By Cole Garner – Editor-in-Chief
Dakota Powell – Staff Writer
This year, the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor needed to try to do things a little differently. After COVID-19 caused UMHB and other universities across the country to move their classes to an online format last spring, UMHB’s strategists knew that they would have to make the fall semester look very different. In doing that, UMHB started using a new way of learning. This is what the university now calls CRUflex.
CRUflex is based on a hybrid learning approach that offers multiple ways to complete a course. Students can either attend class in person, or they can attend class virtually, or, they can watch a video of the taped class at a more convenient time for them. They can even combine their modes of accessing class and information, such as when reviewing a taped class they have already attended or viewed.
All classes are videotaped with a program named Panopto. So most professors are teaching live on campus to some students in their seats in the classroom, while some of their other students attend with their computer desktops in the program known as Zoom.
All of it, class in the classroom with students in attendance, along with students’ faces on computer tops through Zoom, is videotaped during class time. The video tape is then placed into a module reachable through myCampus courses for the week, so that students can access classes through their personal myCampus entry.
Only a select number of students can attend each classroom because students must social distance. Those who attend sit in desks that are placed at least six feet apart, which allows fewer students in each classroom. Students who may attend are rotated if needed, depending on the number of students and the room size, so sometimes students must alternatively attend class by tuning in with Zoom.
Since attendance is not required, but encouraged when possible, faculty assign ARA’s (Academically Related Assignments) in place of attendance.
Associate Dean Dr. Susan Wegmann, one of the lead faculty members in the creation of CruFlex, is also the Professor of Digital Learning and Innovation and the university’s Assessment Coordinator of Academic Support.
Dr. Wegmann said that training the professors was one of the most important aspects of CRUflex’s creation. This took a huge effort on her team’s part as well as on the part of about 400 professors who spent their summers building their courses on the program and then training to use it.
Wegmann and her team put together a workshop and started training faculty at the first of the summer. It was a huge effort by Wegmann and Instructional Design Director, Dr. Matthew Rupe, Media Specialist Chance Alvis, Instructional Designer Bin Zhang, and Instructional Designer Kelsie Livingston, and many other support staff. This also involved other departments, like the Physical Plant, which had to make major changes and set up classrooms specific to requirements for CRUflex as well as for health concerns to protect against COVID-19.
“We had a three-day long CRUflex conference where we offered faculty intense training this summer, and that was in June, about all of the aspects and the pedagogy around what it means to be in online education and what it means to be an online synchronous educator,“ Wegmann said.
The training encompassed everything from using the technology to a new mindset in general in order for professors to prepare to teach in three modalities at once.
“Then we had to train them in Zoom. Most of them were familiar [with] Zoom because of the remote teaching, but not all of them used Zoom last spring,” Wegmann said.
Instructional Designer Bin Zhang confirmed that there was a learning curve and that the hardest thing about it was professors’ acceptance of using this new technology and way of teaching. However, once professors caught on to the concept, they did very well.
“They got adapted to it after several weeks,” Zhang said. “Now we get fewer requests so I assume they are getting better and more used to the features of the platform.”
Academic Technology Support Specialist Sylvia Low agreed, and said that professors had so much to do that it was amazing that they got it done.
“It was rocky at the beginning but it worked out in the end – they adapted,” Low said.
Professor and Faculty Development Director Lynn Eaton said that professors are doing an amazing job, but that it has been difficult and a lot of extra work.
“When you look on the outside and see what our faculty and what they are doing, it’s amazingly unbelievable,” Eaton said. However, she said that when talking with them one to one, she can see that they do need support.
While Eaton’s sessions for faculty at the Center for Effectiveness in Learning & Teaching usually teaches new technical or educational information, this semester Eaton’s offerings are centered around wellness. The first two sessions – a part one and two, were titled: Reaching Out: Support During Turbulent Times
“It is a chance to build a learning and supportive community to have their feelings validated,” Eaton said, explaining how it gives faculty members a chance to share their struggles in the company of their fellow professors.
Some professors found CRUflex to be more challenging than others. The business school’s Dr. Jerome Lockett of the Accounting, Economics and Finance Department had no problems getting started.
“I taught online for years and years,” Lockett said. “It was not that difficult. I’ve been using Zoom for quite a while, like the last two or three years,” he said.
Dr. Lynn Heise, Assistant Professor & Director, of Nursing at the Scott and White School of Nursing on campus, said nursing professors were also able to use the technology.
“We’ve had no problems – nursing professors adapted well to the platform,” Dr. Heise said. However, because some classes must be taught in person, she said this has complicated things. The physical distancing in classrooms that allow fewer students per class has nursing professors teaching each one of their required face-to-face classes five or six more times to accommodate all the students in a cohort.
