equity, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality, Technology

COVID-19: Lessons Learned Round I

Final exams are underway, we are preparing our virtual commencement messages (to be followed up with a live event in the fall) and the rush to declare classes pass/fail is over.  Believe it or not, we are at the finish line for spring 2020 disrupted.  Discussions about fall have begun, but before we get to that, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from this pandemic so far.  In reverse order, here are my top three lessons learned.

Lesson 3: We were not prepared for this.  

Well, “how could we be,” you say?  “This is new for everyone.” Yes, but we could have done better if we were not in the habit of thinking short-term.

We consider emergency scenarios all the time. From devastating storms to campus lockdowns to fast moving illnesses, all of higher education has worked hard to prepare for the worst.  And we have been through many of these things at WCSU.  Since I arrived at WCSU in 2012, there have been two major October storms that made campus largely uninhabitable for a week.  We had to pause.  We had a tornado (a micro-burst) that did much the same.  There have been water main breaks and heavy snow seasons and so on, and each time, well things mostly just stopped.

That is not preparation–that is closing Yet, we had the technology available for continuity of instruction all along. In this new normal, where the possibility of closing could recur multiple times in the next year (I’m sorry, but that seems likely given the spikes associated with reopening), we should be truly prepared for moving online.

Taking the opportunity to learn about online instruction must become a regular part of the life of a faculty member. Unless one’s career is fully devoted to research, with no expectation of teaching, this is as important as keeping up with new developments in one’s discipline. We don’t all have to be experts, but every university must establish basic guidelines on course design that are the minimum, and every faculty member should know how to meet that minimum. Every course should be developed to meet those minimum standards as a routine practice.

In other words, when we write a syllabus, develop schedule, and select course materials, we should then put it all in whatever learning management system the university uses, as routinely as we used to make copies to hand out in class.  It cannot be acceptable to just stop instruction whenever it snows or rains or any flu rages.  Unless the power goes out, we should be ready to teach. That is prepared.

Lesson 2: We have an equity issue.

Prior to COVID-19, we were content to let our neediest students depend on our computer labs and libraries to fully participate in their education.  What a ridiculous state of affairs that was.  Those same students are the most likely to have work schedules that keep them from being available when those spaces are open.  This is just a “duh” moment folks.  One cannot fully participate in higher education without a laptop and access to the internet.

When we all became tech crazed, private colleges and universities did things like give all first year students a laptop.  It was really a publicity stunt for them, because most of their students can afford to bring their own. We never thought it was within our means to do this in public higher ed.  Guess what, this must be a minimum standard for all of our students.  It is not just about moving to online in an emergency: it is about full access to one’s education and all students deserve it.  It is time to right this wrong and provide those minimum tools to all students.

Lesson 1: Online Education Sucks!

We have known it all along, of course, but this experience confirms it. There is just nothing like the immediacy of face-to-face learning in a shared space. Online learning is ok for graduate programs that serve working adults. It is okay for the odd undergraduate class as an alternative learning experience, and because, well, it gives some schedule flexibility.  We push it for returning adult learners because they are usually juggling other things. Do you see the theme here? Online education makes room for education for those who are trying to fit it in with other things.  It is not an opportunity to immerse oneself in education that a more traditional approach allows.

I want to be clear, there can be wonderful online learning experiences. Good course design and a passionate instructor can truly engage students and help them grow.  In fact, I have taught online and felt fully connected to my students. The kind of organizing required to do good online teaching actually improved my on-ground teaching as well, because if forced me to be a much more careful planner and to really think developmentally. So, online has its place and preparing for online teaching is a good practice.

I also think that the use of hybrid instruction can very much benefit all students.  It gives students multiple ways of encountering the course material, which is central principle of universal design. Shy students often shine online, and many students develop skills as independent learners in this environment. There are even good opportunities for collaboration online that are sometimes difficult for students to achieve face-to-face. Using online to enhance an on-ground class can help faculty dispense with a review of readings by quizzing students online before class (among other things), freeing up time for more discussion. When combined with online instruction, class time can be a true opportunity to explore further or apply knowledge. I am a big fan of that.

But without the face-to-face experience we lose something, and that something turns out to be irreplaceable.  This forced experiment with a totally online campus has all of us aching to return for good reason. There are a million little things that happen when we are all in the same room.  An idea is discovered, a shaky voice becomes braver, the direction of the discussion shifts totally unanticipated ways.  There are hallway conversations that praise or condemn what happened in class, which makes the learning seem more real.  In the real world there is spontaneity.

