If you were to drive onto Williamson’s campus these days of the coronavirus pandemic, you might think you had entered a ghost town. The stillness is overwhelming.
But that is deceptive. There is a lot going on. It’s just not visible. Spring courses are continuing and so is learning — online.
Instructors are teaching from home and students are taking classes at home and even though the school is shutdown students will be completing spring semester and seniors will graduate May 29th(at the time of this writing, we don’t know the details of how the ceremony will be conducted).
Samuel Wrightson, dean of education, said “I’m proud of our faculty, they jumped in with both feet and allowed learning to continue. They have worked hard to make their online classes as close to normal as possible. These are trying times and everyone involved has risen to the occasion and made it successful.”
Wrightson said one factor in the speedy and successful transition to online learning was the adaption in the fall of 2018 of Canvas, a computer-based Learning Management System. At that time, a group of faculty and staff, led by Todd Zachary, senior vice president, pushed for Canvas after reviewing several programs.
“Little did they know at that time how desperately we would need it some 20 months later. The school shut down in the middle of March and, with some anxiety and trepidation and only one week of preparation to make the transition from the classroom to home learning, on March 23rd online learning began at Williamson for the first time.”
After Zachary and the school’s IT team solved some technical problems for both faculty and students and Olivia Martinez, assistant dean of education, fielded several Canvas glitches that came up, online learning found its pace. “By the end of the first week 99 percent of the problems were solved and we were moving along.”
Now in the fifth week, the consensus is that online learning is working smoothly, faculty and students are getting better at understanding the new system all the time, and, most miss being on campus but are making the best of a difficult situation.
Scott Chilman, director of power plant technology, who teaches while keeping the campus heated without student help, said “It’s a lot of work, but it’s going well. It’s a blessing we know Canvas. When we first got it, we spent hours learning how to do lectures and give tests and at that time we really didn’t need it. Canvas is great! You would not have heard me say that a couple months ago.”
Harold “Butch” Ney, director of machine tool technology, agreed that it is going smoothly. “I hit the ground running. I told the students to take this seriously and they do. They are engaged and participating and keeping their noses to the grindstone. This is working well, but I do miss being in the classroom; we are a trade school and I miss the hands-on work.”
Richard Torelli, a freshman carpentry student, agreed about missing the campus. “I never thought I would say this, but I want to go back; I miss the guys. We have a group chat every week because it’s good to be in touch. I’m doing pretty well with online learning, but for me it’s better to learn with teachers in front of me and I miss working with tools and shop time. It is nice, though, being home without the structure and routine of Williamson.”
Tom Lee, a senior machine tool technology student, also misses being on campus. “In some aspects, I wish I was back on campus because there are some projects I wanted to do in shop and I miss my friends. I also miss the chipped beef. Finishing out the spring semester like this is weird and I wish I could say my final goodbyes to everyone. The one thing I don’t miss is waking up early and shaving. Online learning is very different from being in the classroom, but for me it’s pretty easy. Being home, it’s easy to get distracted so you have to work at it.”
Dale Plummer, athletic director and mathematics instructor, said “One of the neat things I have encountered with online learning is how some students who struggled in the classroom, have really taken to online learning. I recently gave a timed quiz online and a young man who was struggling to pass my class prior to distance learning, and had done poorly on the last in-class quiz, was the second person to finish his online quiz and ended up with the third highest grade in the class! In addition, he is participating in class more than ever and has done really well on each homework assignment to date!”
Michael Mallowe, adjunct communications instructor and “the world’s biggest fan of traditional classes,” agreed saying, “One thing I’ve seen is that a few of my less-than-stellar performers have improved impressively. They seem to be taking to online better than traditional. Why? I’m going to say fewer distractions and more incentive to concentrate out of sheer boredom and absolutely no peer pressure to speak of.”
John Capuzzi, carpentry instructor, said online learning is working well, the only issue he sees is that students need to have a computer for it to work well and some don’t have one and are using their phone instead. “I’m working hard and staying on my toes to come up with ways for this to work on a phone. I’m using a lot of videos, which helps a lot. None of the students have complained and they are getting their work done and asking questions. Academically, they are still learning, just in a different environment. They miss being in shop and the hands-on and miss seeing their friends.”
Anne Asmann, mathematics instructor, said several of her students do not have a computer or wifi and one of her students parks his car in a McDonalds’ parking lot to use their wifi. “But, the faculty are getting better at this as we go on and so are the students. During our weekly faculty meetings we share things we have learned that help make it work better. We are giving the students the best education we can under these circumstances.”
One difficulty she said is not seeing the faces of the students. “I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and see their faces. We are all doing the best we can and this is easier for some of the students than for others because they have to work harder at staying motivated. Some students do call and ask questions and some call just to talk or show me photos of their dogs, which is very nice; I’m part of their family.”
Jared Dallmann, a senior carpenter, said “Even though I really miss being at Williamson, finishing my senior project, being with my classmates, and ending my Williamson journey the normal way, it is nice being home with my family during these difficult times. The transition for me to online learning has been a relatively smooth one, all things considered. It’s not perfect, but both the students and the teachers are learning how to manage the advantages and limitations of the online classes. While at home, I believe it is important to maintain a schedule to stay motivated and make the best of this time.”
