Higher Education, Thinking, Uncertainty

Deep Breaths

Like everyone in higher education, I have spent every day since mid-March sorting through information and trying to make sound and thoughtful decisions about what to do. From our abrupt exit in the middle of the spring semester to our plans for the fall, nothing has been simple. There are complex interconnections between areas of the university that need to be sorted through and there are multiple constituencies to consider. This takes time, reflection, dialogue, and then logistical planning. It does not benefit from yelling. As I read the coverage of these issues in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times and the Washington Post, I find myself wanting to ask everyone to take a deep breath.

For the record, I am not more concerned with budgets than safety. This characterization of administration is a convenient trope that bears no relationship to reality. Budgets matter, of course, but that has not been the primary motivator of a single decision. It is the background noise that we worry about as we try to figure out what will best serve our universities.

At WCSU, we are striving to return to campus, but in a limited form. We are setting up classrooms with six feet between seats. We are requiring masks for everyone. We are deploying hand sanitizer everywhere. We are reviewing our ventilation systems to be sure we have the best possible air flow. We are ordering microphones for faculty who have masks on, because we are worried that their voices will be muffled, and students will not hear them. We have added all sorts of training in online teaching, so everyone is prepared to flip to online if that is warranted. We have had numerous meetings with union leadership, department chairs, faculty in disciplines particularly impacted by this change, and so on. All of this will have an impact on our budgets that we have no idea if we can recoup, but we are making the plans anyway.

Given all of this work, perhaps it would be easier to just be online. Sure, but then there are these other complications.

Lab sciences are not great online. Faculty in those disciplines have asked to preserve some of that hands-on experience. In some cases, certifying students for work in labs or applying to graduate school relies that hands-on experience. So, we worked together to develop protocols that we all feel are safe. The same is true for nursing, and that faculty has come together to propose what they feel are safe options.

Music ensembles are a disaster online. Don’t let the nicely edited zoom concerts you have seen fool you. Those are big (edited) productions. In reality, there is just too much lag to play together remotely, especially when on considers the variance of bandwidth in people’s homes. We cannot really support ensembles in full, but at least the ones without wind instruments and voices should have a chance to play together. For those others, we are trying to figure something else out, mostly outdoors subject to weather.

I am particularly worried about our incoming first-year students. While it is possible to build community online, it is not easy. Community building online works best with people who are either returning adults or graduate students. To build it with traditional students is a lot of time and effort. I know that some of my faculty will do a great job of facilitating group work that will help students meet each other, but students will miss the way physical co-presence tends to lead to post-class conversations. This is not trivial. We already know that our commuter population sometimes struggles to make these friend connections when they only come to campus for class. Not coming at all will magnify that problem. So, we are trying to preserve some of those first-year on campus experiences. Even if we find we have to return to online only, a few meetings are likely to be helpful in building those important connections between students.

We have a plan for our dorms. We are working through those safety protocols and, yes, we are wondering about our ability to build compliance. Enforcing the use of masks and social distancing protocols in classrooms and libraries, etc., is relatively easy. In dorms, not so much. We are reviewing the various publications on monitoring health in dorms and planning our testing and tracing protocols. We have also updated our fall schedule so families can make informed decisions about the value of dorms, given the proportion of class-time online (schedules vary). Still, some students and families want this option, so we are not just saying let’s skip it. This decision was made with the desire to preserve this option for families who want or need it. It was not made with an eye toward the bottom line. If anything, having the dorms open will cost more than closing them, given the protocols we will have to put in place and the scaled back occupancy numbers.

Nevertheless, the money piece does matter. As usual, the conversations about money in the press focus on the private schools with large endowments and very high price tags. Those of us in public higher education are grappling with small (no) endowments, diminishing state appropriations, and price tags that are lower than the cost of operations. We are being asked about reduced tuition and fees because of the predominance of online offerings, but there is no reduction in the cost of delivery. I am focused on cultivating good online instruction, but I know it is not the same as the expectations these students had for their education. We are being asked about pro-rated dorm costs in case we go home early, but the cost of the dorms will not diminish if we close early. The price is based on the semester, not a weekly rate. We do not know what to do about this. Our price tags are “affordable” but they are still a stretch for many of our families, so I understand their questions about reductions in this context. My tale of how low the tuition and fees are compared to the cost of delivering education is cold comfort to them. This puts us in quite a bind and there are no good answers.

It is July 13th and the decisions we have made so far reflect my (and the entire administrative team’s) best effort to navigate this difficult world. We are likely to change course on a few things as we monitor what is happening elsewhere. We are likely to grapple with decisions about costs and value as the proportions of online offerings shift with those insights. We will continue to address the interconnected decisions of operating a campus, in collaboration with our union leadership, as methodically as possible, even as we hear the demands for information on a daily basis. We will try to respond quickly, but some decisions take time.

This leads me back to the breathing part. Perhaps, for just a minute, we could all pause and think about these complexities. Perhaps we could stop accusing each other of bad priorities and look at all we have done to figure this mess out together. Perhaps we could cultivate a little more patience so that there is time to review the list of protocols we have developed, determine their feasibility, and then make adjustments. We can’t get this done if we are constantly responding to panic and misinformation. So deep breaths, please, so we can all figure out the fall. We will think about the money piece later.

