Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality

Striving for Excellence

I realized today that I have been in crisis mode for four months. From dramatic exits, to traumatized students, families, faculty, and staff, to trying to carefully solve the puzzle that is the fall semester, the pace of my life has been ridiculous. I do not expect this to stop before September, and then only long enough to trouble shoot whatever we forgot to imagine for the fall semester and then pull reports and imagine what spring might look like.

It is not like the regular duties disappeared, either. The usual evaluations of promotion and tenure candidates took place. So did the reading and writing of annual reports, appointments of new directors of various university areas, review of accreditation reports, and evaluation of our efforts to improve retention and graduation rates. I am already planning for fall projects, prioritizing resources for a new academic success initiative, and producing the annual publication of faculty creative activity.

This morning was spent trying to complete a substantive change application to submit to our regional accreditor. Getting that done seems a bit too much right now, but nevertheless I will finish it this week. As I struggled to find the missing pieces and align my document with the needs of our accreditor, I thought the whole thing might just be impossible. Then I looked again and realized that this was a good opportunity for reflection.

Whenever I write about my university, I end up feeling proud. As tedious as an accreditation document can be, it always gives me the opportunity to step back and consider what we are doing well. In the day-to-day, that is not always possible. I am too busy solving problems, which can make it feel like there are nothing but problems to solve. Writing annual reports, reviewing strategic plans, and preparing for accreditors helps to reveal the good stuff, and even some of the results of all the problem solving.

Some of you just laughed. How could these tedious reports be anything but a chore? Too much? Not really. You see, when you have to gather evidence of doing something, you see the big picture. That big picture is pretty darn good.

For example, when WCSU moved online in March, we did not skip a beat in our path to developing online supports for our students. Tutoring, accessibility services, financial aid, advising, mental health and general health services all flipped to remote delivery immediately. That was good, but the better part is that we learned from it. We are now working toward consistency in training for online support, where appropriate. We are talking about developing good online advising practices. We are reviewing our protocols for online learning to be sure that we are meeting accessibility standards. We have moved beyond the abrupt flip in modalities to a focus on improving these services. Guess what…those improvements will matter long after COVID-19.

Then there was the bumpiness of moving all of our courses online. Ouch! It was hard and not all of it was as good as we would have liked. I will say that all of it was as good as we could manage in such a short time. Now we have a little time to prepare for online/hybrid and whatever else is ahead, and great conversations are going on. Never has our campus been so engaged in thinking about instructional design. The necessity of thinking about education in a new modality has invited us to think about instructional design more broadly. Faculty are participating in the workshops, but they are also helping each other by volunteering to be peer mentors. It is a big effort and folks are fully engaged. Guess what… this attention to the overall design of our courses will matter long after COVID-19. I hope the esprit de corps will transcend the emergency as well.

There has also been a great deal of earnest concern for the well-being of every member of our community. Faculty and staff and administration have been puzzling through the safety measures necessary for on-campus experiences. Each time we have these conversations (nearly every day), someone asks, but what about the students/faculty/staff who should not be here? How will we accommodate them? These are excellent questions. We are making plans for those needs. Every time we discuss online pedagogies, someone asks about students who are not well-suited to this environment. This is an excellent question (one that should be asked of on-ground instruction as well). We are making plans for those needs. Every time we consider being fully online, someone expresses concerns about the socio-economic issues that always impact our neediest students. Will they be able to access their education? This is an excellent concern, and we are working hard to address it. Guess what… this attention to differential needs of our community should matter long after COVID-19.

So, yes it has been a stressful time, full of long days, endless questions, and a learning curve unlike anything I have ever experienced. But I am pretty sure that my university will be better for it. This moment of crisis has brought out the true spirit of WCSU and it is one worth admiring. We have broken free of the usual silos and we are working together. We are listening to new ideas while remembering the good parts of our traditional approaches to education. We are trying to develop a plan that helps everyone succeed.

And absolutely no one seems content to just make do. We are striving for excellence and that makes me tremendously proud. As I think about all of this, that tedious report has become exciting after all.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncertainty

Contingencies

Well, the national news is not encouraging. This morning I saw that two universities have stepped back from having any campus experiences. Although they started out committed to bringing some of their students back, the early signs in those (southern and western) states are showing a resurgence of COVID-19, so they are changing course. Here in Connecticut, things are still moving in the right direction (lower incidences of infection, low hospitalization rates), but we are just reopening, so time will tell how things progress in July. In the meantime, we must get ready for our August opening with a lot of uncertainty. Oh goodie!

