Resilience, Thinking, Uncertainty

Uncertainty Reduction

As we close out this disrupted and odd spring semester, I am thinking about our normal practice of wrapping things up–turning in grades, congratulating our graduates, and going home for a little rest and relaxation.  My husband and I had, indeed, planned to be sitting on a beach in Miami right after we finished congratulating the last student to walk across the commencement stage. Obviously that isn’t happening, not just for safety reasons, but because there is too much to do. It is time to figure out what happens next at our university.

Uncertainty is all around us.  We do not know how long we will be compelled to stay home.  We do not know when there will be a true treatment for this virus. We do not know when there will be a vaccine.  We do not know if there will be a second wave (although evidence suggests there will be). And so on.  How does one plan for the future of a university with so many unknowns?  One decision at a time.

This week we made our first real decision about what is next.  Having cancelled our usual commencement ceremony, we were left with very big sense of loss.  At all universities, commencement is an important ritual, sealing that feeling of pride and accomplishment that should accompany completing one’s degree. At a university like WCSU, with a large proportion of students who are the first in their families to go to college, it is all the more profound and meaningful.  Something had to be done.  After consulting with our students, we have settled on a fall celebration on our campus. That announcement was met with cyber-cheers from everywhere.

I am thrilled, assuming it can actually happen.  If we are allowed to gather in a pretty large crowd in September, this will be a wonderful, soothing, experience for all of us.  If. There are real threats to the feasibility of this event, but we have a plan and we all feel better. It is action. It is decisive and it gives us a sense of hope and progress.

So on to the next.  How shall we plan for the fall semester? We are diving into that conversation right now.  Like our students, who loudly rejected the idea of a virtual commencement ceremony, none of us wants to be a fully online university in the fall. It just is not who we are at WCSU. We are more high touch than that. It comes from our commitment to meeting students where they are, with the goal of helping all of them succeed. We have a student body with incredibly varied educational experiences prior to college. Those varied experiences require nuanced responses that are just harder (though not impossible) in a fully online environment.

This observation tells me that I have already made a first decision about the fall.  We will not operate solely online. That doesn’t reduce uncertainty much, especially since I don’t have the power to make that decision alone.  Nevertheless, it does remove one option from the logistical map we will try to create at WCSU in the next two weeks.

Next question…what does a campus look like when it must consider social distancing as a key variable?  Do we reduce the number of students on campus at any one time?  What will be the maximum occupancy of each room, and how will that impact class size? How will that impact the budget? What will we do about gathering spaces? Will we ban them? How will we make sure people wear their masks, if required? How will we protect the most vulnerable members of our community? That is not a next question, is it?  It is a barrage of variables that must be considered.

The question right after those addressing a theoretical return to campus is, what if we have to go back home? Now the ruling out of an online only environment requires a little more thought. It seems we will have to be prepared to go back online at any moment during the fall (the next year?).  Oh boy.  Now I have a new list.  How do we make sure that our online offerings are of the highest quality? How do we support our faculty as they fully develop their courses online? How do we adequately support students in this environment in a developmentally appropriate way? What about the quality of our technological infrastructure – can it really support this? And so on.

Beyond the academics, what on earth do we do about student life in either scenario? It is a lot to think about folks, a lot.

Nevertheless, the act of thinking about it is a relief. This long list of questions can have answers. We can make a complex logistical map that helps us develop strategies for addressing each scenario. It will be very hard, but the answers can be developed, evaluated, and decided upon.

I have listed a lot of questions here because listing the questions is that very first step toward uncertainty reduction. Despite the missing pause for recuperation at the end of the semester, I am thrilled to get started on this, because the uncertainty is really the worst part of this whole situation. Making plans, however complex or vulnerable they may be, is a kind of serenity-prayer for our campus, as we endeavor to control what we can, and accept the fact that we truly cannot know what comes next with this virus.

