Higher Education, Quality, Resilience

Thinking Small(er)

So here we are. We’ve worked hard all summer to prepare our campuses to receive students in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 world. Some of us had to delay our starts due to local outbreaks, others have had to send students home due to campus outbreaks. We invested in masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers. We significantly reduced class-size and moved a lot to online or hybrid modalities. We tried to improve some of our technological infrastructure. We invested in more training opportunities for faculty moving to online teaching. With each step we spent money.

While we prepared, we saw a predictable drop in first-year students. They and their families are waiting it out in hopes of a better (normal) environment next year. With the switch in modalities, a fair number of returning students opted to complete their studies from home. They are sticking with us, but no longer see the value in a residential experience that is mostly virtual. It is a rational economic choice, but it is also a huge hit to the university budget plan.

And, of course, all of this is hitting campuses at the same time as funding streams tighten. States are juggling financial challenges for education, but also social services, health care, and unemployment insurance. Private universities are likely to see weakening donor bases for the next year. Indeed, private universities saw this coming early and started furloughing staff as early as April. For the publics, the realities are hitting home now. It is not that we didn’t know that we would have budget challenges, we just held out hope a little longer.

Now what? The inevitable hiring freezes have begun, and we are bracing for the impact. But I don’t think hiring freezes are going to solve the scale of this problem. They are too arbitrary, and they often hurt performance in key areas. No, I think we need to think more carefully about the whole of our institutions and make more thoughtful decisions than a freeze allows. Is it time to consider growing smaller?

For those of us in New England, enrollment projections have been troubling for some time. Higher education news has been filled with discussions of strategies to manage the demographic trends of the region. Some have focused on widening the recruiting radius, others on adding attractive new majors, and still others on merging campuses for greater efficiencies, particularly around administrative costs. While each of these strategies might offer partial fix, the reality is that there are limits to their impact. With COVID-19, I think we’ve hit that limit. To put it plainly, I don’t think we can grow our way out of this one.

I am sure everyone who just read that last sentence is thinking about layoffs and furlough days, etc., but I would like to think about this a little differently. What I would like to do is imagine a process by which we develop a plan for slightly smaller, more focused university. As normal schools became colleges became universities, we all aspired to a breadth model. We chased after ideas and expanded our offerings, with no end point in sight. That is natural, perhaps, for people who are curious by nature, but it is simply not sustainable without continuous growth, and continuous growth is a myth. It is time to stop buying into that myth and build something more sustainable.

Every university has academic programs that are no longer attracting students. Then there are co-curricular programs with low participation. Our impulse is to try to save them all. Maybe we shouldn’t. Instead of preserving the programs, perhaps we should ask ourselves two important questions: 1. Can we deliver a high quality liberal arts education without this program? 2. Is it possible to discover better ways to use the expertise devoted to the program in support of our students?

This first question is particularly challenging because we all love our disciplines. But let’s face it, not everything is essential to providing a quality liberal arts experience. If it were, we’d still be requiring Latin. We want to help students become adept at analytic thinking in multiple formats (quantitative and qualitative), competent and thoughtful communicators in multiple contexts (writing, speaking, various digital forms), and aware of the contributions to our knowledge and values from many cultures over time. None of this tells us which ideas are most important. It simply suggests that we want our graduates to be able to navigate the world after graduation with a broad set of skills and understandings, and hopefully, some degree of curiosity. Can we achieve those goals without every program? Probably.

But what of the talented faculty and staff involved? Since we are not working on a growth model, we should really think about how to successfully reimagine the resources we already have. In the case of an academic program, that might mean asking talented scholars to re-group and work with another department to make something new (or stronger). This is hard because all members of the faculty have spent years pursuing a passionate interest in a discipline. They are doing what they have prepared to do. For co-curricular programs, our staff members have honed their skills in particular areas. It is what they are happiest doing. Now they might need to let go of some of that specialization and reimagine their passion in a new context. It is not necessarily what they planned for, but it might help preserve the demand for their expertise by repositioning its place in the path through education. It might also improve the experience of our students.

As I write this, I can hear the collective shudder. We do not like thinking this way in higher education. We are experts at expanding expertise and offerings. The history of departments and initiatives tell that tale very well. We are also experts at arguing for the value of every single thing we have ever done. Unfortunately, that’s just too much for us to manage, at least not without continuous growth. (Still a myth.)

It is time to start making some tough choices. But let’s not just talk about cuts and losses and wish for the status quo. Let’s recognize how many resources we have on our campuses already. Let’s ask ourselves about our goals for our students and the ways in which the talent we already have might help us better reach those goals. We won’t get bigger, but we might just get better.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Inclusivity Check-In

Over the last year, I have discussed inclusivity in our curriculum on several occasions. I have focused on hidden barriers to access to education (SATs or owning a computer, for example). I have talked about how some of our rules for how to be a student might be discouraging full participation from those who are new to higher education culture (no assignment extensions, ever!). I have questioned our reward structures, wondering if we are systematically excluding students who must support themselves while in college, because we are inclined to praise those who participate in everything. I have considered the potential gaps in our offerings and wondered if the stories our students encounter represent the truly diverse culture in which we all reside. I have made suggestions about course design that might help us improve learning experiences for all students, including those with specific cognitive challenges. Well, it is nice to discuss, suggest, and ponder but are we doing anything?

This, of course, is impossible for me to know in any real detail. The structure of higher education favors decentralization of most things and a necessary commitment to academic freedom. These are good things because they are meant to foster experimentation and creativity, and help us learn from the varied perspectives of our faculty. It is problematic, however, when striving for structural change. I have to rely on the anecdote and the occasional survey and trust that incremental change is taking place.

There is no doubt that the students we are serving are getting more diverse. This is a wonderful thing and reflects a positive trajectory for higher education and the nation. To meet the needs and expectations of students of all ages from a wide range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, we have to be more thoughtful about how we organize, well everything. We have been responding in sections of our organizations. From first year experiences, to intrusive (proactive) advising and tutoring, to guided pathways and alternative scheduling structures for adult learners, to honors programs that recruit from things other than SAT scores, we are evolving. Hooray. But is this evolution visible to our students? Probably not. I measure its impact in standard measures of retention and graduation and hope that they feel the benefits, even if they do not see them.

Then there is the question of inclusivity in the classroom. Over the summer, I suggested that our efforts to be diverse in our curriculum and inclusive in our teaching practices might not be visible to our students. Perhaps our course outlines reflect the diverse range of contributions to the field of study, but is it visible on the syllabus? Perhaps we say all students should contribute to class discussions, but do they all feel welcome to do so? Perhaps that group project you assigned seems like a perfect opportunity to support collaboration among diverse groups of students, but do all of the students feel respected in that group? In other words, are the efforts we are making to be inclusive in the classroom, reaching our students? Maybe we should ask them.

Today, I am encouraging every professor to conduct an informal inclusivity poll. This is an informational item for the professor only. No one else ever has to see it. I suggest some variation on the following questions:

  1. Does your initial review of the syllabus and course materials leave you with the impression that we will engage diverse perspectives as we explore the course topic? Please provide evidence or an example to support your answer.
  2. Is it clear from the syllabus and/or introductory sessions that all students are encouraged to participate in class discussions and activities, even (especially) when there are conflicting opinions and experiences?  Please provide evidence or an example to support your answer.
  3. When interacting with your peers in groups, do you feel free to offer your perspective or ideas? If not, how might I help you feel included or welcome to contribute?
  4. Are there any steps I could take that could help create a more inclusive classroom environment? 

Like all teaching, our strategies for inclusion will be iterative. Questions like these can help reveal what our students are seeing and help us make necessary adjustments. They might start some unanticipated conversations, but those are probably conversations worth having. Dare to take them on. Dare to be transparent in those conversations. Dare to deal with the myriad opinions and experiences in your classroom. Dare to learn from your students.

It may not always be necessary to make our inclusive pedagogies visible to our students. When we have a habit of this, it will probably just be a given. Then those standard outcomes measures might be sufficient. I long for that day. But for now, this is hard but necessary work. It will help us inch toward a more inclusive campus, one class at a time.