Well, the obvious answer is to prepare to be fully online, just in case. But this is no small thing. Teaching online is (or should be) fundamentally different from on-ground teaching. For example:

  • In the classroom, faculty can see reactions (confusion, engagement, or the lack thereof) and adjust. Online, the space for reactions must be carefully constructed.
  • In the classroom, group work is relatively easily supported, online it must be designed in advance.
  • In the classroom, you can easily change course if things are not working. That change can happen in the same day or by the next session. Online, that change will require re-writing notes/assignments and so on, to address the change.

Preparing to teach online requires thinking about instruction in new ways. It is a departure from the routine. You can see, from this short list, that many people will be tempted to just prepare for teaching the last part of the semester online (when we all go home at Thanksgiving).

Nevertheless, with the hope of some on-campus experience before us, we must prepare for multiple possibilities. This preparation will take effort, but it might benefit all of us for the long haul. In that spirit, I would like to offer some thoughts about course design. I hope this is some encouragement. We’ll see.

First, for faculty who are new to thinking about building courses around weekly topics, with weekly activities to support and assess student understanding of those topics (best practices for online instruction, excellent for those aiming for universal design), I would like to say that this approach will also strengthen the on-ground learning experiences for your students. Like preparing to teach anything, this will require some thought and effort, but it can be very satisfying for everyone involved.

For lower level courses, this weekly topic approach helps students transition from high school to college learning expectations, by providing clear timelines, and lots of opportunity to see if they “get it.” Online, assessment opportunities can easily become self-assessments (mini-quizzes), to reduce grading for the professor. On-ground those same strategies can be deployed in support of the class discussions, ensuring students have started thinking about the ideas before you meet. Then faculty can attend to discussions and more nuanced assignments, without overburdening themselves. It takes time to get all of this organized, but once done, it can be edited each semester, reducing the preparation to normal on-ground levels.

For upper level courses, particularly those that are meant to be seminars, the same weekly groupings of topics apply. Offering these courses online will require a good understanding of how to set up discussion groups, so that students can take on leadership roles. This is a usual practice on ground that translates to online very nicely. It is true that most of this will be asynchronous and lack some of the in-classroom spontaneity. However, the time lag in responses often allows students to think through ideas in ways that they have difficulty doing in the classroom. Their responses, with time to think, are often more grounded in the readings and more thoughtful. The grading will be the same as always (usually lots of writing assignments in these kinds of classes), and faculty will find themselves nudging conversations rather than responding to everything, just like a seminar. In other words, it does not have to be a lot more work than on-ground seminars, after you set things up.

Second, many people already teach hybrid courses. This approach has long been seen as an effective strategy for learning at many levels. It blends some face-to-face experiences with online work. Faculty who have been doing this have been deciding about what is vital for on-ground and what works well online, for years. In normal times those decisions are made in advance. However, teaching this way also requires the kind of organized experience that an online class requires. Faculty who have taught hybrid courses will be well-prepared to flip to fully online if necessary. It might be a good time to phone a friend and see how they do this.

Finally, for those who plan to use live meeting platforms for the fall, I must acknowledge that it is not necessarily ideal. If you like to lecture, great, but getting feedback from students will be a challenge. We have all learned about the strengths and weaknesses of WebEx, Zoom, Teams, etc., this spring. People try to have “conversations” but they end up being frustrated as we wait for people to mute and un-mute themselves (and forget to re-mute themselves afterward). It can happen, if you assign moderators to discussion boards, but it is tricky.

And there are limits to our ability to pay attention in online meetings. We all know this now that we are working remotely. The chunking strategies that are ideal for the online teaching environment, are also preferable in the WebEx/Zoom environment. Faculty should carefully consider how they are organizing time in this environment. You will be glad you did.

In addition, even if you prefer the live meetings, assignments and assessments, still need a learning platform (in our case, Blackboard Learn) so that students have a consistent experience. It is incredibly frustrating for students to have to find their courses – with some in email, some in Teams, and some in Blackboard. So, the work of preparing the course will still need the kind of preparation that our online classes require. It may be work to set this up, but those same tools work on ground, too, so it is not wasted time. Indeed, I have long enjoyed collecting assignments this way. It helps me keep track of things in multiple courses, instead of unseparated email trails and piles of paper.

So, I guess what I am saying is we must prepare to teach fully online, but the best techniques for online teaching can have great benefits for on-ground teaching. The process of imagining your material in multiple formats, might also help you see that material differently. This has the potential to help you reach students with diverse learning styles. The tools that you leverage now will be there for snow days, conference trips, and other scheduling purposes after COVID-19. They may also help us chart a new path toward new schedule configurations in the future. This is something we should be thinking about anyway, so why not take advantage of this moment of crisis to prepare for a more flexible future.

I know it is hard, but, after it is done, I think it will be worth it, not just for the fall, but for the future of the university.

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.