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.

Higher Education, Hope

The Magic of We

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I was very involved in all things music. I played flute in the band and in the pep band for football games. I was a mediocre flute player, but I loved being involved in it all. I also sang in everything – the madrigal singers, the chorus, and in the musicals. Part of all this activity meant auditioning for county and state choruses. I was a better singer than flute player, so I was routinely selected for these elite choral groups. What a lucky thing to go to a regular public school, not in a wealthy neighborhood, and have all of this available! But I digress.

Today, I am remembering a moment in All County Chorus when we were rehearsing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. We had been struggling to find our parts all morning, but finally we had it. We hit a particularly beautiful and robust chord and the conductor burst into tears. Since we were a bunch of awkward teenagers, he was quick to reassure us that they were tears of joy. There are moments when a particularly resonant note can send chills up the spine and move a person to weep. I understood him immediately. It happens to me all the time.

So, here we are at the start of a new academic year, and we are inching our way back to campus after a long year of remote, hybrid, and limited in person learning. I am very proud of all we accomplished last year. Students, faculty, and staff all worked valiantly through so much uncertainty and so many frustrations, navigating new technology and re-imagining ways to connect with our students. Some things were stellar, some just barely adequate, but everyone tried hard and learning continued. Most of all, everyone was kind. But we were also unsatisfied, so here we are, trying to return to something like a normal college environment.

Well, it is worth wondering why we are so eager to return. After all, the tools of instruction, with practice, do become easier to manage. The pedagogical innovations that online (and hybrid) learning offer are more fun as we have time to engage them repeatedly. Indeed, after the giant learning curve of moving all instruction online, we have the luxury of repetition to help us feel more in control of the environment. This is really a lot like what we do in the classroom. Teaching starts as a terrifying plunge, but with repetition, we develop our skills and learn how to play with learning. Online instruction turns out to be a nice component of the learning environments available to us.

We also learned that a lot of our processes are better online. Bureaucratic processes like registration, bill paying, and signing contracts are simpler in electronic format. It is also true that, for many of our students, tutoring support is better online. It is just easier to arrange schedules when you can meet virtually and the tools allow direct interaction, rather than back and forth of email. It isn’t good for everyone, but it is good for a lot of students. Students and faculty are finding that having the flexibility of online office hours is also a benefit. Again, not for everything and everyone, but we should keep some of that available. Yes, this being forced to move online has improved access to services and support in important ways.

But all in all, we were still missing something. We did our best to have guest lectures and workshops and presentations all year. People attended, people asked questions, and there was convenience to all of that. Still we missed the ease of the back and forth that happens when we’re in the room together. It’s that corner of your eye motion that clues you in to a question unasked or a comment unspoken that is just hard to spot on Zoom.

Performances, art shows, honors ceremonies, and Western Research Day all took place, but let’s face it, we all missed a little direct applause. In one instance the faculty hosting an awards ceremony tried to put some applause into the mix – a nice effort and we all enjoyed it – but it’s just not the same. Little boxes on screens just don’t make us feel like we are all together.

So, we’re making the effort to return to campus while still managing some uncertainty. Things are much better than they were last year, of course, and we’ve gotten very good at our safety protocols, but it is not quite normal, and we will be working hard. So, why are we doing it? Because we miss the We.

The We inspires us, connects us, and makes us feel alive. No matter how technologically advanced we get, there is still something magical about shared spaces and the immediacy of responses when we are together. Being together helps us feel alive; it helps us know that we exist. It isn’t about the measurable or the possible or the practical. It is about the excitement we feel when we start to understand something together. It is the feeling of exhilaration when we’re all in the same room celebrating the success of a colleague. It is even the aggravation of being stymied together and throwing up our hands in knowing despair.

The We tells us we are alive and it gives us meaning. It evokes a feeling of commonality and basic humanity. The We is magic. Let’s face it, magic is a necessary ingredient for education and for our lives. So, as I begin to make the rounds of welcoming everyone back, I won’t be surprised if, like that conductor so many years ago, I burst into tears. The magic of We is my perfect chord.

Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Dream Big

At the end of this year-and-a-half long effort to create great educational experiences in the face of a global pandemic, it is easy to get too focused on triage instead of big ideas. We have all been busy monitoring COVID cases and becoming experts in contact tracing. We’ve been transforming student support to try to reach out to students who are drowning in the online environment. Faculty have been trying hard to reshape their teaching strategies for online and hybrid modalities, all the while worrying about the learning taking place and the missing interactions that take place in the normal classroom settings. We’re developing strategies to encourage our students to get vaccinated and wondering if we’ll ever get to remove our masks. And, of course, we are all worried about surviving the fiscal challenges that we face due to this disaster because we know it will take multiple years to get back to normal enrollment patterns. In short, we have a lot on our collective minds.

While every single detail matters, when we stay too long in the slog of managing those details, there is a tendency to reduce our dreams to the immediate future. Well, consider this a reminder to step back, look up from the spreadsheets and grading, and take a moment to dream big.

I’m thinking today about the graduates that I will greet next weekend. They have had a heck of a finish to their education. They have attended to the details necessary to complete their programs in less that optimal ways. I am proud of them for getting to this point under these unique conditions. They are now facing a world of work that is strange to say the least. It would be a normal reaction to feel despair in the face of so much uncertainty. It would also be normal to limit the scope of one’s job search to safe bets, nearby things, and the less than ambiguous, just to mitigate all of that uncertainty. But I urge them not to do so.

Now is the time for our graduates to dream big. It is time to think clearly about what a good life looks like, what a rewarding career looks like, and what contributions to the world might be possible. This is a time to reflect on one’s values and align one’s goals with those values. It is time to think about the arc of one’s life and some long range goals. This will make that job search more rewarding and fruitful. It may be that the first post-college job is not a big step up from the work done to pay the bills during college. That’s fine. But make sure that the next job has something for you to learn on your path to your bigger dreams. In short, aim for the most that you want, not the least, and build a plan accordingly.

For my colleagues at WCSU, we need to heed the same advice. We have worked so hard this past year just to survive this crisis. The work has made me very proud. Faculty have reimagined pedagogy, experimented with new technologies, and kept the struggles of their students foremost in their minds. Our Information Technology team and Instructional Designers have continuously supported faculty and students as they’ve navigated new tools and connectivity. Student Affairs has worked hard to develop a semblance of student life in this virtual context and invested in more mental health support because it was so desperately needed. Athletics has managed to achieve some big wins, even with such limited opportunities to compete. Yes, we’ve done an excellent job of triage.

But we are going to face a few more years of challenges because of COVID-19 and the continued drop in high school graduates in New England. It would be normal to look at our chances to recover as something that can be managed by small cuts and status quo behaviors. That won’t work anymore. It is time to think clearly about what we want to look like in five years and in ten years. What does a great university look like for the students we serve and the communities that depend on us? How should we evolve to achieve that greatness? What steps do we need to take to feel that our work is rewarding and exciting? What contributions to the world do we want to make and how should we organize ourselves to get there? It may be that the next year or two of working toward this great university might feel mired in minutia and even more triage, but if we are working toward greatness together, it will be purposeful triage that can inspire us, rather than drag us down.

Yes, as we come to the end point of our academic-year and finish up reports, grades, and the usual closing of the year details, it is important to rekindle the capacity for big dreams. It is the dreams that make room for good ideas and inspire us to continue re-imagining all that we do. They give us hope when we need it the most and they are the start of any good plan. Let’s lift up our heads from the day-to-day and take the time to dream big. We owe it to ourselves and I know that good things will come of it.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Educational Equity: The American Families Plan

In President Biden’s American Families Plan, he proposes increasing free education by four years (2 in pre-school, 2 in community college) and increasing college affordability by raising the maximum Pell Grants by $1,400. Halleluiah! As our nation rebuilds for a post-COVID world, I am thrilled to see so much attention given to that oh so necessary component of our economy, education. It is clear that Biden and his team recognize that access to education is one of the most important equity issues in America.

Equity in the pre-K world is essential and we have long known that students who have access to quality pre-K options do better than those who do not. Starting with the need for lots of interaction so that the right paths in the brains are developed to the muscles developed when holding crayons to the social skills like sharing, taking turns, and playing together, pre-school is just wonderful for child development. We have long understood the benefits of this investment as we supported Head Start for low-income families and pre-K for students who have identified learning needs. But access to Pre-K is inconsistent and the quality of programs varies. Putting pre-K into our assumptions about what public education means can invigorate conversations about what pre-school should be and how it might align with the larger goals of K-12. So, yes, pre-K for everyone. Let’s take the leap.

