Engagement, Technology

The Limits of the Zoomiverse

After a year and a half of attending everything via Zoom/WebEx/Google Meets/Teams, etc., I have just spent four days attending two in-person conferences. That they were back to back was a bit of a juggle for me, but the distance between them was not too daunting and off I went. Both conferences asked for proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test; Both conferences asked for masks in the scheduled sessions. One had the clever idea of indicating on our name tags our comfort level with hand shaking and such, which was nice. I’m pretty sure that information got totally lost in the joy felt with seeing friends and colleagues in person. There was a lot of hugging.

Now I have to play catch-up with my schedule today because of the luxurious time spent paying attention to in-person conversations (and not my phone). Nevertheless, I want to mention a few things this morning that I think are important for all of us as we navigate our post-pandemic environment. So here goes.

In-person conferences are more engaging than virtual conferences.

Our virtual platforms have been incredibly important to our survival of this pandemic, but they do not offer anything like the experience of an in-person conference. Zoom and its equivalents are great options for meetings that are focused on particular tasks. If the meeting is too large, it isn’t great, but the capacity to move through a defined agenda is fully there. We have been able to sustain our governance on campus nicely with these tools, and I think it is probably a good idea to keep some of that in place moving forward. The opportunity for small break out groups can also be effective, when appropriate, allowing a committee and subcommittee structure to work through a specific issue. This ease of attendance (folks don’t have to drive to campus or rush between our two campuses, for example) makes this a good option.

But when we are looking for the free exchange of ideas that are less agenda driven and more exploratory, in-person is still better. We miss too many cues in Zoom. It is hard to see reactions and we can’t hear them at all, because to function well folks must be muted. So, even though we are “called on” in the in-person session, which is imitated with the raised hand features on Zoom-like platforms, the rest of the nonverbal messages are missing and the speaker(s) never know how their ideas or comments have landed in the room. The virtual experience just doesn’t compare to the live one. Ultimately, they are just a bit boring for lack of the response experience.

Physical co-presence creates better conditions for focused attention.

Let’s face it, most people are multi-tasking when they attend meetings and conferences virtually. It is just too easy to look like one is paying attention while still answering email. Our screens are places where we jump from thing to thing, often with sense of urgency that is in the medium but not the messages we consume. This means that we are necessarily giving less than our full attention to the conversation at hand.

I am not naive. Folks do this in in-person meetings as well. I mean, why else have there been so many conversations about how to manage students and their phones in class? I’ll add that I see the same problem with faculty, staff, and administrators who can’t seem to disconnect for a meeting. It is actually a pet-peeve of mine because I do put my phone away to engage in the meeting fully. Despite this, the simple fact is that it is harder to check one’s phone in the room than it is online. We have to do it surreptitiously because we know it is rude and disruptive. That feeling that we need to hide this activity encourages us to give the speaker more of our attention.

It is attention, without distractions, that can help us understand the issues and ideas important to the people present. With that attention, we might develop a thoughtful response to what we are hearing. Without that attention, we tend to miss the finer points of a debate or presentation as we move between screens. It is the meeting equivalent of skimming, and that is only good for summaries, not rich understanding.

The conversations outside the meetings are the real benefit of the in-person conference.

Although it is entirely possible for me to pop into a particular panel of interest to me at a virtual conference and learn something, what is missing most of all from these online experiences is the conversation that follows the session. Those spontaneous interactions as we pass through the halls, processing what we have heard just don’t happen in Zoom. The realization that you and a person you have just met have a shared interest in a topic, or that you and a colleague are facing a similarly complex scenario, is just harder to discover in the sequestered spaces of a virtual meeting. It is those conversations that restore our energy and re-engage our enthusiasm for our discipline, the work we do, and our colleagues.

As I catch up with the many tasks I ignored while I enjoyed those conversations with new acquaintances and long-time friends, I know I have benefitted from the time away from my desks at home and at work. I have a few new ideas, to be sure, but I also have that restored sense of community that always follows the opportunity to connect with peers in informal ways. It encourages me to think more carefully about what we are doing online and what we should bring back to campus as the year progresses. It isn’t just a set of decisions about classes, it is really everything that we do.

So, let’s not default to virtual conferences post-pandemic. It may be less expensive, and perhaps we should be selective about how often we go, but we need the away time and those great or silly conversations to inspire ideas and rekindle our spirits. And let’s not opt for Zoom meetings for everything on campus either. The efficiency of the online meeting comes at the cost of the spontaneous conversations that help us connect with each other. We can be selective about our in person experiences, but we need to gather even if it just to remind us that we are a community.

Change, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Finding that Perfect Blend

Like everyone in higher education, WCSU has worked hard to return to campus this fall. From vaccinations to health monitoring to emergency shut down guidelines, we planned for a reversal of the proportion of online vs. on-ground course offerings established last year. We were successful in this planning, with an overall in-person course schedule for undergraduates landing at 86% (last year we were 74% online.) At last our labs and performing arts are in person again and the back and forth that occurs best in the face-to-face environment is pervasive. Our graduate students are mostly online (73%), but they were already moving in that direction prior to COVID-19. Graduate students are jugglers and increasingly prefer the flexibility of online learning.

