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The Pandemic’s Lasting Lessons for Colleges, From Academic Innovation Leaders

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The Pandemic’s Lasting Lessons for Colleges, From Academic Innovation Leaders

The pandemic has dragged on, prompting colleges to ricochet back and forth on mask mandate policies and rules about holding classes in person versus online. Professors report that students are disengaged, so much so that it’s even hard to get them to take advantage of free support services. Many faculty and staff members say they feel burned out and demoralized. And college enrollments are down overall.

Meanwhile, institutions and instructors have been pushed to try new strategies—some of which seem promising. Shifting practices regarding grades may inspire students to take risks and study for the sake of learning. Recognition that the digital divide prevents academic progress has prompted colleges to do more to connect students with tech tools.

In the midst of these trends, we wanted to hear how academic innovation leaders are thinking and feeling about higher education right now. What are they worried and excited about? What do they believe is working well, and what should change?

We talked to:

  • Michelle Cantu-Wilson, director of teaching and learning initiatives and special projects at San Jacinto College
  • James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation and founding executive director for the center for academic innovation at the University of Michigan
  • Brian Fleming, associate vice chancellor of learning ecosystem development at Northeastern University
  • Sean Hobson, assistant vice president and chief design officer of EdPlus at Arizona State University
  • Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education at Stanford University
  • Tyler Roeger, director of the center for the enhancement of teaching and learning at Elgin Community College
  • Wendy Schatzberg, director for the center of teaching and learning at Utah Tech University
  • Terik Tidwell, executive director of the Smith Tech-Innovation Center at Johnson C. Smith University

Here are the top trends they’re seeing.

Flipping the Classroom

Professors who recorded video lectures for online learning during the pandemic are realizing they have a new resource at their disposal. Some are putting those recordings to use by adopting the “flipped classroom” model of instruction.

Traditional teaching uses class time to introduce students to concepts, which they then engage with on their own through homework. In contrast, flipped learning involves students learning material on their own first, reserving class time for group activities and active learning.

The pandemic prompted more faculty to ask the question, “What do we actually want to use class time for?” says Tyler Roeger, director of the center for the enhancement of teaching and learning at Elgin Community College. And the answer many of them are landing on, he adds, is: “Actual face-to-face time can be dedicated to problem-working, and working in groups together.”

That model requires that students adjust how they spend their time and how they perceive course materials. For example, some students mistakenly assume that recorded lectures are “optional resources” rather than asynchronous assignments, Roeger says.

Flipped learning can be a big adjustment for professors too. So faculty who try it out should be open to evolving as they go, recommends Wendy Schatzberg, director for the center of teaching and learning at Utah Tech University.

“This is an interesting time to be innovative. It’s an interesting time to try out something new. If you’ve been interested in doing a flipped classroom, why not try it, see if it works. Be very open-minded into what will work, what isn’t—be adaptable,” she says. “Maybe I’m only gonna do a flipped classroom three days out of five, or two days out of five, and adjust to the circumstances of students.”

Building Virtual Reality In-House

As education, social media and entertainment technology companies promote virtual reality tools and services, some faculty members are putting in the effort to create their own VR experiences.

That’s the case at Utah Tech University, thanks in part to mini-grants that the center of teaching and learning makes available to faculty who want to test innovative ideas to improve instruction. Professors in the dentistry department are creating VR programs that replicate what it’s like to work with a body or mannequin. A physics professor is creating labs that can be done online or in virtual reality. And a third professor is learning how to code her own VR escape room.

One reason to build in-house VR systems is that there aren’t many great educational options on the market yet, says Schatzberg of Utah Tech. Plus, when professors create their own materials, she adds, it helps the university and students avoid having to pay licensing fees.

Certain disciplines and classes lend themselves to simulations that take advantage of the strengths of VR. Medicine and nursing programs have been natural fits, but some in the humanities are experimenting too, such as in architecture and film. Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a VR experience that lets students step into the virtual set of a final scene in the classic Orson Welles film “Citizen Kane.”

“You can operate an old-timey camera (virtually) and reshoot the scene and make an argument for why it would be better that way,” says James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation at Michigan and founding executive director for the university’s center for academic innovation. The university had already started a push to VR experimentation before the pandemic, but the health emergency accelerated interest and development, he adds.

Accessibility concerns remain with VR technology, and Utah Tech University is working on accommodating students who don’t want to or can’t use it. For example, if a student tries to participate in a VR physics lab but finds it uncomfortable, he or she can switch into an in-person section of the course instead.

Embedding Student Supports in Courses

Students show up to college needing all kinds of support. But they don’t always know where to find it or feel empowered to seek it out—even when it’s free.

So Elgin Community College has been moving to embed information and access to support services within academic departments, courses and the learning management system used across the institution. For example, librarians are now tied directly into courses and work closely with faculty throughout the semester, so that students can more easily tap into their expertise.

Similar systems could work for embedded tutoring, health and wellness and advising, says Roeger of Elgin Community College.

“All those things being sort of put in the course itself is something I think that’s happened a lot more in response to the pandemic,” he says. There is “so much more being at student’s hands, readily available, rather than having to go out and seek things on our campus.”

