Higher Education, Thinking

Focusing on the Mission

It is nearly mid-January and we are preparing to launch the spring semester. Still juggling the ever-changing environment of the pandemic, we start with uncertainty — as we have for the last two years. The Omicron variant is an unwelcome wrinkle to say the least, but the protections we have used to maintain a reasonable level of safety on our campus remain the same: strongly encourage vaccinations, require masks, provide access to testing, and encourage everyone to stay home if they feel sick. Indeed, the only real change in CDC guidelines of late has been around the length of quarantine. We’re sorting that out, for the residential students in particular, and emphasizing the need to wear well-fitting masks. In three semesters of working in a COVID-19 environment, masks and monitoring infection rates have proved effective, with limited spread in the residence halls and none in the classroom. So, we face uncertainty to be sure, but a stable uncertainty at this point.

It would be easy for this new variant to steal our focus this semester. We’ve grown accustomed to emergency meetings and conversations about what to do next. But I think it is important to acknowledge that without a change in the guidelines, based on solid scientific evidence, there really is nothing left to discuss. So, while we wait for new information from credible scientists, I’m more interested in focusing on what we hope to accomplish with our students this semester. I’m starting with a look at our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

I love this simple yet profound statement. Changing lives is an exhilarating goal. It speaks to our commitment to the power of learning, recognizing that higher education creates paths to new professional opportunities, supports the development of new understandings of how the world is organized, challenges ideas about what constitutes evidence, and even fosters the growth of new friendships. For our first-generation students, education may provide a step toward a new socio-economic status and all that entails. For our students whose parents and grandparents attended college, their attendance expresses a continued commitment to the importance of education in shaping worldviews and futures. What a privilege to be part of this journey, as we simultaneously open our students’ eyes to new ideas and have them open ours to their experiences and perspectives.

Then there is our commitment to access as we strive to provide “all students with a high quality education.” This is a tremendous responsibility. It requires focused attention on the varied needs of the students we admit to our university. To truly serve all of them, we need to keep a keen eye on our data, in the aggregate and in the details. For our undergraduates, this has meant attention to the details of our retention and graduation rates. Over the last several years, we have worked hard to differentiate what I call the on-ramps for our students. This is the result of unflinching analysis of who we lose. In response to our data, and looking at strategies that have worked elsewhere, we have transformed our education access program, added a peer mentor program, included FY in the general education curriculum, and grown our honors program. Analysis of these efforts is positive (some better retention and graduation rates), but it is not good enough yet. We will continue to evaluate the results, looking for the next clue to student success and modify these efforts accordingly. The clues are readily available, but we must act on them.

At the graduate level, we have responded to student interest in programs that advance their careers. From transforming existing degrees to better align with career prospects, to developing new degrees that meet emerging needs and opportunities in the region, our portfolio of graduate degrees has evolved to appeal to the students we hope to serve. Most recently, much of graduate education has moved online, first due to the pandemic and then in response to the needs of working adults. We need to offer them more flexible opportunities as they juggle jobs and families. We want to meet them where they are. We want to serve all students. This, too, arose from detailed looks at data, including enrollment patterns, student feedback to our programs, and analysis of regional workforce needs. While this approach to curriculum may feel a bit more career focused and less idea focused than we like to imagine, I remind myself that graduate education has nearly always been about careers (advanced credentials or the path to a doctorate) and it has never been devoid of ideas. We are serving our students well in this regard.

What next? Well, on the path to any of our degrees, I am confident that all students will grow as individuals and scholars. It is less clear if we’ve created enough opportunities for professional growth at the undergraduate level and I’m not sure we’ve truly focused on cultivating leaders. Mind you, I think there are pieces of both woven throughout our majors and our co-curricular experiences, but I’m not sure our students can see it. I’m also not sure we’re specific enough. Since we’ve taken the time to identify all of these areas for growth in our mission, it is probably a good time to make sure that we are truly working toward them in a clear and coherent way. I’ll be taking a closer look at this aspect of our mission in the months to come.

Yes, the mission is where I will turn my attention this spring. It offers such clarity, reminding me of our purpose, and erasing the hundred other unproductive distractions that claim my attention daily. Our mission is necessarily broad and open to many nuanced steps (some of which are outlined in our strategic plan), but it is also really quite direct. It drives us to these simple and important questions:

  • Are we providing all students access to that high quality education?
  • Does that high-quality education create opportunities for growth as individual, scholars, professionals, and leaders?
  • As a result, are lives changed? And of course, that most vexing of questions of all:
  • How do we know?