Now it is mid-semester and so far so good. Most of our students opted for vaccinations as did faculty and staff. Our testing protocols are revealing very low infection rates and there hasn’t been much in the way of objection to wearing masks while we weather the Delta variant. Our events calendar is starting to be populated with in-person experiences and, well, it almost feels like we’ve got the hang of this environment. I don’t want to tempt fate, but it feels good to have gotten to this point.

Now it is time to get on with figuring out the future of online for WCSU. As happy as we are to be back in the classroom and to see our students moving about the campus, the last year has revealed that online and hybrid opportunities should become part of our regular mix of offerings for many students, but how much, for whom, and under what circumstances? These are important questions to answer as we begin to build a post-pandemic university. Here are a few things we already know.

Our graduate programs benefit greatly from the online format.

For years, WCSU has offered a low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. Bringing students to campus for residencies twice a year has proven to be an effective way to build community and it has helped our cohorts thrive. Indeed, many of our graduates are published authors and all have found great relationships with mentors and peers to help them develop and grow as writers. Similarly, our more recent MS in Applied Behavior Analysis has been highly effective in helping students to degree completion and in passing the licensure exams, all while remaining employed. The schedule structure (year-round) allows students to complete the work relatively quickly and the constant assessment of outcomes has led to regular program modifications to support online learners effectively. The outcomes and the enrollment show us this is a strong model. Our EdD in Nursing Education has a similar tale to tell.

For many of our other graduate programs, the push to online necessitated by COVID-19 has led to an aha moment and most are going to be online going forward. Some will have residencies, like the writing program; others will include some on-campus experiences (hybrid) as part of particular teaching and learning strategies, and others are building some shared experiences that students may participate in both online and on campus. Still others will maintain the on-ground format but are considering using a few online courses as part of the overall experience. This blend solves some scheduling issues for students, making room for on-ground experiences overall. All have found that building community is important, but so is the flexibility online can bring for adult learners.

Overall, this move for graduate students appears to be to the good, but as it becomes a strategy instead of a reaction, we must not neglect the close examination of our students’ experiences – from overall learning outcomes and degree completion rates to their sense of connection to faculty and peers – so that we don’t just stop at the flip, but instead become expert in online instruction for graduate education. We have a strong foundation here, but to thrive, we’ll need to engage the literature on adult learners and refine our program assessment strategies. Luckily, we have some highly developed programs to work with and the faculty teaching in them can serve as important resources for those programs emerging post-COVID.

Our undergraduates benefit from some online learning as well.

WCSU has had some online courses peppered throughout the undergraduate curriculum for years. Largely at the lower levels (100-200), with a few high demand junior and senior level classes often offered in the summer, these courses are often great options for students who need to catch up or those managing very busy schedules. For years we have seen that these courses fill up very quickly, so there is obviously a demand for them in the student body. As we transitioned back to campus, it was clear that more students wanted online than prior to COVID-19. But how much is good for our traditional undergraduates and how do we develop a strong schedule model? Right now, we’re working on percentages, but this approach needs to driven by pedagogy, outcomes, and a detailed scheduling model.

Here are some things we know (kind of) from the last few years with online learning.

  1. Overall, students who take at least one online class in their first year have a higher retention rate than those who did not. This is intriguing, but there are many more questions to ask, particularly about the characteristics of students who opt for an online course in their first semester.
  2. Class sizes for online courses seem to have a sweet spot between 22 and 30 students. Looking at course completion details, too small seems just as bad as too big. This may inform decisions about which courses belong online. It might also suggest a look at pedagogical strategies for supporting courses outside of this range, if appropriate.
  3. Online courses are very helpful for students in highly structured programs, such as STEM, Education, Nursing, Performing Arts, and Honors students more generally. Being able to fit in a non-major course requirement provides some breathing room in their schedules. It is important, however, that these classes be asynchronous or they won’t provide that schedule relief. Do we need to consider priority scheduling for the online seats available to these students?
  4. While many students want some online, too many online courses can be, well, too much. This was particularly true for our residential students who accidently ended up with all online courses last year. It was also true for the many students who found it necessary to drop courses to make it through a mostly online semester. We need to understand how different types of learners navigate the demands of online learning. We also need to understand how this might change at different points in a student’s educational experience. There are answers to these question, but we need to do the work and arrive at a clear strategy.
  5. Some amount of consistency in the online learning environment is warranted. While the many pedagogical approaches employed by faculty are part of the joy of the higher education environment, the many log in and navigation experiences for students were a confusing headache. Getting the right blend of offerings must include consideration of learning platforms, orientation practices, and some uniformity of the first steps in getting “to” our online courses.

Although there are more questions than answers right now, last year’s naturally occurring experiment is filled with good lessons, providing us with clues about where to start. In addition, research in online education is mature enough to suggest some maps for how to proceed, even if it wasn’t fully developed for blended environments. Most of all, our community is fully immersed in the online experience now, so we’ve got a lot of expertise right here to help us learn. Now it’s all about bringing that knowledge together and looking to the future.