It’s not just students who might benefit from this kind of shift. Rather than waiting for professors to find him at the center for the enhancement of teaching and learning, Roeger tries to put himself where faculty are.

Adopting a Student-Centered Outlook

As college campuses (like the country writ large) return to in-person activities, these shifts are accompanied by some flavor of “back to normal” messaging tinged with relief.

That doesn’t mean universities will do away with the innovations they deployed at lightning speed during the pandemic, though. The crisis did something in a few years that might have otherwise taken decades, says Sean Hobson, assistant vice president and chief design officer of EdPlus at Arizona State University, which supports the institution’s extensive online-education efforts. For better or worse, the pandemic gave every college student—along with teachers, parents, employers and just about everyone else—experience with online education. He calls it an “evolution in digital literacy.”

“I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for institutions, for faculty, for students, for technology companies to get back to the designer’s table to think about how to create some of these experiences that ultimately work better for the learner,” Hobson says.

Part of that innovation, to Hobson’s mind, will be adapting systems to students rather than the other way around. Ones that take into consideration how students learn best and are personalized to their needs. Tutoring, for example, during quarantine went from a process that required students to take care of scheduling and be physically on campus to one they could access remotely from their homes.

But the question remains, he says, whether there will be enough instructional designers in the job market to help those changes materialize.

“You couldn’t talk to a [university] president in this country who wouldn’t say they want to evolve and change and innovate and do these things,” Hobson says, “but the people that can actually get in the trenches and do that work, understanding the academic culture and the rules and the technologies and the people with the emotional intelligence necessary to get to an objective, there’s going to be talent issue.”

Building Community With Empathy

As college communities are rounding out their third spring living with and adjusting to the consequences of COVID-19, students and professors alike have been depleted by the pandemic, says Michelle Cantu-Wilson. She’s director of teaching and learning initiatives and special projects for the San Jacinto College District.

Cantu-Wilson posits a solution that is—given the copious Zoom hours logged by students over the past few years—decidedly analog: more empathetic classrooms. It’s important for commuter colleges like hers where students come from diverse backgrounds, don’t live on campus and don’t have time to stick around after class.

That means the community-building that’s going to connect students to support has to happen during class, Cantu-Wilson says. It can be as simple as a professor asking students how they’re doing or talking about available scholarships before jumping into a lecture.

“I still believe that we don’t know the depth to which they felt isolated,” Cantu-Wilson says of students during remote learning. “I don’t think we understand how severe the impact was to their psyches, to their hearts. But I do know that a faculty member who educates the whole student and appreciates the whole student and sees the whole student and validates the whole student is going to help to remediate some of that.”

San Jacinto College faculty and staff are taking eight weeks of training to do just that, Cantu-Wilson says, through asynchronous courses that cover topics including implicit bias, microaggressions and imposter syndrome. While Gen Z students—currently those ages 18 to 25—are adept at recognizing burnout and asking for help, it’s older age groups that she worries about. The ones who are caring for families and working full time alongside school.

“They’re not going to say that they’re struggling; they’re too proud,” Cantu-Wilson says. “That’s the same for first-generation students. We are gonna figure it out ourselves, come hell or high water.”

Rethinking How Universities Work

Some academic innovation leaders say they’re focused on stepping back to rethink how universities work—and developing practices to continually improve campus operations.

“Universities are in the business of knowledge, but universities do a very poor job of managing their own knowledge and strategy,” says Brian Fleming, associate vice chancellor of learning ecosystem development at Northeastern University. “You may have faculty members who study organizational development, but none of that gets applied to the university.”

He’s looking for ways to harness that internal expertise and build relationships with colleagues and peers across campus.

“When you really think about the volume of ideas that are out there,” he says, “how do we manage that knowledge and how do we build connections across those ideas?”

University leaders should learn to think more like futurists, he argues, working to imagine scenarios that might need planning for but are beyond the usual one-year or five-year planning cycles. He points to modeling tools like Earth 2050, a tool to think through predictions of how various technologies might evolve about 30 years from now, and resources from the nonprofit Institute for the Future.

“We need to start thinking more meaningfully about the future,” Fleming adds.

Gathering Pandemic Lessons

It’s been more than two years since the pandemic first shuttered campuses and forced a period of emergency remote learning online. With events evolving so fast and with so much uncertainty, it can be hard to take time to gather lessons from what’s worked and what hasn’t.

That’s a task that Stanford University researchers have been doing through an effort to draft a white paper that gathers observations about teaching and learning during the pandemic and notes key lessons that could be built on going forward.

“Every institution should be doing something like this, and have a process for collecting, documenting and synthesizing lessons learned from the pandemic,” says Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education at Stanford University. “We need some shared narrative.”

Other universities are doing the same. At Harvard University, researchers gathered a “Harvard Future of Teaching & Learning Task Force” that issued a report in recent weeks. “We have an opportunity to not merely bounce back but to stride forward,” the report concludes.

Some academic innovation leaders say that the exposure to new teaching technologies by so many faculty members has upped their interest in trying new teaching techniques.

“There’s this newfound love for innovation growing throughout the corridors of many institutions,” says Terik Tidwell, executive director of the Smith Tech-Innovation Center at Johnson C. Smith University. “They’re asking: What can we scale next?”

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