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A View From The Trenches: The ‘second phase’ of the COVID-19 transition to remote learning

Last Thursday, Phil Hill posted a high-level view of current events in higher education, called “Covid-19 Migration to Online: Entering the second phase.” He made some astute observations based on the data, along with what has been reported–formally in different education and EdTech periodicals, and informally on blogs and microblogs. In his post, he outlined the state of higher education in three phases–1) the rush to Zoom, 2) LMS integration and addressing equitable access, and 3) the new normal.

As I’ve been helping different organizations gear up to support faculty, students, staff and campus leaders as they make this transition together, I wanted to share a few thoughts. NOTE: Combining Phil’s high-level view with a view from the ground may make for a fuller picture, but as he noted, the situation is evolving so rapidly that we may have more phases before Phil’s “Phase 3: The New Normal.”

The Trouble With Tribbles, and Quibbles With Language

If you’ve seen the original Star Trek series from the late 1960s, you may have seen an episode called “The Trouble With Tribbles,” in which cute, fluffy animals reproduce so rapidly that they jeopardize the current mission, the ship’s food supply, and everyone’s sanity. Phil’s chart depicting the number of courses making the transition to remote delivery is reminiscent of the tribble episode. Namely, today (Mar 23) and next Monday (Mar 30) we will see huge numbers of courses emerge from their ‘suspended’ status and begin again in a new, remote course format. We’re shifting from a linear curve to a parabolic curve in a very short time span. To put this in perspective, one community college district I work with delivered roughly 19% of its courses in online or hybrid formats. In the span of a few weeks the 81% of on-ground classes will be taught remotely.

As I describe my ground-level view of preparing for this change, I want to start by operationally defining a few terms. The differences may seem minor, but bear with me. Phil acknowledges that this current migration to online is “not the same thing as intentionally-designed online education.” While the media and some campus leaders use the term online to mean both, some staff involved in this effort around U.S. have intentionally used the phrase “transition to remote” to draw a distinction.

When I was involved in the San Francisco State University decision to change Learning Management Systems, I would correct people who used the word ‘migration’ when referring to the process. I would joke, “ ‘Migration’ implies that we’ll go back.” I’m not sure if that’s why some campuses are using the word ‘transition,’ but references to a new normal–by Phil and others (see below)–imply it’s not a true migration.

I am sure, however, why some campus initiatives are intentionally using the word ‘remote’ instead of ‘online’–i.e., they want to convey that this will be a different experience for everyone. While there are a few who make this distinction to preserve online education’s increasingly positive reputation, most are doing it for more practical (and humane) reasons. By naming it remote teaching and learning instead of online, it removes the expectation that all teachers–and all learners–gain proficiency in several new areas overnight.

Students worry about those expectations, too. More than one in three higher ed students now take at least one distance learning class in a given academic term (see Phil’s post on Fall 2018 IPEDS data for more details), that still leaves a majority who do not. For instructors, there are many who have not yet adopted any online technology for any part of the course experience. For this reason and others, many campuses are using terms like ‘temporary remote teaching and learning’ or avoiding adjectives altogether with calls to action: ‘Keep Teaching’ and ‘Keep Learning.’

The Challenges of Changing Horses Mid-Stream

Some of you reading this post may never have heard the phrase “don’t change horses midstream.” It’s from a speech by Abraham Lincoln. He quoted an old Dutch farmer to point out the perils of changing leaders at inopportune times. Since I’m not talking about leadership here, I’ll stick with the old Dutch farmer–it’s really hard to switch horses in the middle of a river and it’s really hard to switch course formats in the middle of a semester. Below are just a few challenges we are still addressing in real-time.

Maintaining Stressed-Out Systems

Phil is right that the rush to remote learning experiences will push existing systems to the breaking point. Phil was mainly talking about technology, but I’m going to add a few other types of systems that we need to consider right now:

Technology systems–on both ends of the Internet cable–need to be updated or upgraded before they are upended:

  • Campus-based systems may have to shift some technologies to the cloud if they haven’t already. For campuses that are closed while classes continue, the campus leaders and tech teams will have to figure out how to support on-campus technologies like server rooms. Leaders unfamiliar with technology are turning to distance education committees and/or staff to identify solutions to continue on-ground activities like conducting science labs or proctoring exams over distance.

