How to transition (quickly) to online instruction
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many college and university faculty members across the country have been sent home and told to prepare to deliver the rest of the semester’s instruction online.
But what does that look like if your 1-year-old is sick and the 3-year-old is bored, and, oh yes, your partner is a health care worker? And on top of that, you may well be an adjunct, who is teaching at three institutions. As co-directors of a teaching and learning center (also just 1-year old), we are working with colleagues with situational challenges such as these.
Tapping in-house expertise
Wheaton College, where we work, is a Massachusetts liberal arts college dedicated to a highly personalized, face-to-face educational experience. Our challenge is to help colleagues remake their courses knowing that circumstances are virtually certain to change and change more than once. What can give instructors and their students the best chance of success as they make an abrupt shift from the familiar rhythms of attending classes together to an online mode?
Collaboration is our middle name at Wheaton’s Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning (CCTL), and it has been the keynote of our strategy. We have been offering consultations with individuals and departments to strategize about what methods might work best for each course. We are a very small center, with no full-time staff, so it has been important for us to work with other campus units. For example, our librarians geared up fast to offer sessions on teaching with tools such as Zoom, Google Meet and our learning management system.
Faculty and staff taught each other how to record lectures on Google Meet, how to create and structure online assignments, and how to think through what is actually doable.
We also knew that individual faculty and staff had expertise to tap. We sent out an “I can help, I need help” survey, which enabled us to get colleagues the help they needed from each other. Faculty and staff taught each other how to record lectures on Google Meet, how to create and structure online assignments, and how to think through what is actually doable. Many colleagues stepped up to help, including adjunct faculty members and visiting professors, connecting to one another at a moment when so many of us feel isolated.
Strategies for a successful pivot
An institutional commitment to open communication has done much to help. The provost and president began to prepare us for the possibility of a pivot to online instruction days before the announcement. As a result, it feels well planned, as far as anything this rapid and disorienting can. They have built trust by naming the challenges and speaking to the community as human beings under immense stress but willing to work together.
Indeed, this is the key for other higher education leaders to consider: Communicating clearly and with no reservations that the move from face-to-face instruction to online instruction is an institutional priority will provide much-needed momentum. Supporting those faculty members and administrators who are responsible for this transition will make it happen.
Also, college and university presidents and chancellors seeking to make this shift successfully should consider the benefits of using the resources and structures you already have. This way, it is possible to build on your institution’s
existing strengths and you will save time, currently a precious commodity.
For faculty at a residential liberal arts college, the question of synchronous versus asynchronous learning looms large. One faculty member with a class of 15 was planning to use Google Meet to hold discussion during his usual class period. When we consulted with him, he ended up coming to a different decision, not least because his home Wi-Fi cut out in the middle of the consult. Now, he is planning to put some recorded lectures online; to use our LMS discussion thread; and to hold shorter synchronous meetings with breakout groups from the class, and these meetings can be organized on a more flexible schedule.
Others are seeking our help with designing and aligning activities and assignments that students can complete in their own time, individually and collaboratively. There is no single answer for educators wrestling with the transition.
We are already planning the next steps. Students will soon be “back” from extended spring break. Many faculty and staff will need to debrief at the end of the first week, and we will be able to use our monthly forum to bring staff and faculty together virtually to see how the week has gone. Next, we will be organizing smaller online communities.
Our vision for the center is to leverage collaboration among faculty, staff and students to make the whole college into a learning community. When this is all over, we will be a good deal closer to realizing that vision.
Claire Buck, Cary Gouldin and M. Gabriela Torres are co-directors of the Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.