It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Celina Phillips continues to share that simple message with her fellow faculty—and regularly reminds herself—as they navigate their virtual teaching work. Even for a seasoned online teaching professional like herself, she knows the transition is not without challenges, but the intention and outcomes are well worth the reward.

“Things do not have to be perfect,” she said. “Don’t set overly high expectations upon yourself. The main thing our students are wanting is connection and reassurance that they’re going to get through the semester OK.”

When faculty learned on March 11 that they should start preparing to move their courses online to slow the spread of COVID-19, Phillips (Agriculture, ’96) was up for the challenge. The animal science professor has used an array of educational technologies throughout her career and designed classes for online and hybrid modalities. But before she sat down to rethink the delivery of her animal nutrition and forage crops classes, Phillips noticed the learning curve her colleagues were facing.

“I knew there were some faculty in the College of Agriculture who have never taught online before, and to try to shift in three days what has taken me 10 years to fine-tune is a heavy lift,” she said.

She immediately scheduled a half-day drop-in training session during spring break with her colleagues in the College of Agriculture, where she shared some of the video and online tools she has found useful. She volunteered for the campuswide Keep Teaching virtual conference on March 23, sharing the innovative “escape room” activity she developed using Google Forms. And recognizing that teachers at all levels were in the same situation, she started a “Teaching Agriculture Ideas” Facebook group where agriculture teachers from the high school, community college, and university levels could collaborate and share ideas.

Phillips will often record her lectures using Zoom and do some simple editing in Camtasia. But her first and best advice to faculty just starting out with online lectures is to not worry if their videos have imperfections.

“When I first started, I used to spend a lot of time editing things out, like if the dogs were barking in the background. Then one day I was recording, and the dogs got into their squeaky toys, and I’m like, ‘I’m not editing this out,’” Phillips recalled. “The students loved it, they thought it was funny. Now they tell me they actually listen to hear when my dogs are going to do something silly or when I’m going to tell them to quiet down.”

Celina Phillips carries out a large desktop computer as she leaves campus before the switch to fully online instruction.
Agriculture faculty Celina Phillips carries her desktop computer as she leaves campus in mid-March to prepare for full-time online teaching.

Since joining the College of Agriculture faculty in 2005, Phillips has used the University’s learning management system, now Blackboard, as her primary tool for communicating with students outside of the classroom. An Academy E-Learning grant in the early 2010s allowed Phillips and her teaching partner Kate Moore to re-envision the “Animal Feeds and Feeding” class as a hybrid class. Together they evaluated every test, activity, and lecture to make sure it matched up with one of the course’s student learning outcomes. After more than a decade of teaching professionally, it was the first time Phillips truly learned about curriculum development. That intentionality, she said, is the magic of online course development.

“As researchers and scientists and PhDs in animal nutrition, we are not taught about curriculum development. And so that backwards development model where we had the specific goals in mind and you built it backwards, that changed how I look at all of my classes actually. That’s when I realized that everything had to have a purpose.”

In the decade since teaching her first hybrid feeds and feeding class, which she transitioned to fully online last summer, Phillips has learned what works best for her and her students.

“Students like YouTube playlists,” she said. “I have a YouTube channel and I put all my lectures and videos up as playlists. I keep it to 10- to 15- minute videos, and students tell me they go to the gym, they walk to school, they have a break in between classes, and they’ll watch a video. Plus, a YouTube playlist is something students can take with them and refer back to when they leave. I’ve told my future ag teachers, ‘Keep it, use it in your own classroom.’”

Another online tool that Phillips regularly employs is Google Forms, which she uses to create “escape rooms.” It’s an activity that she first discovered on Pinterest.

“The escape room concept is that you have to answer a bunch of questions and find a key in order to escape to the next room,” Phillips explained. “I theme them after movies. The one I did this semester was a forages theme so I called it Open Range.”

She instructed her students that a bull was chasing them through a pasture and they had to escape from pasture to pasture to get away from the bull. 

“They had a grass identification room, a legume identification room, and a plant morphology or anatomy room. They had to get through all of those, and then they had a cartoon at the end that says they did it,” she said. “It was a good break for a rainy day activity that helps with the comprehension, and they can refer back to it.”

Celina Phillips talks to a crowd in the University Farm Pavilion.
Phillips has been recognized as a leader in many ways, whether speaking to crowds at the University Farm for Annual Sheep & Meat Goat Educational Day or being named the Outstanding Academic Advisor in 2016–17. (Jessica Bartlett / University Photographer)

Even for a seasoned online teacher like Phillips, the complete shift to virtual instruction for the remainder of the semester has not been easy. Figuring out what to do with laboratories is particularly challenging.

“My forage crops class is heavily geared towards farm activities. Students were supposed to monitor transects of pastures at the University Farm 10 times between the end of January and the middle of May to see how the forage populations changed and grew, but you really can’t replicate that visual and tactile experience in an online environment,” Phillips said. “That’s been the biggest challenge and a personal disappointment, to be honest.”

But when the disappointment weighs heavy, Phillips reminds herself that she has found other successful ways to support students. She mindfully makes herself available for her students and infuses humor into a relaxed style to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere and help put her students at ease—regardless of whether they are together in the classroom, in the field, or on the web.

“Celina’s leadership during this transition to virtual learning is an example of why our students chose her to receive the inaugural College of Agriculture Faculty of the Year Award in 2018,” Dean John Unruh said. “Her care for her colleagues as well as her students is exemplary.”