By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
An asynchronous online course presents challenges for teaching students problem solving and critical thinking. The online classroom usually has three basic communications paths between student and teacher and among all students. They are:
- Email messages where students often send queries to the professors or other classmates regarding how to do something or find some source of reading material.
- Weekly discussion forums where the professor has posed a preprogrammed question for students to answer and then explore the answers of other students.
- Written assignments or research papers where the students provide their analysis of a case study problem and demonstrates their critical thinking skills.
College courses come ready packed with case studies for writing papers and topics for weekly group forum discussions. Online college instructors have new avenues of changing or adding a topic for discussion or for a written research paper. One such topic is, of course, the 2020 coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
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Defining the COVID-19 Problem
COVID-19 is a new disease that it is causing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to become ill and, in many cases, die. This global issue is ripe for testing how students define the many problems in the business areas of logistics, supply chains, retail sales, wholesale operations and transportation. The pandemic is causing delays in supply chains operations even as state governments have ordered restaurants, bars and other retail outlets to close.
One area for student discussion is to define “the” problem from a number of possible problems. This is teaching students to look beyond their initial impressions. The impact of COVID-19 is already stopping the supply of cargo coming into the U.S. from China and crossing other borders.
Current problems to examine include how to stock shelves with goods that come into the U.S. from other countries. Each transportation method that crosses a border into the U.S. may be subject to quarantine for weeks or months. An embargo could affect truck drivers and their companies. If cargo is late arriving at warehouses, workers there might be laid off too. If shelves of certain items are empty for a while, customers might start to hoard items in short supply as has happened with toilet paper, cleaning products and other necessities.
There are other possible problems such as human-to-human contagion. COVID-19 is transmitted extremely easily from person to person. Interpersonal contact doesn’t need to be very long. The virus may be transmitted even before an infected person develops symptoms. It may also be transmissible for a few days after a person seems to be over the virus. Some people may have the disease but never show symptoms.
These problems are part of what students should be asked to identify. One method is to identify all possible kinds of problems. All college students are not the same. They are different ages, with different experiences and different levels of education. These human factors that define each student are what makes teaching them how to problem solve and think critically so interesting.
How to Perform Critical Thinking of the COVID-19 Problem
Teaching students to perform critical thinking is a learned skill. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking sets standards and procedures for what is critical thinking and offers ways to connect knowledge to critical thinking.
Teaching critical thinking to students starts with having them connect their experiences to a possible list of problems. One method is to create cross-functional teams to address the complexity of the coronavirus’s impact and how the resulting problems possibly are interconnected.
One strategy to bring the elements of critical thinking about the pandemic starts with a question. In this case, that question is called an essential question because it has only one answer, yes or no. Since this is an asynchronous online course exercise, have all students in that small team post their brainstorming ideas in an open forum for discussion.
The students should check at least five references sites and media postings about the virus and its impact on the many problem areas. These media sites may contradict each other. If the news is reporting the same or similar information, such as supply chains from China are being held up due to U.S.-imposed tariffs, ask the students to search for the opposing views. Have them search for supply chains that are not being held up.
Everyone may be surprised by that search. Then let the students decide how to compare and compose a story from those searches.
Have each student — whether in a small group, a cross-functional team, or the entire class — write one sentence that describes the coronavirus problem. The students then pass their sentence to the other students with each student revising and adding to that first student’s sentence to clearly understand what they have discovered.
Getting Students to Focus on Current Problems Like COVID-19
The emphasis of this strategy is to change some aspect of the course to address the current severe problem of COVID-19 facing the U.S. today. This problem-parsing expands the students’ educational experience to see the value of their college experience.
Problem solving and critical thinking promote the accumulation of knowledge for all students. In the case of the deadly pandemic, it gives them a sense of being part of a huge problem unfolding around them.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.
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