When Class of 2020 Cadet Hannah Schwartz left the U.S. Military Academy for spring break it was supposed to be a weeklong break to Poland before she returned to the academy for her last two and a half months before graduation.
Then, in the middle of the night her parents called to let her know President Donald Trump had announced the United States was banning travel between America and Europe due to COVID-19. Her parents booked her a flight back to the academy for the next day, but as soon as she landed her plans changed again.
Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, West Point superintendent, had announced that the academy would be delaying the return of the cadets until March 29, a delay that would eventually become indefinite as the virus spread throughout America.
“I was just at the airport (wondering) should I get a flight home? What should I do next?” Schwartz said.
She booked a flight home and traveled to Iowa without her laptop, notebooks or her car and began to prepare for the new normal.
That new normal started March 19 as West Point began remote learning. It was announced this week that classes will continue to be taught online through term-end exams.
For cadets and professors alike, the news required them to quickly adapt and work through challenges such as varying time zones, cadets not having their equipment and the occasional spotty internet connection.
“I live on a rural farm in Ohio and we have satellite internet,” Class of 2020 Cadet Edmund Coleman said. “As a result, sometimes if the weather’s bad, I don’t have great access to the online meetings. Most of my teachers have anticipated that and they’ve recorded lessons and put them online so that I can view them when I do have internet back. As of now, it hasn’t really been an issue.”
Professors were given about a week to prepare and then had to go live teaching class using Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate. Through the first two weeks of remote learning, professors, even those in the same department, have found varying ways to approach the changes.
Amy Richmond and Col. Mindy Kimball both teach firsties in the department of geography and environmental engineering.
Richmond started by having a whole class video chat with her cadets, but quickly found she didn’t like how it worked. So, she ripped up her syllabus and designed a new plan for the semester on the fly. Subject matters that used to take a lesson to a lesson and a half to teach, she has stretched into a weeklong case study. Cadets have to watch videos and read articles before interacting with each other via discussion boards to build the cohesive conversation typically found in her classes.
“The way I run a classroom environment, it’s really active learning,” Richmond said. “I try and do a 360-degree engagement where I’m engaging the students, the student is engaging with me and then they’re also engaging with each other.”
Kimball has kept her classes to their typical 75-minute window but has drastically changed the way she is teaching. In a classroom setting, she typically doesn’t use any slides or the projector. To facilitate the online classes, she has created outlines with question prompts, which the cadets answer and fill in throughout the lesson.
“It was a little hectic. I had prepared the rest of the semester out to the final lesson and had everything posted on Blackboard—all the prompts and all the timing of the papers that they’re going to write. I had to backtrack and go find everything that I had planned and adjust it,” Kimball said. “I just decided, it’s OK. I don’t have to cram everything into the course that I originally planned.”
Along with revamping their classes to fit the new teaching environment, professors have had to work with their cadets to solve roadblocks that are hindering their ability to learn. Many cadets like Schwartz went away for spring break expecting to come back and didn’t take home computers, notes or textbooks.
Kimball said she quickly asked her cadets what they were missing, whether it was readings or notes, and worked to help them. Overall, she said she has found it takes about twice as long to prepare for an online class as a typical classroom one.
“Since they didn’t have their notes, I worked a long time through the weekend and I went back to all 17 lessons that we had done in the course so far and I typed up notes,” she said. “I went back through the lesson and I typed while I was going through the lesson what I would have taken notes on if I was a studious cadet. Then I posted those on Blackboard for them.”
Along with the adjusted course material, the professors and cadets have had to adjust to learning and working in their new environments.
Class of 2020 Cadet Tanner Sheffield said he struggled at first to get back into the cadet mindset. He said he is used to being on break when he is at home, but now he is taking classes and doing homework, which he hasn’t done there since high school.
“It’s definitely an adjustment to get back into that,” Sheffield said. “I would say the other challenge is just getting organized and being able to figure out what is due and when it’s due, because my academic year calendars are shot.”
Professors are also teaching from home as a large percentage of West Point’s workforce has started teleworking due to COVID-19 and facing their own challenges.
“My headset didn’t work,” Richmond said. “There’s a dog in the room that luckily isn’t barking right now and usually kids are screaming mom. So yeah, that’s another main reason to not do the live classes.”
Cadets being spread all throughout the country and the move to online learning has also forced professors to cancel planned activities such as trip sections.
Cadets in Kimball’s environmental security class were supposed to visit the United Nations to hear from a policy expert, but the trip was cancelled. Technology has opened up new opportunities, such as when cadets in GeNe and the physics and nuclear engineering department were able to take part in a downlink video stream with NASA astronaut Col. Drew Morgan, Class of 1998, who is currently at the International Space Station.
While the first two weeks of teleteaching have been hectic, Richmond said she thinks West Point will actually end up being better for it as the professors have been forced to reexamine their classes and find new ways to use technology to supplement their course material.
“There’s nothing like a pandemic to force you to be really creative. It was a challenge,” she said. “I know it’s really hard right now, but Code Red snow days are not going to be a match for us anymore. I can go online easily now. We have these skills and it’s creating a lot of teamwork across departments and within departments.”