Frances Colon performs over Zoom

Frances Colon '21 performs over Zoom during an Act Like You Know class. The show can be viewed at

Faculty Explore 'New Ways of Thinking' for Online Learning

Lehigh faculty take their online offerings to the next level to inspire learning.

Photography by

Christa Neu


When COVID-19 forced Lehigh to shift to online learning in the spring semester, faculty rose to the challenge. Now, they say, they’ll build on best practices, as the pandemic again prompts Lehigh to continue with remote learning. 

Kashi Johnson’s popular hip hop theatre class “Act Like You Know” saw students for the first time create a film of their original work, since they could not close out the semester, as they usually do, with a live performance. The film, which featured the students’ quarantine-inspired rhymes, dances, spoken word poetry, skits and lip syncs, debuted on YouTube, in a live viewing party that had students, staff, faculty and alumni cheering the cast in comment streams.

Johnson, chair and professor of theatre at Lehigh, says that while she had always enjoyed engaging her students on social media platforms, she would not have otherwise used a platform like Zoom for performance coaching.

“The mandate and the urgency of now has just made it … this is what we're doing, and you will adapt and figure out a way to make it work. And I appreciate that push because I never would have wanted to before,” Johnson says. “My art form deals in the actual interpersonal interaction. That is at the heart of theater. It's live. To not be live takes away the very heart of why I love it so much.” But, she adds, “It's also a very creative art form. It inspires innovation. It inspires new ways of thinking and doing things too.”

Johnson used Zoom technology to coach the students in spoken work, lead them in stretches and artistic check-ins, and had them rehearse, just as they would have in face-to-face meetings. Johnson developed protocols that made coaching easier for remote instruction, such as asking the students to stand, rather than sit, and to find ways to raise their laptops and phones to eye level. That simple adjustment, she says, enabled the students to perform with confidence and fully engage their body and voice in performing.

“So the reinvention of the wheel is real and ongoing, but theater is like that,” Johnson says.  “We are used to challenges.”

‘We Care About Them’ 

Edward Whitley, professor of English, has been teaching online summer courses since his arrival at Lehigh 15 years ago. His experience helped him transition fairly easily in the spring semester, but, he says, he still learned some things that he plans to carry forward.

He’d already practiced “breaking things into chunks” in an online course—not just the assignments, but the classroom experience, as well.

“It’s not the same as the standard Lehigh experience of a small class meeting for an hour and a half, twice a week, but I think it's showing how our faculty can be thoughtful and innovative in recovering as much of that as they can and retooling as necessary.”

Nicholas Strandwitz in Hulk mask

Nicholas Strandwitz, associate professor of materials science and engineering, dresses in a Hulk costume for some comic relief for students in his online class.

Whitley found students in the online course wrote more because he broke up assignments into pieces and checked in with them daily rather than twice a week. “For an English teacher, that's a huge benefit. I think you could say that for any discipline,” he says. 

In his first-year writing course, Whitley has students give end-of-semester presentations. This year was no different—although the end results, he says, were even more powerful.

“I thought about scrapping the assignment entirely and coming up with something different,” he says. “But then I did some research, finding ways that they could still do a PowerPoint presentation and embed an audio or a video track. Within a skill that they could take to all kinds of different settings, given how connected the world is and how our Lehigh students are always working in fields that regularly have international components.”

Whitley stresses that faculty are doing all they can to provide the best possible learning experience for their students.

“We really do love our students,” he says. “Faculty who come to Lehigh and who stay at Lehigh, they want to be involved in the lives of their students. ... So we are going to do everything we can to help support our students because we care about them. That's why we're here.”

Emily Weissbourd, assistant professor of English, had never taught an online course before the abrupt transition to remote learning this spring. 

“It actually went better than I thought it was going to,” Weissbourd says. “I tried to start with the assumption that this was not going to feel like class as usual, but it could still be really engaging. I could still find ways to make relationships with students and ask them to make relationships with each other.”

Weissbourd kept her students’ internet access and remote capabilities in mind as she transitioned her Shakespearean film class to an online model mid-semester. She divided the class into sections, offering students the option of participating in either an asynchronous model, in which they would write more, or a synchronous model, in which they would participate more via Zoom. Fourteen of 17 students chose the latter. 

“I got the sense that a lot of them wanted the opportunity to have some structure to their days, and I think because this class started as very discussion-based, and everyone was really talking to each other, students wanted that model to continue. It became a space to connect at a time when a lot can feel pretty amorphous,” she explains. “We talked about COVID-19 and how much our lives had changed, and brought that perspective to our understanding of plays such as King Lear,  which is about, among many other things, the impact of difficult times on ordinary people.” 

Weissbourd then broke the group of 14 students into two sections of seven students each, which she believed would yield better and more productive discussions. She also made the discussions shorter, which, she says, took “Zoom fatigue” into account and demanded more focus from students. She posted a Panopto lecture the day before the class met, so students could watch in advance. She’d then give what she called an “in-class exercise:” Students would, for example, annotate a section of text, comment on a classmate’s writing, or embed in the Shakespearean text a link to a current event that reminded them of that particular scene. Students taking the asynchronous class model would submit blog posts in response to the recorded lecture and post more comments. 