Like the connections that Facebook and Instagram and all the other social media provide, we are thrilled to be able maintain the connections with students that online learning provides.  It is an excellent continuity of instruction system.  And everyone in higher education depends on the electronic access to resources all the time, and that is a true benefit to the digital revolution. But putting the whole thing online … that just isn’t the real deal.

So, let us have no more talk about the efficiencies of online education and the potential cost savings (which are never real).  Online education is a supplement, a means of making up for a disrupted schedule, but the classroom is still the best home for learning.

 

Change, Innovative Pedagogies

Trust

Last week our campus had a conversation about expanding the number of courses that qualify as pass/fail.  We chose not to do so, but we did extend the date by which a student can choose the pass/fail option.  We also extended the date by which a student might withdraw from a course without academic penalty.  These measures were about buying time, so we have a chance to adapt to our online environment in a way that is reasonable and fair. In other words, these measures were meant to give everyone time to take a deep breath before making difficult decisions.

Not everyone was happy with this decision and I do understand why.  We are all in a state of shock right now as the reality of this pandemic sets in and the worries around GPAs are real. For a few weeks we were attending to triage – getting courses online, getting faculty additional training and support, getting students and faculty the technology they need, and getting our student supports online. Our community really pulled together to make these things happen as quickly and effectively as possible. We’ll continue to troubleshoot all of these things through May, I am sure, but the first big lift is over. So, we are onto the second level of trauma, much of which lies in preserving the integrity of the academic programs.

So, why not go pass/fail for everything?  Well, if this were something we could do permanently (or some variation of this, which I have discussed in earlier blog posts around grading), I would consider it.  But that is not what we are planning to do, at least not right now.  This means there are lots of students who would not qualify for this benefit – students in certification programs, students in critical pre-requisites, students heading to graduate school, student athletes, and students on probation.  With so many exclusions, we would end up creating a two-tier grading system. That just doesn’t seem fair at all.

But there is more to it, for me.  I have faith in my faculty.  You see, everyone had a chance to get to know their students prior to moving online.  WCSU is lucky to have very few large classes, so getting to know students is a real thing. Professors have interacted with their classes, seen strengths and weaknesses in their students, and have evaluated their work, prior to moving online.  It seems very clear to me that whatever happens in this new environment, they will be able to adjust for the impact.  I fully anticipate that grades at the end of the semester will reflect that adjustment.

These adjustments are not as simple as curving grades – although that will be one strategy.  To truly adjust, faculty and students will have to be in constant communication within the online learning platforms.  You see, when we moved everything online in one giant push, we did not have time to sort through the must do vs. the nice to do.  There is a tendency to try to fully recreate the on-ground experience, but this really isn’t how online learning works.  It is an alternative environment the requires alternative strategies. We didn’t have time to do this kind of thinking, so, we can’t just stop after putting everything in the course shell. We are going to have to evolve.

Let me give a couple of examples.

  1. Many faculty members quickly loaded PowerPoints or notes of some kind into Blackboard and then implemented weekly meetings via a conferencing software.  This can work part of the time, but as it turns out our students are living in varied conditions of access to technology.  Not everyone is able to be online at the same time due to the number of people in their house working and learning from home.  A small adjustment will have to be made.  The simplest thing to do is to record that meeting so students who cannot attend the live version can access it later.  The harder thing to do is to redesign the course with short video presentations, quick assessments of student understanding of that video, and then some asynchronous discussion.  That’s too much for right now, so simple is probably the solution.
  2.  Some faculty have committed to following their syllabi exactly as before the move online.  In some cases, that involved group work.  This is totally possible to achieve in the new environment, but students may have differential experiences of web conferencing software.  Those with older technology or less robust wi-fi at home may become frustrated in meetings, with lots of lags and glitches.  Now group work is always fraught with some tensions about who does the most work, but it isn’t fair to punish a group member for crappy tools.  Students and faculty will have to work to mitigate these situations so that things do not devolve into resentment between students.

There are many more examples, but I think you can already see a theme.  The two scenarios above would be horrible if faculty and students were not communicating and making accommodations and/or adjustments to their expectations. This is not a simple grading curve; it is a continuous series of modifications as problems emerge. This is hard work, but necessary given the scale of this crisis.