 

Resilience

Power Disruptions

As I read the weather forecast for today, I worried about the loss of electricity that is likely in my small town.  We have a lot of trees, and big winds tend to take out a few poles or power lines.  That will be a last straw from many of us. Our gadgets are making this quarantined life bearable. Losing them is likely to lead to a collective scream.  For the university, we may have to consider a lack of access to electricity as a snow day, and just pause for a day.  I’m hoping, whatever the disruption, that it is brief.

But as I continue to trouble shoot the many challenges that came with the COVID-19 realities – technological, financial, emotional– I realize that we are in another kind of power disruption, and it is pedagogical.

Education, at its core, involves a clear imbalance of power.  Faculty are in charge, not students.  It may be that faculty answer to accreditation standards, or department definitions of curricula, but in the classroom, there is no question of who is setting the parameters for success and the expectations for interaction.  Faculty sometimes try to shift more control to students, but it is never complete, and, frankly students don’t buy it. Even in a seminar where all dialogue is focused on discovery, rather than a fixed goal, faculty retain the power of the grade, which makes the transfer of power mythic at best.

This is not a terrible state of affairs. After all, faculty are the experts. They’ve spent years learning their subjects and students have not.  So, no matter how hard professors work to cultivate a classroom with open discourse or create materials that foster student-led discovery and independent learning, that role of expert is an essential part of the power relationship.

But here we are in a world where students and faculty have been forced into a learning in an unfamiliar environment.  While faculty are still the content experts, the control over the learning environment has been fundamentally disrupted.  The potential for error on the part of faculty is much higher than in the classroom – there are just so many ways a beginner can go wrong in an online learning platform – disrupting their sense of control.  For students, the lack of standardization that is only a small problem in face-to-face classes, is now a major distraction from learning.  They are spending a lot of time trying to find where each of their four to five professors has “hidden” their assignments. This too, is leading to a collective scream.

It would be wonderful if I could command everyone to a) use Blackboard Learn (Bb) only and b) lay out their classes the exact same way, but I can’t.  While Bb is our official online learning platform and everyone should be using it, the truth is, it is not an easy environment to dive into.  It has some nice features, if you’ve had time to fully plan and experiment with your courses.  If you are faced with moving to it in a week’s time with no prior Bb experience, you are sunk.  Starting from scratch it is confusing, at best.  Demanding that everyone use it is probably worse than letting faculty devise unique approaches that they feel they can manage (weekly WebEx meetings, and emailing notes and collecting assignments; or using features of Office 360 to achieve the same end – and there are more).  As for similar layouts within Bb – there is no hope, at least not in the middle of this crisis.

From the student side, though, this is a nightmare. Some students have let me know that they are now trying to learn in 5 different “places.”  And, they are writing to me for help.  Their expectation was for some predictability; they are finding none.  Although, each of us approach the classroom experience in our own unique way, in reality the classroom has a limited number of predictable configurations.  Students can spend more time thinking about the subject than the furniture. With the variability of our online environment, they are really focused on the furniture. And by the way, these so called digital natives are not particularly good at figuring out how everything works. They kind of want us to figure it out for them.

So, now what. Faculty expertise is disrupted because they are spending their days focused on technology. Students trust their faculty less, because they, too, are spending their days navigating technology that is often poorly or variably configured. This lack of trust is leading to a lot of reaching out to Deans, Provosts, Presidents, and Governors, that is out of proportion to the problems at hand. Something’s got to give.

With only four more weeks of the semester, we’re all just trying to get to the end in one piece.  So, I only have a little bit to offer faculty on this subject, but here it is.

1. Simplify – identify those critical elements of the course material that must be addressed in the next four weeks and leave the rest behind.  Don’t try to do anything fancy, just focus on the essential content, and provide as much feedback on that student work as possible.  This will help remind students that faculty are experts after all, and they will be grateful for the sense of connection and continuity, even if on a shorter list of topics.