Engagement, Innovative Pedagogies

The In-Between

Last week, Western Connecticut State University launched the fall semester online. We had hoped to open with a blend of online and on-ground experiences, but an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the city of Danbury put us on pause. We are still optimistic about moving to some on campus experiences, but in the meantime, we are in a strange in-between world where we are online only, with an expectation of on-ground eventually. This is a very complicated instructional design challenge. Already, our students are feeling adrift.

When designing for online only, and when students willingly enroll in online only programs, the expectations for instruction are clear. Faculty will choose a variety of strategies for connecting with their students, and though not all courses will be the same, some things are pretty standard. For example, most courses designed for online instruction include an opportunity for introductions. This is often a simple discussion thread where everyone, including the professor, says a few things about who they are and why they are interested in the topic. In most cases, there is also a requirement of some number of responses to peers just to make sure that people start to get to know each other.

This is something we do without thinking in classrooms. We usually spend a little time on the first day doing ice breakers, asking for introductions, and helping students get a sense of who we are as professors. In the online world, we have to think about putting this into the first week experience. Even if the rest of the course is primarily focused on independent work, that little moment to humanize the learning experience makes all the difference to students’ comfort levels.

Unfortunately, if the course was designed as a hybrid experience this step might have been missed. It is likely that faculty thought they would do introductions in the face-to-face part, and now they are jumping into the course material without this vital step. This is kind of alienating to students, especially those who did not want to be online in the first place. The grumbling has begun.

Good news. This one is not too hard to fix. Even in week two, introductions can go a long way toward building community and trust. It is okay to back up for a second. Here are a few good ways to do so:

  1. Add a discussion thread for introductions today and start it with a faculty bio to start. If possible, there should be a few ideas about what to include in the intro to keep things interesting.
  2. Enhance the above by asking for photos of favorite things, places, activities.
  3. Enhance the above with video snippets to support the intro.
  4. It might be nice to award a point or two, so everyone gets a little something for their effort.

In addition to getting to know each other, students who expected to have some face-to-face experiences really wanted that overview of the course that faculty so naturally do as they discuss the syllabus on the first day. With the somewhat abrupt switch, some faculty may have skipped the overview and launched directly into the course material. While the material and the assignments might be exactly what is typically covered in the first class, that missing overview is disorienting for our students. It gives the impression that they are “just teaching themselves.”

Once again, this is not too difficult to remedy. I recommend video for this, but audio is also fine. Record a brief introduction to the material, discuss course expectations, and then go over the syllabus. This should not be longer than 4 minutes. (No one watches things like this that are longer than that.) Doing this work and posting it on the first page of the course will let students know that their professors are actively engaged in creating the learning experience. Without it, students often feel like they just should have read the book on their own.

It would also be great to approximate a few of those casual conversations and opportunities to ask follow-up questions that often happen before and after class. We all know that web conferencing tools do not really support spontaneity in largish groups, but they are excellent for drop-in office hours. Scheduling one or two opportunities each week for students to pop in and ask a question can be very helpful, especially at the start of the semester. Like on-campus office hours, attendance will vary. To encourage participation, you may wish to set topics at the start. Or not. Like on-campus office hours, you can work on other things while you wait. Creating these opportunities for conversation will help students feel supported.

One last thing. It is probably a good idea to do at least one thing in groups. For some faculty, there are lots of group activities woven throughout the course. Groups might work without the instructor, and then turn in projects each week or so. Other faculty like to have groups take place during the designated course time and pop in to interject and steer the conversation. These are great strategies. But, if none of this was in the original course design, then just a small effort can go a long way. Consider some fun reasons to group students, perhaps around some of the interests they posted in the ice breaker activity, and set them up as a study group. (Create a space in the course shell for this). Give a little guidance on the first thing to study for–perhaps insight into a first assignment or quiz–and encourage students to send a representative to the drop-in office hours for any follow up questions. This small step will help students connect with each other. Those connections are more important than ever in this COVID-19 world.

Now, none of what I described above is foreign to those designing a fully online course, and I suspect many of those who prepared for that modality already did these things. But for those who prepared for blended teaching, these steps might not have been in the plans. I offer the above as simple strategies that require no redesign of the course, but just layer on a few small activities to build the human into the course. It is a small effort that can make a big difference. After all, we still want to be a community, even if it is remote.

