Empowering faculty, engaging students in ‘new normal’

Leaders from San Diego State, Western University and the University at Buffalo address pressing challenges on remote vs. in-person instruction with strategies and resources.

When the decision was made by the California State University system to keep almost all instruction online for the fall semester, a team of leaders at San Diego State University started work on a thorough blueprint for success.

Focusing on both a new professional development strategy for instructors and ways to enhance student engagement, they launched SDSU Flex, an all-encompassing model for virtual, hybrid and necessary in-person instruction.

Like most higher education institutions, San Diego State wrestled with myriad questions from the start: “What is this going to look like? Where will labs be conducted? What are the expectations?”

Despite daunting challenges, its preparedness helped embolden SDSU to deliver a crisp, structured and almost seamless plan to its faculty and more than 33,000 students this fall, both for remote instruction and for the 200 courses it plans to host in person.

“This summer, we instructional designers and Ed Techers almost became first responders,” says Rebecca Frazee, a faculty member in the Learning, Design and Technology program at SDSU and one of the leaders of the initiative. “I never expected this would happen. It’s been all hands on deck.”

Frazee and expert panelists shared their experiences, insight and guidance in navigating this uncharted path during a recent webinar held by Campus Consortium entitled “Return to Campus and Prep for the New Normal: Student Experience and Engagement in the COVID Classroom.”

Along with Lisa Stephens, assistant dean of digital education at the University at  Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Dr. Miary Andria, executive director of the Center for Innovation at Western University of Health Sciences, they discussed strategies and tools that can assist higher ed leaders in providing resources to staff and students that can positively affect learning outcomes.

“Many of us are still making decisions about what is the most effective approach to the start of the fall semester and looking ahead to the spring,” said panel moderator Karl Horvath, Chief Information Officer at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “It’s also about making investments. If we make investments now, will we need them a year from now? We have to be prudent about the solutions we come up with. It’s also about online, that we will all be working online at some point and continue to do that in the future.”

Facing the future now

Andria at Western University, a graduate medical school in Southern California, notes there are myriad challenges facing institutions making decisions about the future of virtual and/or hybrid instruction.

“Transitioning from an on-premise, lecture-based platform to develop on-the-spot online proficiency is a quite a challenge,” he says. “It is going to a major obstacle.”

And there are others, he says, including:

  • Technology, support and troubleshooting to do remote teaching
  • Adapting curriculum to fit into new time frames
  • Capacity constraints of both in-person and remote learning spaces
  • Distance learning modalities
  • Quality of teaching and learning

“Speaking to faculty members, they have the concern that it’s hard to really gauge and measure the quality of teaching and learning,” he says. “Secondly, we have the issue of making sure that teachers have the adequate training to teach online.”

More from UB: How the pivot to virtual learning will redefine higher ed’s future

One of the most pressing issues around online instruction and the “home classroom concept,” is the ability for educators to providing a smooth and engaging experience for students.

“You have to transform your habitat into a learning and teaching space and that comes with several challenges, including environmental factors and disturbances,” Andria says. “I’ve heard faculty members teaching with the dog barking in the background, [poor] lighting conditions, kids and noises.”

Those factors and others that colleges and universities must consider should factor in how those pivots can affect the overall outcome for students:

Do schools offer a hybrid model of both online and in-person? Do they give students the option of a more self-guided experience that leverages technology and pre-recorded lectures? Do they allow students the flexibility to pick either, as in a HyFlex (or high flexibility where students choose the type of instruction) model? Or do they go against the current grain of online instruction and opt for more traditional face-to-face instruction out of sheer comfort?

“We have this fear that the online learning experience will be a subpar learning experience,” Andria says. “One of the strategies we’ve adopted is to give students the ability to assess every single class through learning management systems (LMS). Then, we would have the measurements and the [key performance indicators] required to assess the experience.”

Connecting through the challenges

No matter which direction institutions are heading toward, it’s OK to admit there’s been upheaval and work through it.

“There’s a real need for sensitivity around what is remote teaching and learning, which is primarily emergency,” Stephens says. “We all got confronted with the COVID crisis, whereas for many, many years, online learning, distance learning was fully planned, resourced and supported. It was well-thought out … designed to maximize the effectiveness of that learning, engagement and impact in an online world. It’s not meant to be the same experience as sitting in a classroom.”

The notion of asynchronous vs. synchronous and hybrid vs. in-person instruction – as well as the jargon that goes with it – can be daunting for faculty. One of the many resources out there that can help stakeholders and teachers in planning for that near future is a portal called Flex Space – directed by Stephens and Frazee – that started in the State University of New York system and is being used by 5,000 people in 67 countries. This portal of peer-contributed content offers solutions for learning space environments, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were all hit with, how are we going to very rapidly reconfigure all those spaces that we have on campus?” Stephens says. “How are we going to maintain academic continuity with all of our learners … who now suddenly find themselves in a remote learning situation? Let’s face it, faculty have different teaching styles, just as students have different learning styles.”

The Flex Space portal gives users the ability to search a variety of spaces and the steps that were involved in creating them. Room attributes are included along with stories from those who post that show the impact of their experiences. Stephens points out there are also idea boards, where users can invite others to team up on projects.

“It’s very handy during accreditation time when you need to go in and benchmark with your peers,” Stephens says. “You can filter through private universities, public universities, community colleges. It’s open to all educators and free to use.”

How one university is roaring ahead

Frazee says one of the first parts of the preparedness plan at SDSU was the formation of “Tiger Teams.”

“They are pop-up teams specifically laser-focused on one aspect,” she says. “The Tiger Teams we have been putting together [have involved] the president and provost calling together teams made up of administrators, faculty and even students. There was a Tiger Team all about HyFlex, asking what’s that going to look like? How do we do assessments online? What are the policies? What are the tools and techniques? As importantly, what about co-curricular student life?”

The Tiger Teams helped to kickstart and oversee a number of initiatives, including SDSU rolling out Google Suite and Adobe Creative Suite and planning for the next phase of instruction in a physical environment – morphing existing classrooms into “Connected Classrooms” that provide video capabilities and green screen instruction that can lead to better outcomes. One of the unique ways they’ve been able to determine interest from students is to look at heat maps on pre-recorded video where they’ve shown engagement.

“We have been using for awhile live streaming capabilities, recording live lectures, then recording content to be delivered asynchronously,” Frazee says. “I teach blended classes. I teach fully online with live meetings. I also teach a fully asynchronous class. We’re helping faculty think about how they can use recorded lectures and €˜interactivating’ them. How do you increase that engagement using video?”

To that end, San Diego State launched a robust professional development program called the Flexible Course Design Summer Institute, where instructors have learned on the fly how to teach more effectively in the “new normal” environment.

“There are small groups of faculty who are working with one peer mentor,” Frazee says. “There are different modules of self-paced learning, where they’re getting a boost to learning theories and educational technology tools to help them increase engagement. We also continue to have technology checkout for faculty who need technology at home.”

From ways to annotate video to interjecting polling to simply condensing recorded content, Frazee says the learning will be there for those who simply want to look back on it as a “self-contained resource so faculty can continue to use it as a reference.”

“One of the things that we’re promoting in this faculty design institute is the idea of promoting presence, helping people express their own personalities and making it more humanized,” she says. “Engaging with that cognitive presence, engaging with the content and engaging with each other.”

Like Stephens, she says the sharing of resources for those beyond her campus also can be invaluable for those within the education space.

“This is all about a community for us to share our challenges, the tales from the trenches, our solutions and practices,” she says. “Before we start throwing technology at it, we need to think about the learning outcomes. What do we want the students to get out of this?”

Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for University Business

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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