I look forward to exploring these questions this spring. I am certain my colleagues will have plenty of answers to them.

Welcome back, everyone.

Higher Education, Resilience, Thinking

What have you learned?

We’re speeding toward final exams, papers, and performances at a breathless pace. The Thanksgiving holiday always ends with that terrifying thought that we’re almost done and now what? Students are scrambling to catch up on the things they missed earlier, while juggling the remaining assignments and exam preparation. Faculty are wondering how they will complete the goals they set out for their classes and if it is possible to live up to their own aspirations. Administrators like me are wondering how it is possible that my to-do list is longer than it was at the start of the semester. Whew!

Well the good news is we always seem to make it to that finish line one way or another. The interesting news is that for most of us it was another. Clearly our planning processes are open to re-interpretation. Maybe that is a good thing. So, as I reflect on all that has occurred since classes began in late August, I am thinking about that simple question: What have you learned?

My husband once told me that when he was an undergraduate one of his professors asked only this question on the final. He says it was the most challenging exam he ever had. Being able to sum up all of your knowledge from one course in an essay addressing such an open-ended question can be truly daunting. Where are the essay prompts directing us to address specific details? Where are the multiple-choice questions that limit my thinking to which answer is correct? Where is the list of core concepts from which I choose my favorite and show off what I’ve learned about that one thing? What have I learned? That is just too much.

Or maybe we could have fun with this approach. It might free us from preconceived notions about what our students should have learned, letting us open our ears to what they really gleaned from our courses. It might show us how they have prioritized the course content, giving us clues about what went well and what did not. It might even help with course design next semester. I know, it doesn’t really work for everything. Sometimes there are very specific things that students must master by the end of the semester. Still, in some instances this could be a great question.

But, I’m not advocating for anything in particular today. Just thinking. For me, I’m considering what I have learned from my list of projects this fall. You see I had a long list of things to work on and almost none of them are complete. In some cases, this is because my list was problematic, and I was working on the wrong thing. In others it was because the scale of the job was larger than I’d hoped. And, of course, in several cases other priorities emerged. So, what have I learned?

First, I’ve learned that managing during a pandemic that appears to be under control is only slightly less exhausting than when we had no idea what would happen next. We started the fall pressing for vaccinations and hoping for normalcy only to encounter Delta. We did well, but just as I was getting optimistic about an even more normal spring, Omicron appeared. I guess, from this I must learn not to predict more than two or three weeks into the future. That sure makes it hard to plan things!

Second, I’ve learned that simple tasks have a way of turning into giant, multifaceted projects if I don’t continuously rein them in. This is, of course, the nature of the academic mind. We see the connections from one idea to the next, never wanting to settle on the narrow focus. This is wonderful in so many ways, and it can keep me from ignoring critical variables, but at some point this habit of expansive thinking is a way of avoiding decisions. In this case, I’ve learned to try to limit the number of variables to be considered in any project that I’d like to see completed. Note the word try. I might not be able to do this.

Third, I’ve learned that really good conversations are still better in person than on Zoom. I don’t hate this technology. I find it valuable for all sorts of quick, problem solving, task-oriented meetings. Remote meetings allow me to schedule more check-in meetings that are not too taxing for those involved. In other words, if I don’t have to ask folks to come to my office, it is easier to fit in a quick chat. Nevertheless, the tough stuff, the complicated stuff is still better in person. It takes time, trust, and focus to really uncover where things are going right and where they are going wrong. Somehow, being in the same room makes this more likely to happen than online.

Finally, I’ve learned that, as stressful as the world still is, good educational experiences remain at the heart of what is going on at WCSU. Faculty are starting to tell me about the clever ways that they modified their courses to deal with gaps in learning from last year (yes, there were gaps). Students have reported great support as they navigated a COVID scare or two. Activities on our curriculum committees show that departments are fully engaged in reviewing and updating their offerings to better support the goals they have for their students. We even have some new programs moving forward. In a climate where we might just tread water and wait out the chaos, people are actively working to make new things happen.

There is a lot more, of course. If there wasn’t my to-do list would not have gotten longer. But I am inspired from the lessons learned and more so by the great things that are actually getting done. So, let’s think of this race to the finish line as a sled ride and just say wheee!

