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WIU Professor Chris Sutton
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WIU Professor Runs Lectures, Labs from his Home While Helping Design State's COVID Dashboard

April 20, 2020

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Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of feature stories about Western Illinois University faculty who are adapting and finding unique ways to reach their students during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

MACOMB, IL – When Western Illinois University Professor Chris Sutton teaches his earth, atmospheric and geographic information sciences classes online in this COVID-19-impacted academic world, it appears more as if he is single-handedly running a radio station from his home.

From a roll-top desk in his house, Sutton is surrounded by video screens, multiple computers and even a squishy ball that looks like a globe. He said the first challenge he faced when the Coronavirus forced the balance of WIU's spring semester online was figuring out how to make his in-person lecture-lab structure work in a virtual environment.

"All of my classes that were not already fully online have a lab component," he said. "I have an advantage over many of my colleagues in that my lab exercises involve GIS and mapping, which require computers rather than specialized equipment."

Sutton still holds lectures and labs for his students, but now uses Google Meets, which allows him to interact with students in real-time, but also record the lecture so students are able to view it later. In his traditional classroom, he would give students a "3-2-1 form," which translates to three things they learned, two things they found particularly interesting and one thing they still have questions about or would like to know more about.

"I converted it to a digital structure as a 'quiz' in WIU's WesternOnline course management system," he said. "It allows me to continue to get feedback from the students and adjust lecture content based on their feedback. I have been using the 3-2-1 assignment as an attendance indicator. If a student does not do the assignment, I check in with them to see if they are having problems."

Sutton's classes are helped by being filled with students who are savvy when using the technologies he has integrated. He said having to convert to an alternative delivery method mid-semester has been a time-intensive process, much like creating a new course.

"To be effective, I have to consider not only the what (content) that I need to include but the how (methods) the content needs to be delivered," he said. "I have put a lot of time and effort into making sure that any materials viewed asynchronously (i.e., a student not being in direct contact with me) are understood as stand-alone videos and documents. One of the biggest challenges for me is having to work from home. I not only have a house full of people in the same environment, but it wasn't possible to bring home all of the resources that I have in my office."

Sutton is one of the creators of the Illinois COVID-19 Awareness Dashboard, along with WIU GIS Center Director Chad Sperry, which tracks the number of virus cases in each county in the state. He said he uses it frequently in his courses this semester. He said he began using the Johns Hopkins Dashboard in his Digital Earth course very early in the semester as a daily presentation of a global geospatial phenomenon.

"Once the Illinois dashboard was created, I switched my emphasis to it," he said. "All but one of my Digital Earth students are from Illinois, so the students have been pretty engaged with the dashboard."

The source Sutton said he looks to frequently when tweaking his courses and making them as effective as possible is the WIU Center for Innovation in Teaching and research (CITR). Each semester he brings a new lab exercise or student engagement activity that he found someone else doing.

For more information about the WIU Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Geographic Information Sciences, visit

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