Like nursing, which requires some face-to-face instruction, there are other subjects that are difficult to teach online. Communication and Media Studies professor Dr. Kerry Owens said that teaching his subject requires interaction with an audience. He said that is because public speech is a live performance, not a videotaped presentation.
“They don’t know how to react, who is responsive, how their speech is being received,” Owens said of students practicing a public speech.
There are other difficulties, such as assessing student success throughout the semester. This is because of a lack of engagement that can occur when students are not required to be in the classroom or online. Additionally, professors must prepare and grade much more material to take the place of credit for attendance in class.
Student feelings about how CRUflex is working out, lean both pro and con. Junior nursing major Addie Ray had a few positive notes about CRUflex.
“I feel like they’ve done a good job getting the information to us,” Ray said. “We have certain times [we can go to class] or you could listen to a live zoom or a recording.”
Senior criminal justice major and United States Army Cadet Alexandria Dalle agrees.
“I’d say that CRUflex is convenient in the way that I can create my own schedule and I can watch the videos when I have time, rather having to be present during class time,” Dalle said.
This has made her days more efficient, especially because she is alto an athlete. With school, her duties with ROTC, and softball, she said she has a very full plate.
“Sometimes classes conflict with ROTC or practice and I will end up having to choose one over the other and I’ll miss something for school,” Dalle said. “But now I can do everything I need to do in a time frame that works for me.”
Senior public relations major Kailyn Strain also appreciates the ability to spend her energy in the ways that she feels best suits her.
“I actually get stuff done at a decent time,” Strain said. “It helps because I don’t have to go to class so I’m not like bouncing around on campus. So I have the energy to actually stay alive and keep alert,” she said.
There is an additional reason why Cadet Dalle appreciates CRUflex. It was able to keep Dalle learning and up to date in her courses during her quarantine this semester, a crucial reason for its design. It was proactively created to be flexible enough for necessary quarantines and other possible interruptions in the term. The idea is also that it will be flexible enough if the school was forced to close classes due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.
“CRUflex was vital to my quarantining,” Dalle said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go to school. I probably would have had to take an incomplete because missing two weeks in college is something you can’t really make up.”
Junior speech major Carissa Flores Flores recently discovered another reason she likes CRUflex:
“I just had to get a second job to pay for school, and so I might not be in all my online classes,” Flores said. “I’m going to have to watch it after it happens, and talk with my professors more.”
Reliability and the option of watching the class videos for review so that one can try to better understand some concepts is what sophomore Daniel Richardson, a Christian ministry major from Santa Clara, California appreciates about CRUflex.
“It’s nice to be able to review lectures I didn’t entirely understand or missed part of,” Richardson said.
However, Richardson also points to a motivation problem, because when attendance is not required, he says it can be more difficult to find the energy to go to class.
“I don’t like that I have now lost my motivation to get up and go to class in some cases,” Richardson said.
Dalle said that she also noticed a drop in motivation for some of her fellow students. However, she said that her experience with it has only helped her.
“I think the modules are a plus because you can see what you’ll be taking care of in the next week and so you’ll know your assignments,” Dalle said. “And you are able to see all of your assignments, readings, and notes in one spot. And I think that is beneficial,” she said.
Some students have had particular problems with CRUflex. Angel Pace, a sophomore criminal justice major from Fort Worth said that CRUflex could be more inclusive in some ways.
“I think that biggest problem is that I wear hearing aids,” Pace said. “So I do defend learning in person because I’m able to read their lips,” Pace said.
Pace said she wants CRUflex to be more accessible for people who would like to attend class in-person.
“I don’t want to take someone else’s spot,” Pace said. “But if not a lot of other people are going in person then I would like to do that so that I can hear what they’re saying and I wouldn’t have to struggle the entire time and worry about having captions,” she said.
Dr. Wegmann has advice for students who are having trouble hearing teachers or any other problems with CRUflex.
“They need to reach out to their faculty member,” Wegmann said. “When I talk to students – if they ever have a question, my first thought and comment is: ‘Have you talked to the faculty?’ Usually they say that [the students] don’t want to bother them, which is really sweet.”
However, Wegmann points out that unless students let faculty know what they need, they can’t help with a solution. So reaching out to faculty is vital when students are having a problem with CRUflex. Wegmann reminds that this system is new not just to students, but to the faculty as well, so everyone is learning how to work with this new way of learning. It is essentially a work in progress. So the more feedback professors get, the better it would be for everyone involved. Wegmann said that if you are having trouble with CRUflex, don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors.
As CRUflex has the chance to perfect over time, it will become more useful and accessible to more people. But even with its flexibility and ability to keep many more students involved in their education, most professors and students long for a return to a more normal educational experience.
“We are all diminished by the fact that we can’t all get together and interact,” Dr. Owens said. “So hopefully someday soon we can get back together and get back to that.”