Resilience

Fun for the Grown Ups at Home

I’ve seen lots of posts about how to engage the kids while we are all in quasi lock-down, but what about the grown-ups? We empty-nesters, not-yet-nesters, or never-nesters deserve some fun, too.  Here’s one for all of you. Consider spending 30 minutes a day on these. It might calm the mind and you could learn a thing or two for the next trivia night.

Mathematical Mondays

You know you want to be better at math, and is it turns out, all it takes is a little free time.  I’m working statistics to better understand the path of COVID-19, but algebra and geometry are pretty great for planning the home renovations you are dreaming of now that you’re cooped up all the time.

Here’s a link to Khan Academy, but there are hundreds of options.

Sharpen those pencils.

Time Hop Tuesdays    

How the heck did we get here? That is the fundamental question for an amateur historian (apologies to the professionals). Whether you want to know when something happened or get a basic understanding of the implications/origins of important historical events, now is the time to look it up and do a little reading. Believe it or not, Wikipedia is an OK place to start. Just remember to follow their resource links to get a bigger picture.

Wildlife Wednesdays

I am the queen of “that’s a pretty bird/plant/tree” with no idea what I’m looking at. Are you curious about the natural world, but never really bother to check things out?  Now’s your chance.  Bonus points for taking a walk outside (with appropriate distance) to identify some of those birds, squirrels, trees, and plans.

Here are two sites to get you started, but really there are a million.

Theological Thursdays 

I always meant to take a comparative religion class, but it never seemed to fit into my schedule.  Instead of committing to an entire course or degree, I’m going to start with just learning a little about everyone’s faith.  Think how that could bring us together!

Fact Check Fridays      

Today is the day to test your knowledge.  Pick one news story and do your own research.  There is no such thing as a bias-free report, but there are reports that are better researched and sourced than others.  So, I recommend you choose a source you tend to trust and work from there.

Or you could simply start on by picking a news story you just read and then ask yourself what else you would need to know to believe it.  Then dig in to find out. Consider this activity an inoculation against nonsense.

Science Saturdays       

You did wildlife on Wednesday, but there is a lot more you can learn about science.  Let’s face it, we forgot most of what we learned in school and given the current state of affairs, we should probably level up our science knowledge.

Superhero Sundays     

It is Sunday, and you could reserve today for the great binge tv experience.  But you probably already made it to the bottom of your Netflix list (which, we didn’t know was possible before COVID-19, as my son pointed out). So, here is your opportunity to either become a Superhero nerd who learns all about the ones that exist, enjoying whatever medium you like.  Or, you could be come a designer of a new superhero, and work to even the representation of all kinds of people.  I’m thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

I can’t draw at all, but now could be the time to learn.  Here are some tutorials.

Chris Hart has a bunch of tutorials on drawing superheroes.

Or there’s this wonderful collection of resources here for drawing in general

Or you can skip the superheroes and just tune in to Bob Ross for some happy little clouds.

Have fun everyone.

PS: This is not my weekly blog.  I’m just taking a break from the WebEx meetings.

Community, Resilience

The Bright Side

It is March 23, 2020 and Western Connecticut State University has officially launched as a virtual campus.  Spring “break” was filled with activity. Faculty were preparing materials for online course delivery with lots of help from our Instructional Design team.  Information Technology & Innovation (IT&I) has been deploying hardware and software at a dizzying pace, all the while working to ensure that there is enough support on the Help Desk, as our system strains under the weight of a sudden level-up in usage. Academic and Student Support Services have moved to virtual formats.  Student Affairs and the Residence Life team are finishing up the process of helping our residential students retrieve their belongings, and the facilities team has identified appropriate places on campus for emergency spaces for the City of Danbury, should that be necessary.  It has been all hands on deck, and people have been rising to the challenge with positive attitudes.  Whew.

It is sure to be a little bumpy for the next few weeks.  We’re all learning quickly but mistakes will happen.  Nevertheless, I see some potential positive outcomes from adapting to this new reality.

Online Teaching and Learning

WCSU does not want to become an online university.  I want to be clear on that. We are woven into our community and we serve students from many backgrounds with varied needs.  Not all of our students (or faculty) will thrive in an online environment.  But some students will.  At WCSU, we’ve been trying to determine the right audiences and approaches for our online offerings (graduate, returning adult, hybrid, low-residency, and so on).  This quick turn-around to an online environment creates an opportunity for us to gather some actual data on these questions.  I am hoping for some great conversations and analytics when this is over.

It is also important to note that this midcourse shift in medium places faculty in a good position to assess the impact of moving their instruction online. Working with students face-to-face for the first half of the semester has provided the opportunity to get to know how each student engages their education.  This will help them see where the change in medium is or is not impacting student success.  When there is a change in student performance it may be time to review the approach. If student performance stays roughly the same, things are probably on the right track.  There will be a lot to learn about instructional design from this simple metric.