  • Home-based systems will be tested, too. Families with only one or two computers will be taking turns working and learning remotely as they all shelter in place together. Households with no computers will either pay money they don’t have to get one or max out data rates with their additional smartphone use. Zoom and other videoconference tools already have high-bandwidth requirements, and students–in some states at least–will be competing for a thin sliver of the pipeline with every person sheltering in place with NetFlix and Amazon Prime Video.

Campus and district systems need to react quickly now, but make more proactive preparations for the future:

  • Once we are past the crisis stage, campuses and districts need to assess their distance education resources, capacity and capabilities. Schools that have zero full-time staff dedicated to supporting teachers who transition to any form of remote teaching (tech-enhanced face-to-face, emergency remote, hybrid, or online courses) must now determine how to provide this support. Some short-term solutions I’ve seen this past week have been inspiring, such as deans recruiting veteran online instructors to mentor faculty new to remote formats.

  • Policies related to faculty workload may need clauses related to emergency situations. In the past few years here in California, we’ve had campus closures around the state due to natural disasters (earthquakes, wildfires). This pandemic highlights the fact that our “new normal” will include a need to be prepared for emergencies. (More on the “new normal” below.)

State-wide education systems are rushing to keep up with the member schools and districts’ demand for guidance and support:

  • Out of necessity, campuses are reinventing some wheels out there. Faculty and students need to prepare for remote teaching and learning right away, so distance education committees and staff members around the country are creating and sharing myriad resources. State-wide systems can and should do everything they can to aggregate, vet, curate, and disseminate critical information to reduce this as much as possible. Information overload is real, now more than ever.

  • Centralizing software purchases is more cost effective and takes pressure off individual campuses–especially those with smaller budgets. For example, during a California Community Colleges (CCC) Chancellor’s Office webinar last Friday, the system’s CIO announced that they have invested in a variety of tools that campuses need to support remote teaching and learning, including expanded LMS support (Canvas) and platforms for remote tutoring (NetTutor), remote counseling/advising (Cranium Café), remote exam proctoring (Proctorio), and virtual labs (Labster).

Last but not least, human systems may be the most stressed-out of all:

  • The faculty, students, staff and leaders I’ve described throughout this post are all people, first and foremost. They are worried about their health, their families (especially vulnerable seniors), their jobs, the country, the world, the future. Faculty are reporting it taking as many as 70 hours to switch a course to remote format, and some of these faculty have taught online.

  • I’ve told my students that social physical distancing does not mean social isolation. In my course we investigate how we affect our own learning, including how stress negatively impacts learners. We can extrapolate that to everyone involved, though–stress negatively impacts teachers, learners, staff, leaders, and so on. I’m hoping more campus teams take virtual lunch breaks or virtual happy hours that focus even briefly on something other than this emergency. Among all of the lists we’re sharing on listservs, we should also be sharing virtual wellness tools, websites and strategies. In the research for my class, I learned that HeadSpace and Buddhify are two apps that go beyond meditation timers to mindfulness and stress reduction practices. Headspace is also offering a free collection called Weathering the Storm.

Maintaining a Focus on Equity

While I have seen flashes of what Phil called Phase 1: The Rush to Zoom, I have seen the most attention focused on helping faculty prepare for Phase 2, a difficult balance of simple and holistic approaches to ensuring that learners complete their courses this term. Phil noted some community members calling for doing whatever it takes to keep classes going, even at the expense of equity. That’s not the tone or message I have seen when working with colleges or reading listserv exchanges. Here are two examples:

  • Last Friday during a Covid-19 informational videoconference that reached the maximum capacity of 1000 participants before it began, CCC Chancellor Eloy Oakley admirably and emphatically stated “We are not going to abandon the mission of student equity just because we have reached this crisis.” He repeated this message at the end of the hour-long session.

