications. “And then three days later we needed a companion site for students, so we did it all again.” They built the KeepLearning site, which launched March 20, just three days prior to students returning to class from the extended spring break.
Fortunately, this dream team had experience working together for online learning initiatives and were the provost’s obvious choice to lead the charge.
Widmer arrived in 2019 to modernize Texas A&M’s digital learning environment and expand online learning as assistant provost for academic innovation. Garza served as creative liaison for the provost to help Widmer’s office create videos and materials to showcase the capabilities of Zoom, which had been integrated into e-campus, Texas A&M’s online learning management system (LMS), just 11 months prior. Garza and Widmore were also working together to transition Texas A&M to its new LMS, Canvas.
“I don’t want to think about where we’d be if we hadn’t implemented Zoom a year ago,” Widmer said. “We would not have been able to do what we’ve done.”
“It was a nightmare we can laugh at now,” said Garza of the sudden move to online. “We had all these new guidelines coming in constantly and had to keep anticipating the next hurdle.”
Even faculty training had to change as the days passed. In early March, the team set up trainings for 50 faculty members at a time in the rec center, which was cancelled when the governor issued a decree that no large groups could gather.
They then set up smaller trainings, which were also cancelled when social distancing guidelines were issued. All training had to be moved exclusively online.
“We had brilliant faculty asking ‘What’s an app? What’s a cloud?’” Garza said. “We created all these new trainings on the fly.”
Old “dogs,” new tricks
Garza said most faculty embraced the change and were eager to learn.
“Dick Davison, (professor and associate head of the College of Architecture’s visualization department), came in with such a good spirit about him,” Garza said. “He said ‘I need to teach people how to paint on Zoom Bob Ross-style.’ He knew this was a nutty thing and got tickled to show students his studio.
“It made my heart warm to see him coming in with such a good attitude and we were able to figure out how to make Zoom work for him,” she said.
Davison was one of 1,400 faculty members and teacher’s assistants trained in just one week; two-thirds of them were trained online via Zoom. According to Widmer, almost 40 percent of faculty weren’t using any online learning management for their classes prior to the shift.
“What’s great is that Zoom has given people the confidence that their classes can exist online, which was the driving force behind linking Zoom to A&M in the first place,” Widmer said. “It levels the playing field because you don’t have to be a tech guru to teach online.”
She said this also shows that people can be trained virtually, which will be integral to the move to Canvas (which has Zoom integrated). The move will begin in waves starting the second summer semester of this year.
“This has given us a giant leap forward in terms of our confidence and in showing people they can count on us,” Widmer said. “Every single minute of the last several weeks has been a collection of lessons learned that we will be able to apply to help students and faculty with the new LMS.”
The silver lining of the situation, both said, is that everyone has had to participate in and consider what online learning can and should be.
“We were anticipating a lot of heels dug in moving to Canvas,” Garza said. “But with the new LMS there is going to be this really soft landing place. They can employ all the work they’ve done this semester into Canvas and it will help them moving forward.”
Widmer said Texas A&M isn’t known for its online education offerings … yet. If she and Garza have anything to do with it, that’s likely to change.
To deal with the massive projects and challenges they were charged with, both Widmer and Garza said they fell back on the habits and ethics instilled in them during their days as College of Architecture students.
“There is no one else I could have done this with other than another College of Architecture grad,” said Widmer, who earned a Master of Landscape Architecture degree in 2007. “I am forever grateful for the work ethic that the college instilled in me and I think there was no greater testament to the professionalism and work ethic than Tamara and I at 11 p.m. in the JK Williams building working until the internet went out. It was classic COA students working on a project late at night.”
Garza, who earned a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree in 2002 and a Master of Science in Visualization degree in 2008, said learning to how work creatively and quickly and having to scrub a project and move on have served her well professionally.
“You’d spend all night working on something and put in your blood, sweat and tears and your professor would come in and tell you to start over,” she said laughing. “I can’t thank the college enough for teaching me collaboration and how to receive critical feedback and not take it personally. It molded me into the person I am today.”