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Air University advanced education continues from dens, living rooms

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

It’s been more than a month since Air University’s degree-granting schools had to abruptly close their doors and move to virtual teaching because the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant physical distancing and other stringent health and safety measures significantly altered daily life.

In mid-March, hundreds of students attending Air War College, Air Command and Staff College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies found themselves having to stay at home and connecting to their teachers and each other through laptops, AU IT systems and social media to complete their education.

Hundreds of other students attending AU courses on temporary duty orders were simply sent back to their home bases as the pandemic worsened. For the students in the degree-granting schools, however, Maxwell is their home base; they are here on permanent-change-of-station orders to attend the nearly year-long schools. At some point after graduation in about a month, they’ll be moving on to their next duty assignments.

The unexpectedly hurried transition from teaching in front of a classroom to teaching from a living room took a little getting used to, said an ACSC instructor, but things smoothed out rather quickly after students and faculty settled into a daily battle rhythm.

“The transition from an in-class to virtual classroom is challenging in and of itself simply because you do not get the immediate feedback between students and instructors,” said Lt. Col. Travis Eastbourne, who is teaching Joint Warfighting to an ACSC seminar of 11 students. “That being said, from the start, my class has done an excellent job transitioning to virtual with very few noticeable problems. It’s still going well, and I anticipate it will continue to do so through the end of our course (right before Memorial Day).”

Eastbourne said the shift to virtual teaching was probably easier for him than most because he started teaching remotely at the start of his course on March 16, whereas many other faculty had to transition while their courses were already in session.

At the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies across the AU campus from ACSC, faculty and students there also had to quickly adjust to the new way of teaching and delivery of course material.

“While the interaction through (technology) has been working, teaching in a virtual environment has required changes to teaching styles and in some cases even forced some of us to think more pedagogically about how our students can best learn in this environment,” said Col. Kristi Lowenthal, SAASS professor and dean of students. “Beyond teaching, mentoring has also required an adjustment, having to work through difficult thesis problems virtually versus face-to-face.”

While both Eastbourne and Lowenthal said that teleconferencing and texting can’t replace in-person interaction in a learning environment, they said that they and their peers are very reliant on AU’s available technology, using it in ways not necessarily envisioned.

“Our vision for the AU.edu (Air University Education) Environment is being tested under other than ordinary circumstances. The use of the Canvas learning management system combined with O365 has proven to be a powerful tandem of tools for delivering content in the virtual classroom to conducting daily communications with faculty, students and AU team members,” said John Shepherd, Air University’s previous program manager for Canvas and now for Microsoft O365. “The use of Canvas and O365 has dramatically increased, and we are seeing the creativity and innovation of AU to continue providing education and training to our students.”