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.

Change, equity, Resilience

Forces of Nature

Well, I took a week off and went to my usual cabin in the woods. This annual tradition with my family involves 10 cabins with no plumbing or electricity, a beautiful lake for recreation and bathing, a gas powered pump to supply water for washing dishes, a gas/wood stove for cooking, and a mountain spring for drinking water. I can connect to the internet via phone, but I limit it to once a day to save the cellphone battery and protect my sanity. Turns out my annual retreat to “roughing it” was the lap of luxury. Hurricane Isaias had its say.

Hurricanes, tornados, COVID-19, and the now ho-hum heatwaves and/or snowstorms always remind me that no matter how hard I try, I cannot control everything. It is an important and necessary recurring lesson. It is also the opposite of how I am inclined to think.

Those of us in higher education leadership roles are tasked with trying to control outcomes. As provost, I try to control the interaction between our academic offerings and student success. Working with deans, department chairs, faculty, academic support staff, and, well everyone at some point, I struggle to develop good strategies to improve the educational experience of our students. Some of those strategies focus on pedagogy (most recently pedagogies that work well online and on ground), some on academic interventions for students who are struggling, some on curricular development, and some on faculty development as teachers and scholars. With data analysis, input from almost everyone in some form or another, governance review, and then questions about affordability, sustainability, and impact, I work to prioritize our efforts in the hopes of continuous improvement.

Despite all of these efforts, the reality is that only some of it seems to work. An experiment with a flipped classroom shows some interesting things, but yields no overall improvement in student outcomes. A cutting-edge revision to a major has not found a new audience. Efforts to improve our graduation rates appear to be working (yippee), but I am a little uncertain about which intervention worked. My hunch is clear pathways (four-year plans) and the FY course, but I am not sure. Efforts at improving retention have not yet shown results, but hope springs eternal and a new plan is underway. I am accountable for all of these things and so I strive to control them, but that control is mostly an illusion. There are too many variables; there will never be a single cure.

So, too, with the problems of systemic racism. As I grapple with the questions surrounding biases in curriculum, processes, and pathways to admission to WCSU or any higher education institution, I recognize the “too many variables” nature of the situation. Many institutions like WCSU have spent years focusing on the connection between K-12 and higher education. We have long supported Upward Bound, we offer Early College classes at local schools at minimal costs to those students and/or districts, and we have an Education Access Program that offers an alternate path to admission at WCSU. The urgency of those efforts easily draws my attention, but I suspect it is not where it should be focused.

It is not that I do not recognize the urgency of the K-12 situation. The variability in funding for districts is outrageous. The quality of educational opportunities given to wealthy vs. non-wealthy schools is short-sighted at best and morally bankrupt in any case. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the perpetuation of structures that enhance segregation and diminish opportunity for some groups while enhancing it for others. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the needs of the students that we serve at WCSU. Of course, I see this as urgent. However, these issues are more than can be managed in the day-to-day of running a university. The scale is too large and the variables beyond my control. I should keep my eyes on higher education.

So, I endeavor to prioritize efforts that directly impact learning at the university. I focus my attention on our data and our outcomes. This is an unsatisfying exercise because the outcomes of students at WCSU will not improve if K-12 is not improved. Our efforts will be about catching people up, not setting them up to succeed from the start. Decisions that narrow the scope of our efforts may be correct in terms of avoiding “mission creep” but I know that not addressing the years before higher education will make interventions at the university-level only partially successful. It is a conundrum.

What does this have to do with forces of nature? In as much as I should accept that there are things outside of my control, the comparison is clear. Trying to manage everything is a fool’s game and control is an illusion at best. I would do well to acknowledge the limits of my capabilities, narrow my focus, and ignore the variables beyond my official scope. But I find this comparison a cop out, because, when it comes to systemic racism, it is irresponsible and ineffective to take a limited view.

As I return to the world of electricity and connectivity (mostly), and a world still disrupted by facemasks and social distancing, and too many unknowns, I find the forces of nature daunting and humbling. However, I also find hope and resilience. Communities are clearing brush together and the masks seem to be working. Those simple steps give me the strength to think bigger and strive for more.

So, as I prepare to begin this odd fall semester, I will focus on making education better for everyone. There will be lots of input on those efforts, but as an academic leader, I will take responsibility for them. Each step forward will likely be matched by missteps and miscalculations, because issues of racism and inequity are as forceful and destructive as hurricanes, with timelines that dwarf the scale of even the most powerful seasonal storm. Working toward great education for everyone is an impossible task with too many variables. But, it is the only responsible action I can take.