James Openshaw, a freshman power student, said “It’s nice being home and doing school work while being around my family. I am constantly doing school work because I like to keep my grades up and to keep amazing my family and my girlfriend. Our academics are right on point, but we aren’t getting shop time, which is a bummer. I had been around my friends every day and it is hard not being able to see them. I also miss my seniors and hope I can see them before they go off to do their own things.”
Dennis Johnson, business instructor, said “Distance learning is a struggle at times, but it is working and the instructors and students are adjusting to it. The students are doing the best they can, but they prefer to be on campus. We are all fine tuning the system as we go along and seeing what works best. To help my students, I gave them an outline of what we are going to be covering. It was a lot of work putting this together, but it helps them know what material to concentrate on. What I miss the most is having the students come to my office to talk. I have grown to really appreciate the seniors and I miss them.”
Peter Zwolak, director of construction technology-masonry, said everything is going smoothly, but he and the students miss the hands-on work. “I have zero issues and the students are rolling with the punches, doing their best in a difficult situation. I have heard no negativity, only positive things. The faculty and the administration are working together to make this work and we are getting just the right amount of support from the administration for this to go smoothly.”
He is concentrating on academics and using webinars and videos to keep things interesting. “My students are used to a lot of hands-on work, but they are learning some very good information. I have a lot of back and forth communications with them and I keep finding different ways to adapt and learn how to do this. I would say we are all doing a good job teaching. Fortunately, we made the transition to Canvas at just the right time which made online teaching easier.”
Hunter Killinen, a junior mason, said “I prefer being at Williamson rather than learning online, because staying on top of classes can be challenging and I like hands-on work. It’s definitely harder to keep up with online assignments at home, but we are making the most of it.”
David McCann, a horticulture junior, misses the hands-on work so he does some landscaping around his house, his aunt’s, and elsewhere. “I never wanted to leave campus. When we do woody plant ID online, it’s hard to see all the details in a leaf. When you hold the leaf in your hand, you can easily see the details. I also miss the camaraderie of my friends.”
He also said online learning is a little tricky. “My desk is in my bedroom and that is a little distracting. At Williamson, they keep track of everything and at home it’s up to me. Some days it’s harder than others to keep motivated. All in all, I think they did an amazing job of organizing everything. We are doing the right thing continuing our education like this.”
John O’Donnell, power plant technology instructor, has become well known for going above the call of duty to help those who need extra help because of the difficulty of online learning. “I have scheduled three, one-hour help sessions. At first they were not mandatory, but I’m working harder to get the guys who really need help to participate because I want to see them pass. It’s working very well.”
He uses two monitors to help in presentations because he can select which screen he wants students to see and he also uses a writing pad he can write on with a pen. “I can draw equation solutions, edit documents, take notes, and many other things. I also use it with PowerPoint presentations. I plan on making a training video and putting it on Canvas showing how to do things with physical items. Last week, I used a camera attached to my laptop to show items in the power plant as I talked and it worked well. Canvas is great. You would not have heard me say that a few months ago.”
Class of 2W0 president Chris Thomas, a power plant student, said “I’m grateful for the faculty and staff for challenging us to do our best and for taking the time to do online learning correctly; I know they put a lot of time and hard work into preparing for this. I’m very disappointed that we had to leave Williamson because I was in the middle of my senior project and was really enjoying it. I also was looking forward to teaching some freshmen a few things that I learned in my three years here.”
He says it is harder to get motivated with online classes and being home and away from the structure of Williamson. “I take what Williamson taught me about structure and I’m applying it to this situation and it is helping me stay focused. I have to say, though, that everything is working fine and there are no problems.”
Tichon Johnson, a senior mason, said “When we were at school, we had a schedule for each day and that helped me stay organized and prepared. Being home with a lot of free time on my hands, it’s harder to stay focused on school material. I have the choice to turn in assignments at the last minute if I want, but to stay motivated, I turn in my assignments early and put the most effort into them that I can.”
Tim Ruona, a machinist, said “I am happy with the effort the instructors are putting into this. They have made the process run incredibly smoothly. I like the flexibility of our assignments because I can fit them into my schedule. But, I believe some subjects can only be learned in a classroom, such as hydraulics, pumps, and pneumatics.”
A worry for instructors in online learning is the possibility of cheating on exams.
Chilman said tests are on the honor system, but he times them so there is not enough time to look up answers on a computer and finish the test on time; in order to complete the test on time, they need to know the information thoroughly.
Johnson agreed, saying “I time my tests so there isn’t enough time to cheat and finish.”
Capuzzi said he doesn’t worry about students cheating. “I can tell if they don’t know the information. And, if they don’t learn the estimating I’m teaching now, they will fail the fall estimating course.”
Ney is taking a different approach, he reminds students of Williamson’s core values, emphasizing integrity. “Even though they are home, they are still subject to the school’s rules and should take the core values to heart.”
With the end of spring semester getting closer, online learning is working well and improving all the time, and education is continuing in these difficult times for students on their road to becoming Williamson men.
Pictured is Harold “Butch” Ney 8W7, director of machine tool technology, teaching in the Machine Shop to his machine tool technology students online.