Weissbourd says she was “trying to find a way to move the online conversation so that it's using the vast resources of the internet and asking students to make the kind of connections that they often make unconsciously in their own social media browsing.” She also had students use their phones to make short video responses to reading assignments. Many students, she says, used the video-sharing social networking service TikTok. 

“They were so good. It kind of blew me away,” she says. “They were taking little clips from Much Ado About Nothing and setting them to the Hamilton soundtrack, or using Billie Eilish songs as a soundtrack to underline the way one of the characters is spoofed as the stereotypical ‘bad guy.’ And it was just really cool to get a chance to see that whole different side of them, which you don't see as much in a traditional classroom.”

Weissbourd says that nothing can replace the in-person classroom experience. But she does see some advantages to the changes she’s had to make: “I do think there are particular kinds of connections that can happen in challenging times, times when folks are really focused on creating those connections, and I think that's the silver lining here.

a cardboard cabinet

Clare Ternes '20 made a cabinet to hold essential oils.

Building, Differently

Amy Forsyth, associate professor of art, architecture and design, quickly figured out how to adjust the plans for her furniture design course to have students design and build cabinets.

Her original idea was to have her students build cabinets as practical storage pieces but also art pieces. Students were to think about how cabinets open and close, and make hinges and sculpted doors. Since the students already had a kit of tools and access to cardboard boxes from home shopping, Forsyth had her students build cabinets out of cardboard instead of wood, since they would not have access to a woodshop.

“Anytime you design and make something out of anything, you learn about the design process and what kinds of ideas you can incorporate,” says Forsyth, who was glad her students still were able to design and build a full-size, usable piece. While making furniture out of cardboard wasn’t ideal, she says, “I think they still learned a lot.”

Forsyth also made adjustments to a scheduled field trip to the Wharton Esherick Museum, in Tredyffrin Township, Pa. Instead of an on-site visit, she set up a virtual tour.  

Overall, Forsyth says, the students were receptive to the changes. If remote learning continues, she plans to alter the class so it’s more abstract. She will assign projects in furniture design, and work with literature, models and forms instead of materials.

“When I was an architecture student, no one was building anything, so we worked in ‘paper architecture,’” Forsyth says. “We were good at writing and conceptualizing, and those skills were helpful in learning about ideas in architecture.”

Story by Mary Ellen Alu, Stephen Gross and Kelly Hochbein


Centennial School building

Graduate Studies in Pandemic: 'It's Kind of Bittersweet'

Kelsey Gaier, a fourth-year full-time doctoral student in school psychology, was wrapping up her final semester of coursework when the university transitioned to online learning. Her courses, including one for which she serves as a teaching assistant, moved online. “It’s kind of bittersweet that in my last semester [of coursework], I can't really get those typical grad school experiences,” she said.   

Gaier’s dissertation research continued, although with a different dataset than originally planned. Local school closures also impacted her twice-weekly practicum at Centennial School. The student counseling sessions she had been doing in person moved to telehealth. 

“I'm lucky that these opportunities still exist,” said Gaier, who acknowledged that some of her fellow graduate students were unable to continue their work under these new circumstances. “I've kind of already hit all my milestones for practicum, so I'm not affected in terms of our requirements, but, of course, I'm not going to Centennial ... I'm in a better place than some of the students who are in the younger cohorts, because I think they're a bit concerned about meeting some requirements.”

Many graduate students, says Gaier, are concerned about the future. “A common concern, I think, for graduate students in general at all times, but probably emphasized during this, is just funding, people are worried about how they're going to make things work next year,” she explains. 

Reina Garcia, a student in Lehigh’s Residential Experience for Aspiring Leaders (REAL) program, which is designed to bolster clinical experiences for aspiring school leaders in the Allentown School District to better prepare them for managing daily workloads and long-range initiatives. When the COVID-19 crisis arrived in the Lehigh Valley, Garcia, the dean of students in Dieruff High School in Allentown, was tasked with translating the Allentown School District curriculum and other information for Spanish-speaking families.  

“I want what we present to our families and our students to be the best,” she says.  

In this role, Garcia has witnessed firsthand the suffering the virus has brought to many Allentown families. “It’s heavy on my soul,” she says. 

Garcia says the REAL program, which began with its first cohort in Fall 2019, was “the answer to her prayers” because, she says, she prefers in-person learning to an online program. But the COVID-19 crisis changed the delivery of coursework at universities across the globe. “And here we are, segueing into online learning,” Garcia says. “This has really kind of put a damper on what I wanted to get out of this.”

Garcia is hopeful that future courses will have an in-person component. “We are continuing along and I'm still learning, don't get me wrong, but it's not the same,” she says. “Those in-depth conversations that you have, those insightful exchanges with others, it’s just not the same.” 

Story by Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu


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