Higher Education

What are Schools For?

It seems that I come around to this topic at least once every 6 months. The prevailing economic conditions, political priorities, and evolving learning environments provoke questions that are at the heart of what education should or could be at this moment in history. As I peruse the higher ed news I see rich debates on social justice, modes of instruction, and the value of education. As my mind tries to sort it all out, I find myself reaching back to the work of Dr. Henry Perkinson who taught one of the best classes in my doctoral program: Readings in the History of Western Thought: What are Schools For? It’s time to revisit this question once again.

To start, it seems prudent to acknowledge that the answer to the question What are schools for? depends on which students we hope to serve. As provost at an access-oriented public university, the answer is clear – we exist to serve any student who is striving for the advantages that a college education can bring. Those advantages are related to social and economic opportunities and the ability to live a fulfilling life. All of our efforts then, should focus on making these advantages real for our students. But how do these advantages connect with the debates surrounding social justice, instructional formats, and the value of education? Quite directly. Let me explore them one-by-one.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the topic of social justice? Profound. One cannot be transformed by education if there is no opportunity to explore the history of ideas that underpin our social structures and the ways in which those ideas have changed and grown over time. As soon as we ask ourselves questions about how our world is organized now, and how we got here, we have entered a conversation about social justice. There are no stories untouched by bias, and it will be ever so. Each new discovery reveals another thing, place, or person we forgot to consider or actively excluded. We will always be finding those gaps or blind spots or exclusions and grappling with their consequences. It does not seem possible to teach anything without touching on social justice; it is embedded in all we do.

Our students need multiple opportunities to see how the past is connected to present in all disciplines, examining our best and worst ideas, and the impetus for change. They need learning environments that allow them to grapple with difficult concepts, the impact of discoveries large and small, and, yes, the gaps in narratives that have excluded some voices in favor of others. They need the chance to argue about these topics in contexts that demand extended thought instead of snap judgements, evaluation of evidence from multiple sources, and honest consideration of conflicting points of view. They also need the opportunity to practice these conversations with both passion and diplomacy. Without these opportunities, we will fail to give our students the chance to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for navigating social and economic decisions that support a fulfilling life. Yes, the obligation to think about social justice is strong.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the exploration of our teaching practices and modalities? Unrelenting. These questions directly reflect our mission. We cannot change lives if our students don’t understand our goals or our expectations, or if we persist with methods of instruction that have a demonstrably negative impact on the equitable distribution of success. We should be obsessed with the literature on instructional design in any modality. We should be engaged with the research on non-cognitive variables and their outsized impact on our first-generation college students. We should be exploring ideas about course design that help our students draw connections between the learning in the classroom and the world in which they live.

Our faculty need multiple opportunities to experiment with instructional design. They need opportunities to engage the research on how students are learning and to try out new ideas. This means that those efforts need to be recognized as valuable to their career trajectory. We need to think about the kinds of supports we should give to new faculty to encourage attention to pedagogy. This might be a smaller teaching load and some professional development opportunities. It might also mean some relief from research expectations in the first few years. We also need to think about how to continue that engagement with pedagogy over the arc of a career, perhaps building in some periodic reductions in teaching loads to spend some time testing out a new approach. It isn’t that complicated, but we should be thinking about how to systematically support faculty development in instructional design as part of our understanding of their roles and responsibilities at the university.

Strong engagement with the research on pedagogy and instructional design is essential for a university like this one. It is the best path to supporting the diversity of learners we embrace in our mission. It is also the best path to improving student success rates, which translates into improved opinions of our value. This is the work of investment and engagement, not economic efficiency. Focusing on great instructional design keeps our attention on great learning experiences that don’t short-change students at access-oriented universities.

So, what are schools for? Or should I say, what are public, access-oriented universities for? We exist to serve any student who wants the advantages that a college education can bring. How do we help them access those advantages? First, by creating learning environments that are informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning and then being obsessed with finding better ways to invite students to engage difficult material and explore ideas. Second, by insisting on placing all that we know in context, the good and the bad of it all, so that our students leave us informed about the complexities of our world and prepared to engage those complexities honestly and fearlessly. That is our purpose; that is our value.

Engagement, Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Collegiality and Happiness

Over the past two weeks, I have hosted and/or participated in four different gatherings with students, faculty, and staff. We were trying solve problems, develop plans, and improve infrastructure and, well, to be better. After the year of Zoom meetings, it was fun to be in the room with colleagues, listening to ideas and working together to figure out what to do next. Preparing for these meetings took effort, but being in them was a joy. I am grateful to the many who participated and feel energized about the work ahead. Thanks everyone!

