WATERVILLE — Suegene Noh drew equations on the interactive whiteboard, the formulas displaying on the computer screens for several students to see. She asked how the students solved the equations, which dealt with theoretical populations of organisms and estimating variances in their genetics and their offspring.

A student offered his thoughts on solving a particular equation. Noh had a different idea, but liked the explanation.

“That’s not how I did it, but it might work,” Noh said. “It was really cool to see how you were thinking about this.”

A screenshot shows Colby College professor Suegene Noh using Zoom to lead an online Q&A session for the class, Evolution & Diversity, on Friday morning. Noh wrote equations and graphs on an interactive whiteboard while taking questions from students.

The exchange came Friday morning as professor Noh led a Q&A session for the class, Evolution & Diversity, offered by Colby College in Waterville. Noh and her students were interacting in a group chat on the popular Zoom video platform, while they also have been making video lectures and other resources available to the students.

“I was able to figure out how to save the notes from the Q&A folder as a PDF,” Noh offered proudly, toward the end of the session.

Colleges, universities and schools across the country are embarking on similar efforts at remote learning, using various platforms and protocols in response to the quarantine and social-distancing measures needed to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

For Colby, it has been two full weeks into online instruction, as the private college in Waterville announced one month ago that nearly all of its students would need to leave campus in a few days for an early and extended spring break. Colby has about 2,000 students who hail from nearly every state and more than 70 countries. About 10% of Colby’s students are from Maine, according to the college.

When spring break ended, Colby students resumed classes through online instruction, beginning March 30. The last scheduled day for classes arrives in less than a month — Friday, May 8. And the college has postponed its senior week activities and graduation ceremony, saying in a recent message officials are looking into an alternative way of remotely acknowledging “the talents and achievements of the class.”

Carol Hurney, Colby’s associate provost and founder and director of Colby’s Center for Teaching and Learning, was largely responsible for getting the college’s courses to a remote platform in just two weeks.

Carol Hurney, associate provost at Colby College and founder and director of Colby’s Center for Teaching and Learning, during an interview on Zoom.

Hurney said the college’s faculty and staff are approaching the instruction with a basic principle.

“We’re not asking the faculty to create an online class, just to keep the learning going,” Hurney said. “And that’s a different thing entirely. We said, ‘Think this through, prioritize the learning you want to happen and use tools you are already comfortable with.'”

But it was a tall order. All of the courses normally at Colby this semester, estimated at about 400, would have to pivot from in-person classrooms to remote teaching and learning plans.

There was also the visceral weight reminiscent of continuing learning after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurney said.

“Then, we were all going to television sets, figuring out how to get back into a rhythm,” she said. “Now, this is everywhere. We have students who would be going back to hot spots. We’re all mindful this is still happening, that our planet is in crisis.”

Among those Colby students who headed back home were Louisa Goldman, 21, a senior majoring in American studies, and her sister, Eleanor Goldman, 19, a freshman who is undecided on a major. The Goldmans, living at home in St. Louis, said in a telephone interview Wednesday they have had a range of experiences in how remote learning has worked, depending on preferences by professors and the subject matter.

Louisa Goldman, a senior at Colby College, uses her laptop computer Thursday to participate in a class while at her family’s home in St. Louis.

Louisa Goldman has been finishing her courses in evolutionary biology by taking online quizzes and online “office hours”; in animal behavior, a weekly discussion; in American studies senior seminar, regular Zoom lectures; and senior honors thesis, weekly FaceTime or Google Hangout sessions with her thesis adviser.

Louisa Goldman, who is also co-editor-in-chief of The Colby Echo student newspaper, said it has been especially weird to be finishing her thesis on Maine’s Question 1 ballot item (overturning the Legislature’s elimination of most vaccination exemptions for children), which voters rejected last month.

“It’s definitely been a big transition,” she said. “What’s been weird is I’m still writing my thesis on Maine, Question 1 on the ballot, and it feels a little bit disconnected. They extended spring break as part of online learning and so I kind of fell behind on my proposed schedule. But the good thing is, I’m now adding in a coronavirus section.”

For her sister, Eleanor, most of her freshman classes are using online conferencing, with varying degrees of interaction. Survey U.S. history meets three times a week, with 50-minute Google Hangout sessions; Spanish meets four times a week; economics involves mostly uploaded PowerPoints; American government meets twice a week, with PowerPoints and lectures on Zoom.

She has found Spanish to be the roughest transition to online learning because it is “such an interactive subject” involving activities and partners, which is difficult remotely.

“Three of the classes I do meet on Zoom and it is kind of similar to when I was back at Colby,” Eleanor Goldman said. “With more intro-type classes, there’s lots of lectures. It is more difficult in history class, like with participation, it’s kind of hard to raise your hand on a Zoom (with lots of people in a Zoom class).

“I generally have been able to participate but some people struggle to be heard. And it’s interesting. I’ve never really been home when I’m always constantly doing work. It’s even different from high school; just really weird being in a place you’re normally free, but now have to do a bunch of work.”

Hurney, the associate provost, said the college offered about a dozen virtual sessions over its March spring break so faculty could hear about topics, such as assessing learning remotely to using tools, including existing ones such as Moodle, to support teleclass discussions. Aiding this effort was Colby’s existing Faculty Development Collaborative, which includes a range of college departments that meet regularly to discuss ways to support the faculty.

“The faculty, they were asking great questions. It led us to develop a blog faculty could share ideas with each other,” Hurney said. “We had to prioritize the most important learning outcomes. The notion you can do everything is not viable for some of the classes.”

Hurney said members of the faculty have been coming up with creative solutions, including using a shared Google Doc for students to type in questions about office hours, and in a 30-student class, dividing it into two groups, and each group meets once a week for synchronous discussion that is recorded and then watched later by the other group.

“It’s making people’s wheels turn and I like it,” Hurney said. “A disruption into normal patterns of ways we think of teaching and learning makes us do things differently than the way we normally do. These faculty here are pushing the envelope and doing really amazing things.”

Hurney said Colby has decided to “put the power in the lap of students” by giving them the option of opting for a “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” grade, or a traditional letter grade.

For Louisa Goldman, although the college experience has been flipped on its head, she feels Colby is doing the best it can with the situation.

“It’s such a crazy time now. We were never going to get back to the place where we were,” she said. “Obviously, in-person classes are the ideal situation. But given the fact that professors only had a few weeks to change the entire structure of the course … they all did a really good job of adapting to the situation.”

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