Higher Education, Resilience

Doing Less (Again)

Pause! That is how we are describing the two-week delay in opening our physical campus. Due to a change in COVID-19 conditions in our neighborhood, all of our classes will launch online for the first two-weeks of the semester. We have paused the move-in to residence halls and asked everyone to just log into their classes for now. Ouch!

A million logistical concerns follow. The list is too long to go through here, but let’s just say it is everything from re-testing residential students to figuring out how to get books to students who had them shipped to the campus, thinking they would be here. We are working through them, one by one, but I won’t lie, it is exhausting. After spending all summer preparing for a safe opening, and wondering if we would have to shut down at some point during the semester for a 2nd wave of COVID-19, not starting as planned is painful.

As always, though, whenever I feel overwhelmed and exhausted, I start to think of everyone else’s experience. Some faculty have to change their planned course schedules to accommodate the lack of lab time. Others are creating alternative experiences overnight, just to keep everyone on track. Student affairs is busy re-imagining first-week events (what we call LEAP week), so that there is still some sense of connection and excitement about starting the semester. Students are trying to figure out where to “go” and what the changes to their schedules actually mean. No, being overwhelmed does not get to be unique to me. It seems like a good time to think about virtues of doing less.

In other columns, I have suggested that we might consider pruning our syllabi just a bit. In our love for our disciplines, we have a tendency to try to engage our students with all of our favorite ideas and readings and exercises. Maybe all of it is just too much. What if you only had ten weeks for your course? What would you cut? If you know the answer to this, that’s the “too much” of your course. Now add the time back (perhaps in a new modality). What would you do with it, now that you have made the room? Can you do something more with the existing topics? Is there room to help students practice with the essential ideas? Is there more time for you to give feedback? I don’t know… have fun with it.

Then there are meetings. How much time can one person spend on Zoom or WebEx or Teams anyway? I can positively confirm that the answer is less time than I have been spending there. How about reimagining meetings as mini-meetings? If you only had 15 minutes, what would change? I bet you would get to the point pretty quickly, and still have time for a couple of pleasantries. If the point is a long, collaborative brainstorming session, ok, that may require more time. But for most of the long list of meetings on my schedule, 15 minutes is sufficient to set up the questions and delegate the work. That will definitely be my new model this year.

Then there are committees. Oh my. We are (rightfully) committed to a lot of conversations in higher education. This is important for shared governance, to be sure, and to support the general principle that a diversity of opinions can lead to better ideas. Great. But the thing is, we frequently have more than one committee devoted to very similar tasks. Maybe more specificity would help? Or just a little review of purposes and any potential overlap? Too many committees may effectively bury ideas when they were meant to unearth them. Could we trim a few from the list?

Finally, goals. I know my list is too long. I am guessing that yours is, too. We seem to always want to strive for that one more thing. But should we? Can we really do so much and do it well? Probably not. A few years ago, we were engaged in revising our general education curriculum. Part of this was creating learning outcomes for each category. People frequently laughed at me when I tried to limit the number of learning outcomes. There was a tendency to create 5, 6 or 7 (too many). In our learning-outcomes-across-the-curriculum approach to gen-ed, this is really too much to manage. It is also just too many outcomes for a gen-ed course to commit to fully engaging. I kept arguing for no more than 3 learning outcomes for any category (competency). People thought I was kidding, but I was not. Five years later, as I watch them evolve, they are shrinking in number. I think maybe I was right. Too many are just too hard to do well.

So, I am refraining from being overwhelmed by the ever-expanding list of things I need to attend to in a highly disrupted and changeable environment. Instead, I am re-committing to doing less. I am taking things off my list, and getting on with what remains. Feel free to join me in this exercise. It might help you weather this changeable storm of COVID-19, or just normal life. Or skip it. I mean, who needs one more thing to do?

Change, Growth Mindset, Resilience

Defaulting to Kindness

Last Friday, I had the honor of participating in a faculty session regarding our first year classes this fall. A lot of hard work has gone on, from the leadership of our FY director, to the contributions of our instructional designers, librarians, media services, student affairs, and of course all the FY faculty re-writing their materials for the fall. It was a tremendous effort and the people able to participate in our virtual meeting were enthusiastic about the materials shared with them. There was a clear sense of mutual support in this strange new world.

