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Traversing the Edge of Chaos: Phase 1 and 2 preparations for post COVID-19 world

In complexity science or chaos theory terms (remember Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park?), we’re currently in a phase transition–a period of time when a system moves from a state of disorder to a state of order, or vice versa. Some people call it the “edge of chaos,” which sounds like a sci-fi or horror film title. In organizational development circles, though, the edge of chaos is also known as a time when opportunities arise to make real change. Optimistically, when (not if) the world returns to some semblance of order, our environment will be different. It’s very likely our current situation will present opportunities for significant change.

As an example of phase transitions, a recent wildfire razed to the ground entire neighborhoods in and near Santa Rosa, California. Some local officials proposed that this horrific and unwanted situation may offer a unique opportunity to address long standing challenges, such as chronic traffic problems that had developed as the area’s population grew. It would take extra work to plan traffic routes before rebuilding the homes and businesses, but that work could create a new system that can adapt to future needs.

I’ve been wondering if another horrific and unwanted situation – COVID-19 – provides a similar opportunity to make higher education more adaptive. Given the amazing spirit of collaboration that we’ve all demonstrated lately, I also hope that we can make higher ed more equitable while we’re at it. I’ve written two posts to spark and contribute to this thinking sooner rather than later, even though we’re stressed out and stretched thin.

  • Part 1, below, contains ideas we can work on today through summer 2020 as part of a transition from reactive to proactive.

  • Part 2, which I’ll post later this week, addresses planning for the uncertain future of fall 2020 and making longer-term changes to learning and working experiences.

Spring and summer 2020: A gradual transition from reactive to proactive responses

One thing is for sure. As Phil Hill described in his post about COVID-related phases, we can’t jump to a ‘new normal’ overnight. In a useful chart (shared again below), Phil suggested that a new normal may not emerge until 2021 or later, and that we’re going through different phases during a chaotic transition. Let’s look at what we can start doing now, during Phases 1 and 2 (spring and summer 2020).

Graphic showing four phases of higher education response to COVID-19 in terms of online learning adoption.

Many faculty have only just begun teaching their remote courses–what some have been calling “Covid-converted” courses–to help students successfully finish the spring term. Now we’re dealing with technological issues (e.g., sharing a limited number of devices while sheltering in place with your family), ethical issues (e.g., Zoom privacy) and personal issues (e.g., taking care of loved ones or not being able to do so) as they emerge. We’re still working through how to support teachers and students who are suddenly using new technologies and may be using new teaching or learning methods as well. We’re also still working on making on-campus student services and resources easier to access remotely. With consistent annual increases in total enrollment in distance education courses, students’ ability to access services without coming to campus has already been a real need for some time.

It’s certain that we will be using the “Covid-converted” format for the rest of spring, and most likely for summer courses as well. We have no choice but to do whatever we can to convert courses to a remote format. Moreover, very few campuses have adequate staffing to support all of the faculty equally. The first installment of WCET’s new series, What’s Next, outlines lessons learned by the Virginia Community College System as it prepared for the short term. For my part, I’m recommending a few practical strategies to start shifting our approach from reactive to proactive, including but not limited to the following:

Suggestions for educational developers and instructional designers

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind” approach when helping faculty and students: It’s easy to forget what people don’t know when they first start teaching remotely. I’ve seen quite a few “Keep Teaching” sites pop up in the past few weeks, and almost all do a good job of streamlining a lot of information so faculty new to remote or online teaching know what to do and where to start. One group I work with, Peralta Community College District, 1 went the extra mile to present the information from a teaching-centric viewpoint, rather than a tech-centric viewpoint. Instead of organizing pages by tool (Canvas, Zoom), they organized entry-level pages by typical classroom teaching activities and listed how faculty might do those things remotely. This approach meets newly remote faculty where they are. Many will still need us to think this way even after we’ve made it through the spring. At the same time, we need to help faculty adopt a beginner’s mind and imagine what the remote student experience is like.

  • Survey faculty now to identify unnecessary barriers to learning: Faculty new to the experience may have a hard time coming up with methods to achieve what they did in their on-ground classes. For example, some teachers have begun delivering full-length lectures on Zoom with no activities or breaks, just as they would in a classroom. Those teachers may not be aware of challenges related to learning in general–e.g., working memory, cognitive load, selective attention–and to learning equity–e.g., availability during normal class time, adequate Internet connectivity. Some instructors plan to ask students to print their final projects–up to 50 or 100 pages–and mail them via the US Postal Service. Again, practices like these present equity challenges for students without printers, without the ability to leave shelter-in-place and/or the funds to print and ship, etc. Here’s one strategy to make sure we identify and address these cases. Since we often only hear from faculty who ask for help, survey ALL faculty to determine how they are sharing content, facilitating interactivity, and assessing learning. Contact those who unintentionally may be creating barriers for students and brainstorm together ways they might accomplish their goals. (NOTE: I’ll cover the idea of student surveys and student feedback in Part 2.)

  • Take the time to test the learning experience on mobile devices: A number of students and even some faculty are going through the remote teaching and learning experience on a smartphone or other mobile device. However, some online activities and even some LMS experiences (e.g., Blackboard) may not work as well on a mobile device, or behave differently based on using a mobile browser or mobile app. We need to show faculty how to test the mobile learner experience–even if it’s just through a web-based mobile device emulator.

  • Work with campus disability staff to support students who need accommodations: This week Inside Higher Ed published an article about the impact that moving to remote learning can have on students with disabilities. Campuses and districts are scrambling to make remote courses accessible, e.g., captioning videos and purchasing new licenses for tools like Blackboard’s Ally to check the accessibility of course content. Students who face less visible learning challenges may not be considered. For example, clicking the quiz settings checkbox to “display one quiz question per page” supports students who have a hard time staying focused.

Suggestions for administrators

  • Expand and formalize faculty peer mentoring: In my blog post a couple of weeks ago, I shared ideas for administrators such as “recruiting veteran online instructors to mentor faculty new to remote formats.” Now that we’re moving from one or two faculty to the entire program being online, department chairs and deans should create open conversations about online teaching and learning. Campus leaders should continue to build out, institutionalize and formalize peer mentor networks as a regular support structure for all teachers.

  • Support faculty and student health and wellness: In a GSV Virtual Summit this week, the Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Marc Brackett, reported that a recent survey of 5000 U.S. educators’ emotions showed “anxiety” is far and away the most common emotion, followed by “stressed” and “overwhelmed.” On a personal level, this impacts health and relationships; on a professional level, this impacts attention, performance and decision-making. This begs questions like these: How are we supporting the less visible, emotional needs of higher ed faculty, in addition to the training needs? Are we fostering a growth mindset for the faculty who have become learners as they adopt new technologies and teaching practices? The California Community College system has provided Wellness Central, a free online health and wellness resource that is available 24/7. It’s primarily for students, but are administrators and support staff sharing it (or something similar) with faculty?

Again, these are just a few examples of how we can be more proactive this spring and summer as part of Phases 1 and 2. Hopefully, these ideas are something we can accomplish now, while we’re still in a time of urgency and emergency. It’s both necessary and within our capacity to start preparing for fall classes as well. In the next day or two, I’ll describe how we can take further steps toward more substantive change in preparation for Phases 3 and 4. We still don’t know when we’ll reach a new normal or what it will look like, but we can begin building more thoughtful, intentional and equitable teaching and learning environments and experiences for the fall.

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

1 Disclosure: Kevin works as an educational consultant with Peralta Community College District and ACUE, and is on the AAEEBL Board of Directors; MindWires provides services to the CCC California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative.