Dozens of aspiring beekeepers signed up for introductory classes put on by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Bee Lab this year ahead of the spring pollination season.
The hands-on workshops are designed to help novice beekeepers learn the basics of honey bee biology, how to use their protective gear and teach safe hive inspection techniques, said Judy Wu-Smart, assistant professor and extension specialist with UNL's Department of Entomology.
But as life in the U.S. ground to a halt, part of a national effort to slow the transmission of the novel coronavirus, and the university called off all in-person classes for the remainder of the school year, Wu-Smart found herself at a precipice.
In adding a second week to spring break, UNL said March 12 it hoped to give faculty and staff two weeks to convert their regular curriculum into online classes.
Wu-Smart, Dustin Scholl, the Bee Lab's apiary manager, and a team of technicians and students had less than two days to take the leap in order to keep a March 14 commitment to more than 50 future beekeepers in Grand Island who had signed up for the program.
"It was very clear moving forward it was not a good idea to have large gatherings," Wu-Smart said. "But we saw no reason to wait for the next workshop to try and go online, so we just decided to try this immediately."
That Saturday morning, "most of (the participants) were signed in earlier than expected and ready to go" on a livestream of the class through a video-conferencing platform called Zoom.
Zoom allowed Wu-Smart to deliver her presentation directly onto the class members' home computer or television screens, while some nifty work with a smartphone camera provided up-close viewpoints at what would have been hands-on demonstrations in normal times, and behind-the-scenes technical expertise kept the audio and visual aspects humming along.
While an online class could limit participation, Wu-Smart said the ability for members to ask questions in a chatroom during the lectures actually sparked a more meaningful discussion.
It wasn't 100% ideal, Wu-Smart said, but it worked: "Everyone was excited we were still having the course."
With a week left before students will reconvene — at least digitally — to finish the semester, instructors elsewhere across UNL are working out the kinks of how they will work through the remainder of their syllabus.
Ingrid Haas, an associate professor of political science, surveyed students to gauge how barriers such as lack of high-speed internet or comfort using various modes of technology may affect how her large lecture class section moves ahead.
UNL has more than 330 laptop computers available for checkout by students who are still on campus or nearby on a first-come, first-served basis, a university spokeswoman said.
About half the students responded, Haas said, most expressing confidence in the ability to access email and Canvas, an online teaching tool used by UNL. But many said they were concerned in their ability to use Zoom, either from a lack of experience or from slower internet speeds at their home.
That led Haas to formulate a plan to blend her use of technology, prerecording lectures to post online so the 100-plus students in the introductory political science course have more flexibility in how they access the material, while also using Zoom for smaller group discussions.
"The level of engagement will be less than if we had students in the classroom," she said. "It's an imperfect solution, but it's where we are."
In a smaller research seminar with eight students that she also teaches, Haas said the class two weeks ago wrapped up designing a survey to measure how voters perceive candidates and their choice and have started collecting data.
They'll continue do work on those projects remotely, while also meeting through Zoom, she said.
The biggest questions of what education looks like at UNL will be answered March 30, when the semester restarts as online-only, but Haas said she believes most of her college students will transition just fine, even to technologies they haven't used yet.
"My impression is that they are pretty flexible and quicker to adapt than some of the faculty, to be honest," she said.
This week, during what was UNL's originally scheduled spring break, the Center for Transformative Teaching will host a "Keep Teaching" seminar to help those instructors who are less-than-comfortable using technology make a smoother transition online.
The university will also monitor the impact expanded use of high-bandwidth services such as Zoom and Canvas will have on the system's information technology infrastructure. Those services are cloud-based, meaning they can quickly scale to meet demand should all 51,000 NU students try to log on at the same time.
Bret Blackman, vice president for information technology, said he's confident NU's servers will perform to meet the needs of students and faculty: "As long as the internet is available, we'll be in the same position as the top institutions in the country."