It seemed serendipitous, then, when I discovered an interesting essay about collegiality in Inside Higher Ed. Michael Weisbach argues that being a good colleague can benefit both the university and the person. He writes:

To be a good colleague, you must find some productive way to contribute that goes beyond your direct job description. By doing so, you will benefit your co-workers and the organization you work for. But equally importantly, you will benefit yourself. Your colleagues will appreciate you more, your evaluations will improve and you will most likely enjoy your profession more. (In Praise of Academic Collegiality, Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2021).

I had two thoughts: 1. More? You want more from all of the over-taxed people who work with me?! 2. Maybe it isn’t the more, but the ongoing interaction that really defines collegiality.

Higher education is filled with work that is often invisible to the world outside of our (not so ivy-covered) walls. The work that most people associate with us is that of direct instruction in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). When looked at as a simple number of hours “at work” this looks like a pretty light load. At schools like WCSU, this means 12ish hours per week. The ish in my statement reflects the variability of this formula when we consider different types of classes–studios, labs, clinical placements–which may increase those hours. Still, even after those adjustments life looks pretty good. Except the work is way more than that. Faculty are also grading papers, preparing instructional materials, staying current in their field, which should also be regularly incorporated into their teaching (read new instructional materials). Oh, and they conduct research, attend/present at conferences, advise students, mentor scholarship–and this is just the stuff related to their actual job descriptions.

Right after the list above is the rest of it, which is not just faculty but everyone else at the university. We are an institution committed to peer review and shared governance. This means there are committees for everything from evaluations of personnel to the development and/or closure of academic programs, to the evaluation of co-curricular programs or student support services, to discussions about campus master plans or strategic plans. We also believe in the wisdom of our community and regularly see initiatives emerge from small groups with big ideas and these also require time and effort and evaluation. Each of these things happen regularly (weekly, monthly, and so on). We have no trouble identifying the hundred ways that the entire community “adds value…beyond the specified requirements of the job.”

So, the first part of what Weisbach discusses — looking for opportunities contribute beyond job requirements — is just a given of life in higher education. Indeed, the larger concern is how to keep those opportunities from overwhelming us. It is very easy to do too much and undermine some of one’s core job requirements. National data suggests that this overdoing often ends up disproportionately impacting women and colleagues from under-represented groups, which is an ongoing concern. Add to that the reality that those who volunteer to lead committees tend to become the go-to people for other projects, thus overburdening them in general, and we have a situation that needs to be thoughtfully monitored for equity and health.

Nevertheless, there are two other pieces of the essay that I think are incredibly valuable for thinking about collegiality on our campus. The first is his observation that while some people demonstrate collegiality in their willingness to take on committee or project leadership roles, or by participating in social gatherings or campus events, for others it takes the form of less visible action. Perhaps a colleague shares teaching materials or offers to talk about how they approach a topic with another faculty member. Maybe a person makes it a point to share information about grant opportunities with a colleague whose work is in a relevant area. Maybe a person reaches out to a colleague in a very different kind of role to talk about improving a process for students or colleagues, initiating a productive examination of where improvements could be achieved. Sometimes a person might just pass on positive comments they’ve heard about a colleague’s work. All of these examples, and the many more that take place every day, need to be acknowledged as the actions that contribute to a collegial environment.

The second important observation is that the actions we take to be collegial can also make us feel good about the work that we do. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing raises the spirits more than the feeling that we have had a positive impact on other people. Each time we reach out to help, to offer suggestions, and even to ask for input, we are building our sense of community and feeling more engaged with our colleagues. As frustrated as we may be now and then with a process or an individual, the ongoing commitment to having a positive impact is the best path to getting past those disheartening moments and feeling hopeful again.

It is not just the big projects that demonstrate collegiality, those smaller day-to-day interactions may matter most. They help connect us and they demonstrate a commitment to creating a great university. There is room for each of us to define the boundaries of those interactions; we don’t all have to contribute in the same way. But I think that we all benefit from the contact and the conversation that collegial interactions can bring. So, I’m thinking about how to foster that sense of happiness and common purpose that a collegial community can create. I promise not to create a task force, but I will be on the lookout for small actions and ideas.

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.