Free community college is great, too. There are very few careers that do not rely on some education beyond K-12. Yet, access to education, even at the reduced costs of most community college systems, can be elusive for many families. Here in Connecticut our community colleges offer a variety of straight to career options, advanced manufacturing and RN degrees, for example. They also provide lots of support for English Language Learners, which is vital for students and the state. And, most important for my university, they provide a pathway to the four-year degree. Like many states, we have worked on Transfer Articulation Pathways (TAP) to ensure that students who start in community college can move on to the four-year degree without having to backtrack on various degree requirements. This important effort is benefitting students throughout Connecticut.

If you dig in further, you’ll also note that Biden’s plan reflects a much more informed understanding of higher education than we’ve seen in, well ever. Perhaps it is the influence of Dr. Jill Biden, but someone is finally reading the data and realizing that the way we have been evaluating university outcomes incentivizes creating more barriers to entry instead of improving support for the many students interested in striving for an undergraduate degree. It is easy to have great retention and graduation rates (and therefore rise in the rankings) if you simply do not admit students who may need support beyond financial aid. Those of us who have been supporting students who have those needs know this only too well. We’ve been ignored or punished for years, by way of inadequate funding and low rankings, while we strive to meet these needs and make access to public education a reality for the many, not just the few. We try to squeeze retention efforts into our existing budgets, often sacrificing other university needs or underfunding these programs. So, I was thrilled to see that 62 million dollars in the plan is being focused on retention and degree completion. This must be what the world looks like when we actually commit to equity in education.

Finally, the new plan will increase Pell, $1,400. This is long overdue, of course. Pell has not increased at anywhere near the pace of the cost of education. Students from families of limited means desperately need these funds to keep them from having to skip college or, worse, try to succeed while working three jobs. While I am proud of our students who are managing this juggle, too much work often leads to slower progress to degree completion, which just costs more money in the end. Sufficient funding at the start is a much better approach.

As thrilled as I am with all of this, though, there is just one more piece that I’d like to see. For public universities, the cost of education has increased because our fixed costs have risen. This is just normal living wages for those who work in higher ed and the cost of maintaining our facilities – not extravagant salaries and lazy rivers. As those costs have risen, our state appropriations have not kept pace, and we have had no choice but to raise tuition. I want to be clear; we are not doing a lot of “nice to have” things. We are simply supporting quality educational experiences, aligned with the expectations of regional and specialized accrediting bodies. We are working hard to be as efficient as possible, but education is a labor-intensive endeavor and you just can’t job it out to packaged learning products. The ever-increasing costs of tuition at public universities is making higher education a stretch for the middle class, not just low-income families.

So, here’s the ask– let’s fund the state universities enough so that we do not exceed $10,000 a year in tuition and fees. It is true we’ll still have to charge another $10-12,000 for residential experiences, but for the many (majority) who commute to our campuses, this cap will mean a cap on the debt they will acquire as they piece together their contributions and some student loans. It is still a lot of money, but even if a student needed loans for all of it, the earnings benefit from completing their degrees would make this manageable. I don’t love it, but it is so much better than the endless creeping up of tuition and fee costs for students.

What is invisible in the funding of free community college is the way that it disrupts the four-year economic model. There is just no way for us to keep our costs low and take the enrollment hits as students opt for the free two years. Add to that shifting demographics and the fact that state colleges and universities are increasingly tuition dependent as the percentage of our funding from the state has dropped, and you can see the extent of the strain we are feeling. The entire mess is leading to the reality that we will need to reduce the number of programs we offer and keep raising our costs. This does not further educational equity.

So, let’s re-write the way we fund four-year state colleges and universities. Instead of just looking at the number of students enrolled, let’s add keeping tuition and fees to $10,000 to the formula. We will have to increase the percentage of state funding to meet this target. I know that this is difficult for our elected officials who manage many constituent opinions about education, but if we talk about the benefits to all families and to the state economy, I think it just isn’t that tough a sell. While we’re at it, align the maximum Pell with that tuition number so all students can choose two- or four-year programs from the start. It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. Or we could go ahead and make the four-year universities free, too. But I’m guessing that’s too much to dream of at this time.