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!
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!