As provost, I cannot command anyone to make these adjustments. I fully embrace our collective commitment to academic freedom and the importance of faculty control over their approach to teaching.  This is standard operating procedure, and I am trying to preserve that throughout this COVID-19 moment.  But I don’t need to command anyone.  I trust my faculty to be reasonable and thoughtful about their students’ experiences and meet them halfway.  I hope that they can successfully communicate this approach to their students, so that the extended pass/fail and withdrawal dates are unnecessary in the end.

Stay healthy everyone.

 

 

Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

After

Having made it through the launch of our virtual/online campus, with some hard work, moments of frustration, and a few tears, I can report that week one wasn’t so bad.  Every member of the Western Connecticut State University community has pitched in, and we are launched.  Week two for students and faculty will be about refining their approaches to online education, as everyone gets more comfortable with the technology.  I’m hearing lots of fun stories and I think most are approaching this experience with a problem solving mindset.

Now is the moment that I want to address a persistent rumor about this whole move – I do not want WCSU to become a majority online university.  We have all moved online to solve a problem, but it is not the ideal state for most of the students we serve, nor is it the ideal state for several of our disciplines.  Just because we can do something online (after half a semester of face-to-face work) doesn’t mean this should be the new normal.

Here is what I do hope for…

I hope that re-imagining our courses for the online environment will lead to some great insights into our face-to-face teaching. For example:

Online teaching taught me to be aware of how a small change in word choice impacted my students’ understanding of a concept.  The words were synonymous, but not all students knew that.  When I switched words from my unit summaries (lecture notes) to the weekly discussion boards, I saw the pile up.  Now this is easy to fix in the face-to-face environment, because you’ll see the confusion on students faces.  But not always. I became more thoughtful about word choices after that.

Online teaching taught me how to scaffold learning more effectively.  I think this was just because it is hard to figure out when to stop interacting online.  There is a tendency to respond way too often, which leaves everyone exhausted.  I started gave my usual number of assignments, but with the added discussion boards and clarification email messages, it was too much for all of us.  So, I went through my assignments and asked myself what the goal of each was and how it built to the final project.  This question allowed me to cut assignments in half, provide effective and timely feedback, and help my students see how they were building to the overall goals for learning in the course.  Duh! We were so much happier and, the approach greatly improved my face-to-face teaching.

Online teaching taught me the value of structuring pre-class work more effectively.  Before “flipped classrooms” was a phrase, I figured out that giving students my opening discussion question for the weekly readings, before they did the reading, helped them a great deal. They were able to read the work with a greater sense of what might be important.  Many people probably already do this in their traditional classes by giving students guiding questions with their readings, but some of us did not for important reasons.  I had a stubborn commitment to discovery (read a Socratic approach).  Unfortunately, that discovery was eluding my students. After teaching online, I started to include weekly prompts for readings in my online course shell to enhance the conversations in my on-ground courses.  It proved very effective.

I hope that teaching online helps bring into sharp focus the value of the on ground classroom. For example:

Two of my chemistry faculty reported their experiences moving to online last week. They have been inventive, but they wanted me to know that lab sciences need hands on learning.  I could not agree more.  The thing is, I do not think that is unique to the sciences. My dream is that we imagine many more of our classes with that hands-on experience.  Who knows, maybe we’ll end up with a lab model for introductory courses in every discipline!  That could be a real game changer for our students and faculty.

I know that the biggest distinction between online and online teaching lies in the difference in immediacy.  In the classroom, we can respond to questions as they arise, and we can attend to facial expressions to see where we might be losing people. Online, even when done in real-time, instead of asynchronously, there is a delay.  Sometimes that delay is beneficial.  It can give a student time to process an idea and then ask a question.  Sometimes it is not, because a question is not answered or clarified before the student tries to work with it in an assignment.  Then, it is a disaster. But here’s the thing, not everyone is really cultivating that back-and-forth conversation in the face-to-face environment.  As we work to build dialogue online, can we bring those strategies back to the classroom?

Finally, I hope that we learn that in education, one-size does not fit all.

This week, I heard from students who are still working during this crisis (often in emergency services), who really need asynchronous learning. Others were grateful for the normalcy of their online class being aligned with the original on campus time slot.  Our challenge is that they are all in the same classes. This has always been true. Part of our strategic plan asks us to get better at meeting the needs of all students — now’s our chance to figure out what that means.

We already know that for many graduate students, online is a better fit.  For some programs, hybrid is a good option, but most people pursuing graduate education are working and they need the flexibility of the online environment. So, perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about serving our graduate students.

