Last week our campus had a conversation about expanding the number of courses that qualify as pass/fail. We chose not to do so, but we did extend the date by which a student can choose the pass/fail option. We also extended the date by which a student might withdraw from a course without academic penalty. These measures were about buying time, so we have a chance to adapt to our online environment in a way that is reasonable and fair. In other words, these measures were meant to give everyone time to take a deep breath before making difficult decisions.
Not everyone was happy with this decision and I do understand why. We are all in a state of shock right now as the reality of this pandemic sets in and the worries around GPAs are real. For a few weeks we were attending to triage – getting courses online, getting faculty additional training and support, getting students and faculty the technology they need, and getting our student supports online. Our community really pulled together to make these things happen as quickly and effectively as possible. We’ll continue to troubleshoot all of these things through May, I am sure, but the first big lift is over. So, we are onto the second level of trauma, much of which lies in preserving the integrity of the academic programs.
So, why not go pass/fail for everything? Well, if this were something we could do permanently (or some variation of this, which I have discussed in earlier blog posts around grading), I would consider it. But that is not what we are planning to do, at least not right now. This means there are lots of students who would not qualify for this benefit – students in certification programs, students in critical pre-requisites, students heading to graduate school, student athletes, and students on probation. With so many exclusions, we would end up creating a two-tier grading system. That just doesn’t seem fair at all.
But there is more to it, for me. I have faith in my faculty. You see, everyone had a chance to get to know their students prior to moving online. WCSU is lucky to have very few large classes, so getting to know students is a real thing. Professors have interacted with their classes, seen strengths and weaknesses in their students, and have evaluated their work, prior to moving online. It seems very clear to me that whatever happens in this new environment, they will be able to adjust for the impact. I fully anticipate that grades at the end of the semester will reflect that adjustment.
These adjustments are not as simple as curving grades – although that will be one strategy. To truly adjust, faculty and students will have to be in constant communication within the online learning platforms. You see, when we moved everything online in one giant push, we did not have time to sort through the must do vs. the nice to do. There is a tendency to try to fully recreate the on-ground experience, but this really isn’t how online learning works. It is an alternative environment the requires alternative strategies. We didn’t have time to do this kind of thinking, so, we can’t just stop after putting everything in the course shell. We are going to have to evolve.
Let me give a couple of examples.
- Many faculty members quickly loaded PowerPoints or notes of some kind into Blackboard and then implemented weekly meetings via a conferencing software. This can work part of the time, but as it turns out our students are living in varied conditions of access to technology. Not everyone is able to be online at the same time due to the number of people in their house working and learning from home. A small adjustment will have to be made. The simplest thing to do is to record that meeting so students who cannot attend the live version can access it later. The harder thing to do is to redesign the course with short video presentations, quick assessments of student understanding of that video, and then some asynchronous discussion. That’s too much for right now, so simple is probably the solution.
- Some faculty have committed to following their syllabi exactly as before the move online. In some cases, that involved group work. This is totally possible to achieve in the new environment, but students may have differential experiences of web conferencing software. Those with older technology or less robust wi-fi at home may become frustrated in meetings, with lots of lags and glitches. Now group work is always fraught with some tensions about who does the most work, but it isn’t fair to punish a group member for crappy tools. Students and faculty will have to work to mitigate these situations so that things do not devolve into resentment between students.
There are many more examples, but I think you can already see a theme. The two scenarios above would be horrible if faculty and students were not communicating and making accommodations and/or adjustments to their expectations. This is not a simple grading curve; it is a continuous series of modifications as problems emerge. This is hard work, but necessary given the scale of this crisis.
As provost, I cannot command anyone to make these adjustments. I fully embrace our collective commitment to academic freedom and the importance of faculty control over their approach to teaching. This is standard operating procedure, and I am trying to preserve that throughout this COVID-19 moment. But I don’t need to command anyone. I trust my faculty to be reasonable and thoughtful about their students’ experiences and meet them halfway. I hope that they can successfully communicate this approach to their students, so that the extended pass/fail and withdrawal dates are unnecessary in the end.
Stay healthy everyone.