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When Life Gives You Lemons: The Sudden Transition to Distance Learning

Schools and universities all over the world have closed due to COVID-19, and to say the transition has happened quickly is an understatement. Almost overnight, educational institutions have had to reimagine what teaching looks like through the lens of a virtual environment and likewise, teachers have borne the brunt of the responsibility in terms of the day-to-day changes. 

Without a doubt, this powerful shift has required creativity, problem solving, and determination to meet the needs of today’s students. It's hard to imagine the thousands of educators around the globe that are having to navigate cyber-learning on their own, and yet we've found an overwhelming amount of adaptability with educators stepping up to the (unprecedented) occasion. 

Teaching in a Virtual Classroom

The transition to distance learning has taken many (if not most!) educators by surprise. And while the switch has been abrupt, it's served as a catalyst for many to experiment with online tools and explore their own creativity to make it work.

Nobody knows this better than Mike Cannon, instructor of mechanical design and fabrication at Pensacola State College in Florida. With support from the Autodesk education team, Cannon has incorporated several Design Academy courses into his curriculum, including Introduction to CAD, CAM, and Practical Machining. On Design Academy’s course modules, Cannon says, “the training modules enable our students to complete almost any CNC Mill Design & Programming assignment we give them with minimal instruction. The training foundations cover everything a student needs to learn Autodesk® Fusion 360™ in simple, brief, and understandable modules. As of today, Design Academy training modules will be the core Fusion 360 training used in our A.S. degree program”. 

Separately, Cannon shares how valuable it's been to exercise his own creative muscle when it comes to structuring his curriculum during this time. Cannon says, “While incorporating online training modules has served the classroom well, having actual Autodesk employees and product experts as guest presenters in the virtual classroom answering student questions has been a creative way to keep students engaged and learning”. 

There are many ways of getting creative with your syllabus at this time, with online learning materials being one way to keep your students engaged and gaining industry-competitive skills. With the option of either downloading the course content to integrate into a syllabus or share the class as a self-paced course, Autodesk has developed a wide range of online learning materials for manufacturing & mechanical engineering as well as for architecture, engineering, and construction to support faculty throughout the academic year.

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With Change Comes Challenge

Reimagining a curriculum for online learning in a short amount of time can be daunting. For starters, running a class over the internet has the potential to be a logistical nightmare. Bandwidth issues can interrupt an otherwise smooth classroom experience, resulting in disjointed communication and potential confusion. Second, as an educator teaching virtually, keeping students engaged during class time and self-motivated once class is over can be difficult. Some students are, for the first time, having to self-manage and self-organize to get their work done. In addition, learning through a screen can give a distant, tinny quality to the academic experience, contributing to overall lower engagement. Where normally educators would provide a structured schedule for students, now the freedom that online learning offers can feel overwhelming and lead to procrastination.

Ed Doherty, instructor at Suncoast Technical College in Florida, understands the impact that low motivation can have on a student’s education. Luckily, his ingenuity has paid off. One method Doherty has used to combat lower student participation is to record virtual sessions in order to support students that may experience a live class as less engaging. Recordings can encourage students to self-organize, knowing that they have academic content at their disposal if needed. 

Another way Doherty combats lower student engagement –  at the same time improving communication - is to do in-depth reviews of Fusion 360 projects with students using tools such as Autodesk Screencast. With Autodesk Screencast, Doherty can share step-by-step details of his workflow in Fusion 360. The tool tracks your keystrokes and composes a video for students to follow. When it comes to more complex, technical design and engineering projects, Screencast can help support virtual communication that would otherwise be easier in person.

Moving Forward

The one predictability we can count on during this time of uncertainty is that time keeps moving. With time, we will all learn how to acclimate to the new world around us. When it comes to remote learning, insights around how to improve the classroom environment will be sure to emerge. We are already noticing how important it has been to maintain a sense of connection and community during this time. As educators continue to learn about virtual classroom environments and pave the way for the future of education, finding community can be a way to access helpful resources and feel supported in the mission to stay connected to the student experience. Beyond community, another insight emerging from this experience is the value in working in the cloud. Communication and collaboration are simplified and supported with cloud functionality, enabling entire classrooms to participate remotely and securely.

The whole world continues to learn and adapt to this new world of social distance and we hope these stories about educators in our community serve as inspiration and support for all educators navigating this unusual time.