We already know that our returning adult learners generally need the same flexibility as our graduate students. They, too, have jobs and families to juggle.  Perhaps, we need to do something special for this group – and yes, that might mean an online lab science!

We also know that some of our students needed last minute help acquiring technology and internet access to complete their education with us this spring.  Maybe it is time for us to assess that when students enter the university, so they are not at a disadvantage from the start.

So no, I absolutely do not want to become a majority online campus.  I do want to become a better version of who we are, using this as a wonderful learning opportunity.  It is time.

 

 

 

Agency, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Here Comes the Sun

This morning I noticed the shift in the light.  It happens to me at this time every year.  I see the sun’s rays creeping over the tops of the trees as I drink my morning coffee and I take heart.  Yes, it is only mid-winter but the days are growing longer.  And even though I very much enjoy the hunkering down that the dark days of winter require (I embrace the couch by the fireplace); I confess that a little more daylight lightens my step. Just a hint of the sunny days ahead brings out my optimistic nature. It is with this sense of optimism that I am thinking about higher education this week.

Here in the Northeastern United States, we are in what some have called a “demographic winter.” Simply stated, there is a forecast for a long-term drop in high school graduates.  Lower birthrates and new migration patterns have left us a little stunned by the declining number of students available to recruit to our colleges and universities.  Elite colleges are fine.  So are the well-known colleges in destination cities (Boston, New York), but the rest of us are left to figure out what to do next.  After decades of growth, and budget practices based on ever-increasing enrollments, we are facing new realities.

This is hard.  We are making cuts in our budgets and new programs are facing heightened scrutiny about their viability.  Where we once might have assessed the value of a new major based on the ideas it would explore, we are now thinking about how it will serve our recruiting efforts.  Reflecting on the quality of ideas has not disappeared, of course.  Our nature and our review processes always focus on quality. Nevertheless, in our efforts to be financially sustainable, potential enrollments have become a critical part of how we evaluate the feasibility of a new degree.  This shift, which seems obvious to the for-profit world, has shaken public higher education to its core.

Nevertheless, I see light ahead and here is why: When we discuss finding new audiences for our university, we do not focus on marketing– we focus on student engagement. Where we were once satisfied with the notion that emerging questions in a discipline were sufficient justification for launching a new degree, we now consider barriers to student engagement with those questions.  Our curricular design processes are keeping those barriers in mind.

For example, we know that there are many great careers related to “big data.”  We also know that our students avoid math like the plague. Instead of launching a big data degree, we are weaving data analytics into some of our not so obviously math-related majors.  This helps us avoid the hazards of the stand-alone data analytics degree, which would likely have low enrollment numbers at our university.  By building the data analysis tools into existing degrees, and thinking about how to support students in learning how to use those tools in the context of their major, we are avoiding the typical breakdown of math and non-math students.  We are also increasing the value of the degrees we offer by responding to current trends in multiple disciplines. We hope that the value we have added to multiple majors will become part of our recruiting strategy.

Retention, rather than new degrees, is also an important strategy for a financially sustainable university.  Higher retention is better for students, reputation, and the bottom line.  At WCSU, we know that building community is critical to student retention.  Yet, as a majority commuter campus, we have struggled with strategies for doing just that.  There were hints, however, in several of our programs. Music majors have a weekly Convocation that brings them all together.  Nursing students develop robust study groups to support each other. Theatre students must all contribute to staging productions.  These activities are typical for these kinds of degrees. What can the rest of our degrees learn from them? Lots.

For example, who says convocation is just for music? My Biology Department decided to use their First Year Navigation course as a community building strategy as well.  They opted to bring all of their first year students together in a large group each week (rather than the more typical 25 student classes). In this structure, students meet the biology faculty, hear about the opportunities of the discipline, relevant clubs and projects, and are encouraged to attend events important to their department.  They also stage a faculty talent show, which is lots of fun.  This community-building focus makes us better at meeting the needs of commuter and non-commuter students alike.

Faculty members are also experimenting with pedagogies. In history and social sciences, several faculty have been using a reacting to the past model as a first year course.  Students take on roles of people in a particular era, learning to research characters and debate critical political issues.  This is fun, in itself, but the best part is the collaboration is leading to a new course that focuses on a locally important historical event, which may be even more engaging for our students. It has certainly been engaging for the faculty involved. Others have been trying out flipped classrooms, exploring virtual reality, employing good practices associated with mindset research, and trying out universal design.  It is exciting to see so many people really thinking about how to reach the students we are serving. This climate of innovation and passion creates an attractive teaching and learning environment–perhaps one that more students will want to experience.

