George Mason University

News at Mason

‘Dinosaur Whisperer’ helps even the most technology-wary professor embrace the virtual classroom

April 3, 2020   /   by Anna Stolley Persky

Mason School of Art professor Chawky Frenn with his Stearns Center mentor Laura Todd (inset). Photo provided.

When George Mason University announced it was moving all classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic,  Chawky Frenn, an associate professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, was filled with dread. A self-described “dinosaur,” Frenn exalts in the personal interactions he has with his students as he teaches drawing and painting techniques. Luckily, Frenn said, he found Laura Todd, new online projects coordinator at Mason’s Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning.

“I don’t remember how I connected with her,” Frenn said. “I couldn’t even comprehend how I could take my studio classes with engaging weekly lectures, individual and group critiques, demonstrations, and hands-on problem-solving exercises online. I told her ‘I am in the stone age when it comes to online teaching.’ But Laura was amazing. She made me feel comfortable, instead of embarrassed about where I am in my online skills.”

Todd helped Frenn get online, and as they worked together, their relationship grew from mutual admiration to friendship.

“I guess that makes me the dinosaur whisperer,” Todd quipped.

A former Fairfax County Public Schools Spanish teacher, Todd coordinates and manages the development of online programs and courses. She has a master’s degree in education and a learning technologies graduate certificate, and is also  pursuing an information technology undergraduate certificate.

When Mason made the decision to move classes online, Todd quickly became the go-to person for several professors suddenly panicked over how to use Blackboard Collaborate for synchronous learning. But Frenn, Todd said, required extra attention.

Frenn has been teaching art classes at Mason for 20 years. He describes himself as “thriving” on being able to see the expressions on his students’ faces as an indicator of whether they are engaged, or if they are struggling with a technique.

“I am a man of people,” Frenn said. “There really is a completely different dynamic when you are able to walk between 18 students as they are doing their work and approach someone who is struggling. No digital world can offer that.”

Nevertheless, Frenn said he was determined to create a learning atmosphere in which students could still critique each other’s work and he could “maintain the same level of authenticity as in the classroom, despite the unusual circumstances.”

Todd spent hours helping Frenn communicate with his students and set up a virtual classroom. Because Frenn said he was a visual learner, Todd sent him screenshots of each step in the process after they had spoken on the phone.

Todd said it was a “great feeling” to help Frenn and other professors maintain continuity with their students. She looks forward to transitioning into full-time instructional design soon.

“In these stressful times, it’s nice for our students to have stability and peace in their classes,” Todd said. “It’s important that their instructors are able to continue teaching them in an organized way. Anything I can do to help students stay on track in their education and achieve their big picture goals, I will do.”

Todd said she plans on continuing to help Frenn throughout the semester.

“I told him he can’t get rid of me that easily,” Todd said. “I’m sticking around for as long as he needs me.”