Online Academic Supports

While many students, staff, and faculty prefer face-to-face experiences for academic support, this isn’t necessarily a great fit for a majority commuter campus.  As my colleagues have worked at breakneck speed to develop processes to support the virtual versions of our support services (tutoring, academic coaching, advising for students of all learning needs), we now have the opportunity to compare the volume of demand for services, and possibly the impact of interventions, with the face-to-face version.  We may learn that we should reconsider the proportion of online vs. face-to-face services when we return to normal operations.

Registration for fall is also underway.  WCSU has (wisely) committed to requiring students to meet with their academic advisors prior to being allowed to register.  This allows us to flag critical pre-requisites or course sequences, discuss challenges or the need for academic support, identify opportunities (minors, internships, study abroad), and most of all, build relationships with our students.  However, like the realities of academic supports, sometimes our students’ work schedules, etc., make traditional office hours problematic.  Testing out platforms for good virtual advising experiences could be good for us.  I’ll add that learning to keep our advising recommendations in Degree Works could be another good outcome.  Think of all the paper we could save!

Collaboration

I’m not in love with the collaboration tools yet, but I can definitely see their value. Between Teams for smaller group meetings and WebEx and Zoom for the larger ones, we are learning to stay in touch via technology.  I know lots of organizations have been doing this for years, but education tends to be a high touch environment.  We find the free flow of face-to-face conversation and debate to be vital for refining our ideas.  The awkwardness of taking turns in the online environment does kind of dampen discussion, but it will let us proceed with university business and we will get better at it.

There is the other kind of collaboration, too.  We are organized by schools, departments, and divisions in higher education.  We frequently spend our careers interacting within the narrowest of those clusters, without learning much about how our colleagues see things or how they do their work.  Ironically, this separation is making us reach out across divisions more than we usually do.  There’s an esprit de corps as we try to help each other think things through and solve problems.

The connection between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management has never been stronger as we identify the gaps in our areas that result from the lack of face-to-face engagement with students and faculty.  We might just discover some better processes that won’t lead to these gaps when life returns to normal. Likewise, the relationship between students, faculty, and the IT&I team has strengthened, as people become accustomed to the online support they used to resist.  As we moved to quickly vacate the campus, many of us came to understand the logistics routinely managed by our Residential Life staff, our Facilities Team, and our Campus Police.

I know I might sound a little too Kumbaya, this week, but it is honestly how I feel.  I am proud of my colleagues and excited to learn from all that has occurred.  And if that’s a little to mushy, consider this – with this dash to online will never worry about snow days again!

Stay healthy.

 

Thinking

And breathe

Well, last week was the whirl of decision-making.  First it was the cancellation of the spring break trips.  Our disappointed athletes saw their spring seasons quickly disappear.  Then campus events were cancelled and our performing arts students saw their seasons and trips disappear.  Then there was a cascade of schools sending students home for a few weeks (returns TBD), and our lab sciences shuddered, students in internships scrambled, and the stress of faculty figuring out how to move classes to an online format was palpable. It was a tough week for everyone.

But here we are, at the start of spring break.  Students and faculty are off.  Most staff are working remotely.  Our facilities crew is cleaning the campus and we actually have a moment to regain our composure. Whew.

So, here’s some good news.  First, what a wonderfully resilient group we are at WCSU (and I suspect in most of higher education).  My instructional design team has upped its support for faculty who have never taught online.  For those who have never done so, teaching online is not an easy shift.  Most people spend at least a summer planning for such a thing, so doing it in a week is lightning speed.  Nevertheless, people are figuring it out. I have received lots of notes from faculty wanting to help each other.  We are putting those helpful hints in our course management system, so people can get ideas from each other.  It is the kind of camaraderie that comes in a crisis, that I hope will last beyond the panic.

Our Academic Support services (librarians, tutors, and academic coaches) are all moving online  These groups are in separate clusters at WCSU, with varied uses of log in tools, training, and tracking of demand.  This week, they are all learning to pool resources and share techniques so that the supports for student learning do not waiver while we are a virtual university.

We are just entering our fall registration period and there have been questions about how advising will work.  As a blended system of faculty and professional advisors, we wanted to be sure students knew how to get help while off campus.  As it turns out, this part is pretty simple.  Advising is easy to accomplish via email, phone, or conferencing tools.  Faculty can review student transcripts from home, put advising notes and registration pins right in Degree Works (our transcript system), and the students will be all set to go. The bright side might be, however, that students happen to be reading their email right now because of their attention to the closure.  I’m hoping we end up with higher percentage of students registered for the fall than is usual at this time.