These examples of the work we are doing at WCSU tell me that we are going to be okay.  We are not waiting for something to happen; we are getting better. Here is the thing about this numbers conundrum: there are fewer high school students in total number, but there is also a heightened need for college education.  As I do the math, this means we need to set the stage for a higher proportion of those high school graduates to attend college.  To do so is to focus on engagement so we can better serve those graduating seniors, many of whom may require us to examine our assumptions about good learning environments. That is exactly what we have been doing.

We are still going to be working with less.  We are going to have to rethink how we develop our budgets for the enrollments we have, and not count on growth. That will present a challenge, and there will be hard decisions to make. But if we keep leaning into innovation and engagement, I feel confident that we will figure it out. It’s not all sunshine yet, but I can see the rays peeking in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Simple Steps with Big Potential

I am always on the lookout for some easy strategies to improve student success as they transition from high school to college.  Last week, I read a wonderfully straightforward book by Lisa Nunn called 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. It is exactly as described and I urge anyone teaching first-year courses to give it a read.

Nunn has worked with students from three different types of universities (public, private, and religiously affiliated) to develop this list of strategies. She organizes the text around steps to take each week of the semester and then supports her arguments with comments from students at each of those schools.  Their comments are compelling and the strategies suggested are convincing. Best of all, they do not require a big curricular overhaul, just a little re-thinking of the structure of a course.

While I liked everything Nunn suggested, I will just highlight a few here in the hope that there is still time to weave these into next semester’s courses.

“Give Pedagogic Rationales for Everything You Do; Write Them in Your Syllabus.” 

So many times, I have heard students describe assignments as a waste of time or busy-work.  Some wonder why creativity is counted in a science class or why writing matters in a math class. Then there is the oft-used phrase “I just have to memorize the things the professor thinks is important” (usually uttered by a student taking a class we are sure is teaching critical thinking).  While our reasons may be clear to us, they are not that clear to our students. Perhaps a little communication is in order.

 Although it might seem a little much to have to justify our pedagogies, we might consider that this suggestion is for first year students who have never considered the why of their teacher’s practices. As we ask them to take on a more adult role in their learning, they should be encouraged to consider that there is a strategy and how it might (or might not) work for their own learning processes.  If we start this conversation in the first year, perhaps we will help students align their own expectations and outcomes with our plans. Then, in the second year, we can feel fine about just letting them figure things out.

“Give a Mini-Midterm in Week 2 of the Semester.”

This is a great idea. When students transition from high school to college, they frequently have trouble sorting through which information is important and which is peripheral. Creating a mini-midterm for week 2 (or 3) is a great way to help them see if they are on track.  It can help students figure out how to study and how to take notes.  Given the large amount of research on the importance of many assessments (as opposed to a midterm and final of days past), this fits right in. It is a bit of an effort, but it has the potential to benefit students greatly.

Nunn goes on to advocate for a true review session for this mini-midterm, to help students see how to prepare. For me, that means at least week three, but I love the idea.  Both of these strategies offer students a good preview of how to sort through and prioritize information in their classes.  A little guidance in first-year courses can serve as a fabulous foundation for years 2-4.

“Share a Story in Class of Some College Woe that You Experienced as an Undergraduate Student.”

Or, to put it another way, be human.  Many students, whether first-generation or not, have preconceived notions that faculty were always good at school.  Many of us were not.  Certainly, none of us was good at everything.  Telling a story of a time you struggled communicates a feeling that you have empathy for your students’ struggles. It also communicates that we can succeed despite those struggles.  While I have heard students comment on faculty sharing too much of their personal lives, a little relevant information here and there is an important way to bond.

Most importantly, we want to help students get past those moments of self-doubt and invite them to be open about their own struggles.  Too many do not seek the help we want to offer.  Too many wait to reach out for assistance until too late in the semester.  If we talk about our own struggles, we can then talk about the path out of them.  We can let our students know that needing help is not about being a lesser student.

These are just a few of Nunn’s delightfully easy to follow strategies.  What I love about it is the simplicity of it all. There are no spreadsheets, no new technologies, and no buzzwords. These are just some good teaching strategies that come from listening to students.  Now that is a simple plan I can work with.