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.

Higher Education, Resilience, Uncertainty

Unhappy Realities

We have done it! Working with my deans, department chairs, and facilities team, we have mapped our classroom capacities for COVID-19 and built a fall schedule. Room capacities were startling, with lecture halls that once fit 75-125 now only fitting 16-25. Fixed seating scenarios were much worse than rooms with moveable seats, so the very few large lectures that we offered will have to be online. Working with faculty preferences and concerns, paired with a few guidelines around creating on-campus experiences for our First-Year students and our upper level major courses, we ended up with a mix of online (60-62%), hybrid, and on-ground classes (38-40%). Absolutely no one is happy.

Of course, no one is happy. My residential students (about 30%) want more on-campus courses. So do some of my commuters, who do not like the online learning experience. Other students (a mix of traditional-aged and returning adults) do not want to come to campus at all. They are juggling work, children, helping with siblings, or serving in essential personnel roles (nursing homes, hospitals, etc.). For them the best option is all online, but not all of them will achieve that. Some students and faculty and staff have health conditions that suggest they should stay away. Others have learning needs that favor face-to-face experiences. Faculty are trying to figure out how to teach in a mask and/or spending the summer reimagining their courses for our very non-intuitive learning management system. For part-time faculty it is even worse, with decisions about on-campus or online, complicated by the reality of reduced enrollments and likely course cancellations. Oh boy.

And then there is the drip, drip, drip of health and safety concerns. As we watch surges in recently reopened southern and southwestern states, we wonder if we should come back at all. After all, even here in Connecticut where the prevailing behavior has been reasonable caution (most of us are wearing our masks and sitting far apart), we know very well that young people will take risks. That is a simple truth.

As the fall schedule began to solidify last week, I started to get the questions and complaints from students. I anticipate my inbox will be full of these missives about the balance of online and on-ground experiences until we start the semester. Then they will be followed up with complaints about how each modality is working. The list will be:

  1. The professor doesn’t know how to use Blackboard.
  2. I can’t hear my professor through the face mask.
  3. I can’t figure out which day to be on campus and which day is online (hybrid/hi-flex).
  4. I thought I wanted the synchronous (live online class), but now I wish it was asynchronous.
  5. And so on.

I am also receiving questions and concerns from faculty and staff. These questions revolve around enforcement of mask wearing (we will all enforce this practice together), cleaning practices (same as always, with supplies to wipe down desks and teaching stations in every room, and hand sanitizer everywhere), ventilation (adequate with masks on), and bathrooms (same as always, just wear your mask and wash your hands). For faculty and staff who do counter/reception service (secretaries, librarians, registrars, etc.), we are adding plastic barriers for extra safety, but most things will be by appointment anyway. These questions will continue through the start of the fall only to be followed up with:

  1. I thought I could teach for three hours in a mask, but I cannot.
  2. I can’t hear my students through their masks.
  3. I can’t read my students through their masks.
  4. I thought I wanted to teach online synchronous, but I wish I had decided on hybrid.
  5. And as always, I hate Blackboard Learn.

Nope. No one is happy.

I have seen all the jabs at administration during this pandemic. We have been accused of making decisions too quickly (driven by monetary concerns) and too slowly (families/students want to know what to expect). We have been accused of offering platitudes and vague statements that obscure realities. We probably have done this as we navigate the balance between decision-making and problem-solving. We are being asked to lead our campuses forward with the same information that everyone else has, while being flogged for each decision. Ok, I have a sense of humor. But, you know, it is not all that funny. We are tasked with making sure we still have universities in the fall, and it is not an easy task.

All I can say is this, I have tried my very best to deal with the realities as they are known today. For faculty, that means working with their proposals for modalities, asking for minor modifications to meet a few face-to-face interaction goals, and then letting it be. For students, that means making sure that most have a blend of learning options in their schedules. They will not have everything they prefer, but they will have some options. For staff, this means working to determine the balance of on-campus and remote work and putting in protections for those in reception areas. For everyone, this means vigilance and compromise.

All decisions have been informed by the very best guidance from the CDC so far: wear masks, wash hands, stay six feet apart. That is really all there is to do, unless we all stay home. Students across the country rejected the notion of just staying home, so we are doing our best to “re-populate” our campuses. When you blend commuter with residential students, like we do, we must assume potential exposure at all times. So, we are erring on the side of caution with our protective measures. The masks, social distancing, and reduced number of classroom experiences appear to be an effective strategy and should go a long way toward preventing a resurgence. We’ll see.

So, no one is happy. No one is going to have an ideal experience. Everyone is going to have to reimagine what education is like in this environment. But, is this really a new situation? Ideal experiences never really exist. Faculty must always figure out how to create the best educational experience possible with the tools and settings available. Students always have to adjust to experiences they did not expect or have not experienced before. So, you know, we could decide this is adventure and, well, get happy.

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.