How wonderful to be in a moment when we can start this conversation. It feels like the beginning of something exciting, instead of the triage of the last year. Hooray. I’m ready to dive in.

Engagement, Higher Education

Engaging the “Why”?

This morning, I read with interest “In Defense of Disinterested Knowledge” by Justin Sider. His essay chafes at the recent over emphasis on connecting the ideas and disciplines in higher education to political goals/social action. He argues that this propensity for tying disciplines to, well, outcomes beyond the university, provides a narrow lens that undermines the value of higher education as a whole. Ultimately, he argues that this lens has become a convenient tool for administrators to use in justifying program cuts or elimination. I stand accused.

I agree with Sider on several points. First, not every course needs to address the current sensibilities of our culture. Second, reducing all that we study to a direct (political) consequence is antithetical to the very idea of a university education. He summarizes this here:

Our students deserve to find themselves in whatever subjects, authors, texts, and ideas they may light on during our time together. That’s the great promise of higher education, especially public higher education, and there’s no predicting beforehand what concerns students will take as their own — just as we ourselves chose our own disciplines and fields. The attempt to make all scholarship accountable to the political exigencies of the moment removes that freedom.

I couldn’t agree more. Universities should provide room for the serendipitous experiences that provide the possibility of enlightenment and engagement in any area. Not everything we do should connect to a career or political action. To reduce education in this way would miss the point of the holistic that is an undergraduate degree. To be clear, I mean a liberal arts degree, with the idea of breadth built into its design. Indeed, when we narrow these opportunities, we inadvertently narrow the chances for our students to stumble upon an insight or a passion that was wholly unfamiliar to them at the start. Without these possibilities, the notion of a liberal arts degree is undermined.

Where I disagree with Sider is in two important areas. The first is in his assertion that administrators are taking advantage of this trend in linking degrees to “political exigencies” or even to careers and using it as a tool for course or program elimination. Not really. We are just as likely to be horrified by a program closure as faculty. We are, however, terribly concerned with enrollments because the health of the university depends on enrollments overall. Most of us do not have large endowments to tide us over when enrollments slide. We are directly impacted by missing our recruiting and retention goals, leaving us to make tough decisions about staffing in all areas of the university, including faculty. When a department has persistent low-enrolled classes, questions about the better investment to sustain the whole become paramount. Sometimes that can lead to program closures.

Recently, our campus closed four programs – two in STEM disciplines and two in humanities disciplines. All of them had long histories of low-enrollment in the major. In closing them, we lost no faculty; they are all still actively engaged in teaching in their disciplines. We simply made room for other areas of focus that seem to better speak to the students we are serving right now. Indeed, we have opened more new programs than we have closed.

But there is more to this story because I believe one of those degrees could have been saved had we come to an agreement about how to reposition it. I do not think that everything needs to be connected to a particular career, nor do I think everything should have a direct political or practical outcome. I do believe that we must be able to communicate the value of the curricula we offer and that communication needs to engage the students we are serving right now. Unfortunately, in this case, that did not happen.

This leads to my second disagreement with Sider. There is a difference between treating our students as consumers and trying to understand how to engage their sensibilities. Careers and politics are just two of the ways that we can appeal to our students right now. The career focus responds to important questions about return on investment. We cost a lot of money, even at public universities, and students and families want to know whether that investment will pay off. Career opportunities are one of the answers to that question. Politics and social change are also compelling for some (but by no means all) students. The desire to do some good in the world is a powerful argument for education. It is inspiring and empowering and may drive enrollment in some majors.

But what are the other arguments for what we do? We need to develop arguments for the “disinterested knowledge” that Sider celebrates. I know this seems counter to the wander through education that many of us enjoyed on our way to careers in higher education, but the students we are serving are not us. We are removed from their sensibilities in at least three ways:

1. They grew up after us and experienced different things – technologically, politically, environmentally, culturally. This means they are interested in different things.

2. Students coming to us right now have heard endless stories about debt and are less willing to just risk it and trust that the value will emerge.

3. Not all of them are curious about a breadth of ideas. This is not because they are a different generation, lots of our peers were not that curious either. It is because we were particularly interested- you know, kind of nerdy – hence we went into higher education.

These differences in our experiences and expectations seem to be driving our students to ask the question “why” – why should they value what we value? The question is reflected in their enrollment decisions. We need to give them some answers.

There are more cases to be made for the many disciplines and ideas explored at a university than simply linking everything to careers and political exigency. We might make a case for the value of understanding context, or the benefits of connecting ideas across the curriculum, or even for the joy of discovering new things. We can’t just say it though, we’ll have to show it, but I know we can. The why of what we do can be found in a million places, and honestly, I don’t think it is too much to ask that we provide that explanation. Doing so might just save us from our enrollment challenges. It might also lead our students on a journey through the very questions that might appear superfluous to them right now. If we give them a little help in understanding the why, they might just get interested in that “disinterested knowledge” after all.