What about the rest of us, the ones who aren’t teaching, advising, or maintaining facilities? Well, admissions is still busy admitting students.  Financial aid is still busy helping address awards and manage accounts.  Registrars are still busy helping students register.  Our Student Affairs team suddenly has a few free minutes to plan for the fall, while simultaneously planning for an adjusted schedule this spring.  In Academic Affairs (including the Deans and all of the people who support us), we’re busy reviewing schedules, curriculum, and opportunities for growth, as we were prior to COVID-19.  The only difference is that we might have a few more hours of uninterrupted writing and thinking time.

This is that moment when we might wonder why we’ve built in so many interruptions in the first place.  Are all of those meetings a good use of time?  Is our committee structure so complex that it wears us out more that it offers insight?  Do we build agendas for meetings that are useful and achievable? Having this opportunity to think for just a few extra minutes a day, I can already see that there is room to streamline our efforts.

Then there are the electronic interruptions.  The good news is it is easy for me to shift my job to online, because much of it is about responding to email and writing documents.  The bad news is that much of the email is silly.  It is easy for me to delete all the sales pitches, but the never-ending stream of clarifications about our governance processes, suggests that a) our processes are too cumbersome, b) our instructions are too vague, and c) we must have hidden the instructions from view, because no one seems to have read them.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering.  People are doing their best and they don’t want to get things wrong. But I’m pretty sure my colleagues are smart, so I suspect there is something wrong with how we’ve organized things.  This shift away from meetings might give me a minute to figure out how to make some adjustments.

For those who are scrambling to figure out online instruction, you can pause for a minute, too.  Look at your courses and ask yourself what you must accomplish in the remaining weeks of the semester.  In complete honesty, is it everything you included at the start?  Could you get to a good set of learning experiences and outcomes by doing a little less?  Probably.  Take this opportunity to make those cuts, with essential concepts at the heart of the decisions.  It will keep you from trying to do more than is actually possible in this quick transition.  It might also teach you a few lessons for next year.

In other words, after the panic, there really is time to breathe and think. While I remain concerned about the potential spread of this virus, I will simply be grateful for the time it has added to my day. It is almost as if mother nature scheduled time for spring cleaning.  I’ll take it.

 

Higher Education

Controlling the Uncontrollable

Well, it is here.  COVID-19 has arrived in New York and Connecticut and the Connecticut State University System is working through our response strategies.  So far there are university travel and event restrictions, guidance on how to monitor one’s health, guidance on good practices (like handwashing), reporting structures for those who might be at risk of exposure or illness, and some conversation about what happens if we need to move things online for a portion of the semester.  The facilities team is working hard at keeping our campus safe, and planning for worst-case scenarios. We are working through everything we can think of, developing good protocols, and trying to keep everyone informed.

Nevertheless, control is an illusion. Our culture (and the world) is simply too mobile. Whether a residential or a commuter campus (we are both), there are too many opportunities for unintentional exposure to really stop the spread of this, or any, illness. All we can do is try to slow the spread and protect the most vulnerable from infection.

The good news is we have already invented online learning, and though it is a stretch for some courses, we can work to keep the semester’s learning on track. Like all campuses, WCSU has invested in a learning management system and everyone has access to it. Indeed, it is standard practice to build a course shell for every scheduled course, so we are off to a good start.  Our instructional design team is hosting sessions for those who do not regularly do online teaching, to help them through some tricky parts. Not all courses will be tricky, but there is a lot we can accomplish there.

It gets harder for the performing arts, lab sciences, and programs that rely on field placements.  We are taking those questions one case at a time, to protect our students and the communities where they might be placed, while trying to ensure the completion of the curriculum. Folks in higher education tend to be creative thinkers, but sometimes it takes us a few minutes to reimagine ways to accomplish our goals.  When these goals are entwined with licensing regulations, it gets tricky.

Then there is there is all the rest.  Our spring break trips, our study abroad trips, athletic events, performances, and so on.  There is a lot of heartbreak and disappointment as we cancel and bring students home. Everyone starts trying to make predictions about when things will be safe again, but who knows? We have to take things in spurts, watching the updates on where the virus has emerged.   It’s a minute-by-minute decision-making adventure.

What I do know is this; following CDC Guidelines is probably our best bet.  After all, I am not a qualified epidemiologist.  Despite the fact that my students are mostly young and healthy, and therefore unlikely to have a life-threatening version of this disease, my campus is made up of people of all ages and conditions of health.  We have to consider everyone in our choices. Travel advisories and self-quarantine protocols seem like good suggestions.

So, we have a team working together to answer questions as they arise, while preparing for all conceivable eventualities. It is a good team, but we are likely to need to clarify and even change recommendations as new information emerges. Such is the role of a leadership team in an quickly evolving situation.  We are charged with trying to control the uncontrollable, which is impossible, but we are pretty good a preparing for multiple scenarios. We’ll do our best to be fair and responsible.

I need to get back to answering email from all kinds of concerned parties, so that’s all for this week. For now, wash your hands, cover your mouths when coughing, reconsider shaking hands, and stay home if you have a fever.

Stay healthy everyone.