2. Empathize – Since we cannot offer students a consistent or familiar learning environment, reassure them (often), that we know this is a problem.  Then give lots of chances for resubmitting assignments or handing things in just a little late if they missed something.  It is easy to miss something when moving between many platforms. Acknowledging that complication will go a long way to re-establishing trust.

That’s it. I do not think we can do more in this context.  There is a lot we can do later, but for now, this will have to do.

Resilience

Fun for the Grown Ups at Home

I’ve seen lots of posts about how to engage the kids while we are all in quasi lock-down, but what about the grown-ups? We empty-nesters, not-yet-nesters, or never-nesters deserve some fun, too.  Here’s one for all of you. Consider spending 30 minutes a day on these. It might calm the mind and you could learn a thing or two for the next trivia night.

Mathematical Mondays

You know you want to be better at math, and is it turns out, all it takes is a little free time.  I’m working statistics to better understand the path of COVID-19, but algebra and geometry are pretty great for planning the home renovations you are dreaming of now that you’re cooped up all the time.

Here’s a link to Khan Academy, but there are hundreds of options.

Sharpen those pencils.

Time Hop Tuesdays    

How the heck did we get here? That is the fundamental question for an amateur historian (apologies to the professionals). Whether you want to know when something happened or get a basic understanding of the implications/origins of important historical events, now is the time to look it up and do a little reading. Believe it or not, Wikipedia is an OK place to start. Just remember to follow their resource links to get a bigger picture.

Wildlife Wednesdays

I am the queen of “that’s a pretty bird/plant/tree” with no idea what I’m looking at. Are you curious about the natural world, but never really bother to check things out?  Now’s your chance.  Bonus points for taking a walk outside (with appropriate distance) to identify some of those birds, squirrels, trees, and plans.

Here are two sites to get you started, but really there are a million.

Theological Thursdays 

I always meant to take a comparative religion class, but it never seemed to fit into my schedule.  Instead of committing to an entire course or degree, I’m going to start with just learning a little about everyone’s faith.  Think how that could bring us together!

Fact Check Fridays      

Today is the day to test your knowledge.  Pick one news story and do your own research.  There is no such thing as a bias-free report, but there are reports that are better researched and sourced than others.  So, I recommend you choose a source you tend to trust and work from there.

Or you could simply start on by picking a news story you just read and then ask yourself what else you would need to know to believe it.  Then dig in to find out. Consider this activity an inoculation against nonsense.

Science Saturdays       

You did wildlife on Wednesday, but there is a lot more you can learn about science.  Let’s face it, we forgot most of what we learned in school and given the current state of affairs, we should probably level up our science knowledge.

Superhero Sundays     

It is Sunday, and you could reserve today for the great binge tv experience.  But you probably already made it to the bottom of your Netflix list (which, we didn’t know was possible before COVID-19, as my son pointed out). So, here is your opportunity to either become a Superhero nerd who learns all about the ones that exist, enjoying whatever medium you like.  Or, you could be come a designer of a new superhero, and work to even the representation of all kinds of people.  I’m thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

I can’t draw at all, but now could be the time to learn.  Here are some tutorials.

Chris Hart has a bunch of tutorials on drawing superheroes.

Or there’s this wonderful collection of resources here for drawing in general

Or you can skip the superheroes and just tune in to Bob Ross for some happy little clouds.

Have fun everyone.

PS: This is not my weekly blog.  I’m just taking a break from the WebEx meetings.

Community, Resilience

The Bright Side

It is March 23, 2020 and Western Connecticut State University has officially launched as a virtual campus.  Spring “break” was filled with activity. Faculty were preparing materials for online course delivery with lots of help from our Instructional Design team.  Information Technology & Innovation (IT&I) has been deploying hardware and software at a dizzying pace, all the while working to ensure that there is enough support on the Help Desk, as our system strains under the weight of a sudden level-up in usage. Academic and Student Support Services have moved to virtual formats.  Student Affairs and the Residence Life team are finishing up the process of helping our residential students retrieve their belongings, and the facilities team has identified appropriate places on campus for emergency spaces for the City of Danbury, should that be necessary.  It has been all hands on deck, and people have been rising to the challenge with positive attitudes.  Whew.