First-year courses everywhere are likely to have undergone these efforts. No matter what combination of online and on-ground teaching a university has selected, one thing is clear: It will not be a normal start. Our entering first-year students are tasked with acclimating to higher education in multiple modalities (online, hybrid, flex, etc.), while also experiencing the socio-emotional growth that typically takes place as they transition from high school to college. They must do all of this with COVID-19 in their minds at all time. That is a lot to ask. We have spent a lot of time working on the safety part of this equation and we will spend the rest of the year, continuously reflecting on and adjusting the teaching and learning part.

At WCSU, the FY team has strengthened first-year courses because students might not get to meet each other, or their faculty, in person anytime soon. To bridge this physical gap, they have included clear instruction about navigating the online learning environment. They developed new strategies for helping peer mentors engage students within our learning management system and there was conversation about group work designed to help students interact with each other, not just for learning, but for making friends. There was also attention to seeking routine feedback from students to try to help them stick with their coursework, and build connections when those connections feel, well, intangible. I am proud of the team of faculty and staff who engaged these questions. They are doing great work.

It is not just FY faculty who are redesigning their courses. All faculty are doing so because they are faced with being prepared for anything. This is sometimes grueling work, but the opportunity to re-imagine courses can also a blessing. When forced to design a course for multiple modalities, there is the opportunity to look at material from multiple perspectives. This gives room for new exercises, clarification of material, and even just de-cluttering. Taking a more focused, developmental path through a course might help students and faculty alike. Indeed, doing less, and being very clear about our expectations, could actually improve our outcomes, even in a world with too many new variables. While not trying to minimize the effort this requires, I do see that there is opportunity for growth in all of this, which could be very rewarding.

It is the same with efforts going on everywhere else at WCSU. We are focusing on essential interactions and learning outcomes and trying to help our community be a community in the fall. As athletics conferences decided on safety, coaches reached out to athletes to build community and find other rewarding ways to interact as teams. Career services is all in on virtual recruitment, training opportunities, and even virtual internships. Turns out, employers like that virtual recruitment option and this is likely to be our new standard after COVID-19. Our performing arts faculty have developed creative experiences for their students to perform and rehearse in virtual, outdoor, and highly spaced indoor environments. As a singer, I know exactly how hard that is, because sound is a tricky thing… the farther apart you are, the less likely to sing together. Nevertheless, good things are happening with and without technology. All over the university, we may be doing less of what we are used to doing, but we are adding new experiences and trying to make sure that those experiences are truly meaningful.

But here is this morning’s clarity: With all of this newness, and the many options that the WCSU community (and all of higher ed) has worked hard to create for our students, it is more than probable that there will be many, many mistakes. From simple errors about which technology people will use for a meeting (Teams, WebEx, Zoom, etc.), to a mistake in the set-up of a course so that the assignment due on Monday, actually doesn’t open up until it is due (it happens), to uncertainty about when and where each type of course is supposed to meet, the room for error is tremendous. And let’s not forget the potential for a random storm to knock out our connections to each other. Yikes! I suspect there will be a few tears for most of us.

Every single one of us is likely to make more than one mistake this fall. That is the nature of mass shifts in organizational structures and high levels of uncertainty. So, I offer this one bit of advice, let’s default to kindness. Forgive your colleagues for missing a meeting or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive your students for being confused about the navigation through their classes, or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive yourself for your gaffes in design, or being unable to log in effectively. And so on. You know what I am talking about. Find that well of patience and draw on it relentlessly. Remember, when you need to explode, you can just log off and have a small tantrum or crying session, some tea or chocolate or a moment of Zen, and then get back in there.

The most productive phrases we will have this fall are simply these: “Oops, I messed up.” and “That’s okay, let’s try again.” We should use these phrases often.  If we do, we can skip the anger and shame part of messing up, and focus on the getting better part that we all really care about.  Indeed, if we default to kindness, we are likely to find the fun (and the funny) in all of this change after all.

Be well everyone.