  • Not surprisingly Peralta Community College District, which started the Online Equity Initiative, has put together a number of resources to address equity and continues to run faculty cohorts through its Equity Training (available as a free resource in the Canvas Commons). Their faculty resource pages pay attention to basic equity factors like access to technology, Internet and training, but also access to campus staff over distance, health and wellness resources, and even food pantries if students cannot get to the pantry at their home campus.

  • In contrast to the overall rush to Zoom, some campuses are recommending faculty limit their use of Zoom because a) students’ lives will be disrupted over the next couple of weeks, b) students may not have access to computers and/or Internet at the time class normally takes place, and c) Zoom may require extensive data use imposing an extra cost on students. As a result faculty are creating videos (with Zoom or Screencast-o-matic), captioning them through YouTube, and posting in Canvas. They’re supporting video “discussions” using asynchronous tools like FlipGrid, which also provides automatic captioning.

A key challenge for every campus in the nation will be to help newly remote teachers to address other equity issues that emerge in virtual environments, such as making course materials accessible for students with disabilities, providing additional support to students who may be disproportionately impacted by the switch to remote learning, managing interaction bias in discussion forums, or addressing potential cultural bias in textbook publisher test banks.

My Hopes for the New Normal

CCC Chancellor Oakley must have read Phil’s Thursday blog post because early on he mentioned that we will enter a new normal at some point and that we have to process what that will look like starting now. As we head toward this “new normal” I want to share two of my hopes for it:

Large-scale, rapid collaboration becomes more common

Doug Engelbart is best known for inventing the computer mouse, but I’ve always had a greater appreciation for his work on developing a “Collective IQ,” which he described as ”a measure of how well people can work together on important challenges–how quickly and intelligently they can anticipate or respond to a situation, leveraging their collective perception, memory, insight, vision, planning, reasoning, foresight, and experience into applicable knowledge” (See dougengelbart.org for details). Ever since Covid-19 hit educational institutions, faculty, staff, students and leaders have been more collaborative than ever.

In true teacher fashion, today’s educators no longer have to beg, borrow, or steal because we share openly and attribute via Creative Commons. As there really are too many to note here, here are just a few examples of recent large-scale, rapid collaboration:

Learning and learning institutions become more humanized

In recent years, humanizing online learning has moved from the “nice to have” pile to the “need to have” pile. It doesn’t just improve the experience, it also improves retention and success. Humanizing learning in general and the institutions themselves now needs to move beyond trend status to status quo. Transfer students and potential transfer students I interviewed for my dissertation stated that they felt like a number at large institutions. We can borrow humanizing principles for online courses to improve the overall educational experience outside the classroom. (Stay tuned for my work on an institution-level equity rubric and training, which includes this concept!)

Part of humanizing the educational experience entails remembering that we are humans. As I mentioned above, everyone has taken on an increasing load of work and stress over the past few weeks.

  • Combat anxiety with support and communication: I’ve been sharing a “We’re all in this together” message with my own students, even offering to help with issues unrelated to our class. I’ve stepped up my communications to make sure students know what I know related to the course and the campus. I make a point to share health and wellness resources in addition to resources related to our class–it’s a bonus if I can find resources that do both. I’m also trying to make more video announcements in addition to my emails and LMS announcements.

  • Don’t forget joy: With large gatherings being cancelled into the foreseeable future, we collectively need to figure out how to recognize students’ achievement, especially degree completion and graduation. With statewide organizations focused on graduation–e.g., California State University system’s Graduation Initiative 2025, the State University of New York’s Completion Agenda–we should find ways to celebrate students who reach the goals we’ve set. (As a separate topic, we also need to support them as they prepare for a workforce that itself needs to prepare for “emergency remote working.”)

I’ll stop here, but this is by no means the end. This wave of Covid-19 has not reached its peak in the US and we don’t know what the future holds after that. The hopes I listed above keep me going in the face of it all, especially since I’m seeing them take shape. Unlike the virus, I hope these practices are here to stay.

Disclosure: Kevin works as an educational consultant with Peralta Community College District and ACUE; MindWires provides services to the CCC California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative.