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.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Prioritizing Reflective Practice

In 1999, when I was still completing my dissertation and working as an adjunct at several colleges and universities, I wrote a little essay called “The Art of Teaching Students to Think Critically.” I did not actually give it that title, but the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested when they agreed to publish it. It did, of course, talk about the dynamics of teaching critical thinking, but the larger take-away, which then became my mantra as a professor was to teach the students you’ve got.

When I wrote that essay, I was grappling with the need to get to the same finish line (teaching the same course on multiple campuses) while understanding that the starting places, and indeed the supports necessary, varied greatly. This is also the reality of teaching at a regional comprehensive university with a commitment to access. Teaching the students you’ve got was meant to sum up the realities of the different preparation and cultures one encounters on multiple campuses, encouraging listening and adjusting, and letting the students help you help them. This seemed like the only way to achieve that finish line goal.

Although I left the classroom nearly ten years ago, this mantra still informs my thinking about creating a good educational environment. At regional comprehensives like WCSU, our students need for us to understand their unique needs and expectations. Their K-12 experiences vary in quality, creating a giant question mark about assumptions that inform curricular development in higher ed. Their families vary in experiences with higher education, creating a set of interesting cultural assumptions about the value of education that needs to be addressed in some way. They vary as learners, some needing specialized support, others more general guidance on how to succeed in college. Imagining all of these needs and setting a plan for a semester is no small challenge.

As Provost, I pay attention to our outcomes, both because I must and because I care. There are patterns in who succeeds and who does not, and not acting on that information, in my estimation, is simply morally bankrupt. In my role, then, I analyze that data and try to bring forward ideas and strategies to disrupt those patterns and get more of our students to that shared finish line. It is my responsibility to stay abreast of the most recent data on student success initiatives and see where there are opportunities to build on that research to improve the student experience at WCSU.

We are not unique in facing these challenges. All over the country campuses like ours are grappling with the best ways to support a truly public higher education. We don’t weed out students on the margins, like our more research oriented or private competitors do. We do some sorting, asking some to attend community college first, but mostly, we welcome a diversity of learners. Drawing on the research on student success, we have implemented several strategies (FY, Four-Year Plans, Embedded Remediation) that have proven helpful elsewhere. Most recently, we are working to implement a new on-ramp for at-risk students, requiring participation in a peer support program in their first semester to connect them with essential services and, frankly, not to lose them. Our data and the work at other universities have led us to this approach and we are hoping for a real impact on student retention and overall success.

I view these efforts as a moral imperative because not acting on the data means setting students up for failure. I know that my colleagues are equally distressed when their students don’t succeed. I see them bend over backwards to assist students in need, offering extra support, multiple chances at success, and not abandoning them when they do not succeed. These amazing efforts happen all the time, even as faculty also wrestle with fairness for all students and their commitment to academic standards. This desire to help is a campus ethic that makes me proud.

Nevertheless, we may be falling short on the collective effort. You see we are champions of the individual student and the individual faculty member and often this is to the good. But sometimes that ethic keeps us from leveraging the research about teaching and supporting students with varied degrees of preparation and experience of higher education. We are delighted by our unique discoveries, without looking at them as part of a larger body of scholarship. This can be a problem because it relies on serendipity rather than a plan.

Well, I am holding myself accountable for this. In Scholarship Reconsidered, Ernest Boyer made room for the scholarship of teaching as an important part of the role of the professor and an acceptable focus for achieving tenure. I’d like to expand on this thought; for all universities, but especially those committed to access, a focus on teaching practice should be required. We need to re-imagine the tenure clock with room for learning about teaching and we should continue to reward that reflective practice, even after tenure.

Let me be clear, at a university like mine, faculty are working hard. They are teaching 12 credits per semester, advising lots of students, serving on committees, and yes, publishing or presenting research. Adding a continuous engagement with the research on teaching is a lot to ask. Since there isn’t more time, we will have to reprioritize our expectations and make the room. We are going to have to reduce something to make this happen, but make room we must.

You see it isn’t sufficient to have administrators and a few campus specialists consulting this literature. This will not lead to a wide-spread commitment to research informed teaching. It will not foster confidence in the institutional plans to improve student outcomes. Everyone needs to be engaging with this literature and using it to inform their teaching. So, let’s find a way to make the time for this because as far as I can tell, this is the only way to truly teach the students we’ve got.

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Productive Conversations

Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.

Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.

I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.

The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.

But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.

In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).

  1. Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
  2. Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).

Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.

I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.

From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –

3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)

This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.

No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.

But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.

So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  2. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  3. Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
  4. AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
  5. Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum

Engagement, Innovative Pedagogies

The In-Between

Last week, Western Connecticut State University launched the fall semester online. We had hoped to open with a blend of online and on-ground experiences, but an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the city of Danbury put us on pause. We are still optimistic about moving to some on campus experiences, but in the meantime, we are in a strange in-between world where we are online only, with an expectation of on-ground eventually. This is a very complicated instructional design challenge. Already, our students are feeling adrift.

When designing for online only, and when students willingly enroll in online only programs, the expectations for instruction are clear. Faculty will choose a variety of strategies for connecting with their students, and though not all courses will be the same, some things are pretty standard. For example, most courses designed for online instruction include an opportunity for introductions. This is often a simple discussion thread where everyone, including the professor, says a few things about who they are and why they are interested in the topic. In most cases, there is also a requirement of some number of responses to peers just to make sure that people start to get to know each other.

This is something we do without thinking in classrooms. We usually spend a little time on the first day doing ice breakers, asking for introductions, and helping students get a sense of who we are as professors. In the online world, we have to think about putting this into the first week experience. Even if the rest of the course is primarily focused on independent work, that little moment to humanize the learning experience makes all the difference to students’ comfort levels.

Unfortunately, if the course was designed as a hybrid experience this step might have been missed. It is likely that faculty thought they would do introductions in the face-to-face part, and now they are jumping into the course material without this vital step. This is kind of alienating to students, especially those who did not want to be online in the first place. The grumbling has begun.

Good news. This one is not too hard to fix. Even in week two, introductions can go a long way toward building community and trust. It is okay to back up for a second. Here are a few good ways to do so:

  1. Add a discussion thread for introductions today and start it with a faculty bio to start. If possible, there should be a few ideas about what to include in the intro to keep things interesting.
  2. Enhance the above by asking for photos of favorite things, places, activities.
  3. Enhance the above with video snippets to support the intro.
  4. It might be nice to award a point or two, so everyone gets a little something for their effort.

In addition to getting to know each other, students who expected to have some face-to-face experiences really wanted that overview of the course that faculty so naturally do as they discuss the syllabus on the first day. With the somewhat abrupt switch, some faculty may have skipped the overview and launched directly into the course material. While the material and the assignments might be exactly what is typically covered in the first class, that missing overview is disorienting for our students. It gives the impression that they are “just teaching themselves.”

Once again, this is not too difficult to remedy. I recommend video for this, but audio is also fine. Record a brief introduction to the material, discuss course expectations, and then go over the syllabus. This should not be longer than 4 minutes. (No one watches things like this that are longer than that.) Doing this work and posting it on the first page of the course will let students know that their professors are actively engaged in creating the learning experience. Without it, students often feel like they just should have read the book on their own.

It would also be great to approximate a few of those casual conversations and opportunities to ask follow-up questions that often happen before and after class. We all know that web conferencing tools do not really support spontaneity in largish groups, but they are excellent for drop-in office hours. Scheduling one or two opportunities each week for students to pop in and ask a question can be very helpful, especially at the start of the semester. Like on-campus office hours, attendance will vary. To encourage participation, you may wish to set topics at the start. Or not. Like on-campus office hours, you can work on other things while you wait. Creating these opportunities for conversation will help students feel supported.

One last thing. It is probably a good idea to do at least one thing in groups. For some faculty, there are lots of group activities woven throughout the course. Groups might work without the instructor, and then turn in projects each week or so. Other faculty like to have groups take place during the designated course time and pop in to interject and steer the conversation. These are great strategies. But, if none of this was in the original course design, then just a small effort can go a long way. Consider some fun reasons to group students, perhaps around some of the interests they posted in the ice breaker activity, and set them up as a study group. (Create a space in the course shell for this). Give a little guidance on the first thing to study for–perhaps insight into a first assignment or quiz–and encourage students to send a representative to the drop-in office hours for any follow up questions. This small step will help students connect with each other. Those connections are more important than ever in this COVID-19 world.

Now, none of what I described above is foreign to those designing a fully online course, and I suspect many of those who prepared for that modality already did these things. But for those who prepared for blended teaching, these steps might not have been in the plans. I offer the above as simple strategies that require no redesign of the course, but just layer on a few small activities to build the human into the course. It is a small effort that can make a big difference. After all, we still want to be a community, even if it is remote.

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.