It is sure to be a little bumpy for the next few weeks.  We’re all learning quickly but mistakes will happen.  Nevertheless, I see some potential positive outcomes from adapting to this new reality.

Online Teaching and Learning

WCSU does not want to become an online university.  I want to be clear on that. We are woven into our community and we serve students from many backgrounds with varied needs.  Not all of our students (or faculty) will thrive in an online environment.  But some students will.  At WCSU, we’ve been trying to determine the right audiences and approaches for our online offerings (graduate, returning adult, hybrid, low-residency, and so on).  This quick turn-around to an online environment creates an opportunity for us to gather some actual data on these questions.  I am hoping for some great conversations and analytics when this is over.

It is also important to note that this midcourse shift in medium places faculty in a good position to assess the impact of moving their instruction online. Working with students face-to-face for the first half of the semester has provided the opportunity to get to know how each student engages their education.  This will help them see where the change in medium is or is not impacting student success.  When there is a change in student performance it may be time to review the approach. If student performance stays roughly the same, things are probably on the right track.  There will be a lot to learn about instructional design from this simple metric.

Online Academic Supports

While many students, staff, and faculty prefer face-to-face experiences for academic support, this isn’t necessarily a great fit for a majority commuter campus.  As my colleagues have worked at breakneck speed to develop processes to support the virtual versions of our support services (tutoring, academic coaching, advising for students of all learning needs), we now have the opportunity to compare the volume of demand for services, and possibly the impact of interventions, with the face-to-face version.  We may learn that we should reconsider the proportion of online vs. face-to-face services when we return to normal operations.

Registration for fall is also underway.  WCSU has (wisely) committed to requiring students to meet with their academic advisors prior to being allowed to register.  This allows us to flag critical pre-requisites or course sequences, discuss challenges or the need for academic support, identify opportunities (minors, internships, study abroad), and most of all, build relationships with our students.  However, like the realities of academic supports, sometimes our students’ work schedules, etc., make traditional office hours problematic.  Testing out platforms for good virtual advising experiences could be good for us.  I’ll add that learning to keep our advising recommendations in Degree Works could be another good outcome.  Think of all the paper we could save!

Collaboration

I’m not in love with the collaboration tools yet, but I can definitely see their value. Between Teams for smaller group meetings and WebEx and Zoom for the larger ones, we are learning to stay in touch via technology.  I know lots of organizations have been doing this for years, but education tends to be a high touch environment.  We find the free flow of face-to-face conversation and debate to be vital for refining our ideas.  The awkwardness of taking turns in the online environment does kind of dampen discussion, but it will let us proceed with university business and we will get better at it.

There is the other kind of collaboration, too.  We are organized by schools, departments, and divisions in higher education.  We frequently spend our careers interacting within the narrowest of those clusters, without learning much about how our colleagues see things or how they do their work.  Ironically, this separation is making us reach out across divisions more than we usually do.  There’s an esprit de corps as we try to help each other think things through and solve problems.

The connection between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management has never been stronger as we identify the gaps in our areas that result from the lack of face-to-face engagement with students and faculty.  We might just discover some better processes that won’t lead to these gaps when life returns to normal. Likewise, the relationship between students, faculty, and the IT&I team has strengthened, as people become accustomed to the online support they used to resist.  As we moved to quickly vacate the campus, many of us came to understand the logistics routinely managed by our Residential Life staff, our Facilities Team, and our Campus Police.

I know I might sound a little too Kumbaya, this week, but it is honestly how I feel.  I am proud of my colleagues and excited to learn from all that has occurred.  And if that’s a little to mushy, consider this – with this dash to online will never worry about snow days again!

Stay healthy.