How Continuing Ed Divisions Can Help Institutions Shift Online
Higher education is faced with dropping everything they’ve been doing and shifting to a—for some–unfamiliar territory. In looking to get online quickly, there’s a lot of pressure put on faculty leaders and staff to deliver an accessible and efficient education. But there’s a lack of experience in academia shifting to a distance learning environment. Non-traditional divisions have been doing it for decades, so they are sharing their tips for navigating the online world. In this interview, Karen Muncaster and Aleksandar Tomic discuss how the Woods College helped its institution Boston College pivot to remote learning, the impact of COVID-19 on the continuing ed division, and why faculty and staff are advised to use every resource at their disposal, even those right under their noses.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Institution-wide, how has Boston College responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?
Karen Muncaster (KM): The entire university shifted to digital instruction on March 19th. It’s a huge challenge to develop a good online course on the fly, but we’re hearing that the shift is going well. All of our classes are being offered through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. To do that, we had to fast-track our faculty through training and support. On March 24th, all non-essential staff began working remotely, and those who remain on campus are practicing social distancing. We do have students on campus who, for various reasons, were unable to leave, so a very dedicated network of staff is attending to them, making sure they’re supported and have what they need both physically and emotionally.
Aleksandar (Sasha) Tomic (AT): At the Woods College, one important factor has been constant communication, including daily updates. We really sprang into action to support our faculty as much as possible, and they are finding that connectedness to be really comforting. It’s great seeing how communication has played a key role.
Evo: How have Woods College operations and learners been affected?
KM: It’s amazing how Woods College has really drawn together through this experience. Our faculty are all part-time, and you don’t always feel that sense of connectedness when you only see each other occasionally. Now we’re in constant communication with all of our faculty on a daily basis. I’ve been sending out emails that include technological and pedagogical tips, inspirational stories, even music—anything that helps our faculty know that we’re behind them and here to support them.
Our senior group of deans all have experience in the online world and have jumped in to assist our faculty with it. Sasha, for example, meets one-on-one with faculty outside of his division. He provides group training, through Zoom using a variety of tools, in pedagogy. Other associate deans and associate directors are doing the same thing: putting aside their normal duties; the whole staff is completely focused on supporting faculty and students.
Our constant-communication strategy extends to students as well. We help them connect, make sure they know where to get resources within the BC community and from home, touch base with them about completing assignments, have advisors contact them frequently for support, and even help with issues at home, such as multiple people streaming at the same time in one house.
In total, we have 25 staff members, 110 active faculty and about a thousand students at Woods College right now. This experience has absolutely drawn our school together.
Evo: How is Woods College helping Boston College shift to a less traditional, more remote learning environment?
KM: To a degree, we’re providing guidelines and support for faculty who don’t typically work in a remote environment. We’re very fortunate to have a very strong center for teaching excellence and center for digital innovation and learning, which are supporting BC faculty across all schools and colleges in transitioning to remote teaching and integrating digital technology. Since we at Woods College are providing the majority of support for our own faculty, we have freed those centers up a bit. I’ve created a library of resources that addresses areas like digital content for English courses, remote science lab classes, and even ideas on how to do studio art and theater online, which I’ve been sharing with other deans. We’re also seeing that our help is needed in understanding the different tools used online.
This crisis has not only brought our school together, it also has drawn this non-traditional unit, which tends to operate on the periphery of the university, further into university life as a whole. We’ve become a real partner to the other schools. During such a horrible time, this collaboration has been really heartening and will likely be of lasting benefit.
AT: Taking a wider view, a lot of long-simmering processes and changes in higher education that were bound to come eventually are now being accelerated. We, as an industry, knew that the requirement to offer an online option was coming. Institutions have to start looking at what continuing divisions are doing because we have been on the forefront of many of these trends. Slowly but surely, continuing education units are becoming more integrated into the institutional operations.
KM: Online learning and digital innovation has had a slower adoption process at some of the elite colleges. Now that they’ve been thrown into this arena, they’re opening their eyes to new pedagogies, new techniques and new ways of supporting students that they otherwise may not have considered for quite some time.
Evo: What do you expect to be the lasting impact of this shift?
KM: The sense of community will continue to grow, and that can only help our efforts. We’re anticipating a lot of change in the Woods College over the next couple of years. I’m new to the dean’s role here, and we have a fairly new staff, but we’ve formed a really tight group, and we’ve all made better connections with our students and staff. Our school will be moving forward as a real community.
Our faculty have learned that there are new ways to teach, so they’ve added not just new technologies but also teaching strategies. They’re pushing themselves to try new things and develop new skills. I think the university at large is going to find that there are other ways to do things and alternative supports available that they can trust. I see silos crumbling.
Of course, there are negative consequences. Some students don’t have computers, some faculty don’t have wifi. More broadly, some of our faculty, staff, and students are going to be significantly affected, perhaps through illness or financial strains, or both. The Woods undergraduate students are adult learners. Many of them have jobs that can’t adapt to remote work, and they are losing them as a result. It is unclear what the future will bring for them.
AT: Our faculty are a great group of people. They’re very creative and innovative, though some can be a little resistant to change and risk averse. But now, even faculty who previously were uninterested in online options have been forced into online delivery out of necessity. As a result, all of the creativity and innovation that they bring to their disciplines will be applied to online learning. We already see faculty problem-solving together—and not just deeply academic and pedagogical issues, but logistical ones as well. It is beautiful to see that creativity at work.
It would be interesting to see a whole new wave of innovation in online learning led by faculty. They will also likely find that some of these online tools could enhance their face-to-face classes when they return to them. It will be interesting to watch this happening industry wide. Also, higher education institutions across the country are taking a huge financial hit from room and board refunds and endowment losses due to drops in the stock market. It will be a real moment of crisis for many small institutions. We’ll all have to plan for the future, making sure we have a strategy in place if something like this were to happen again. A wave of innovation from so many new people being actively engaged in online education could be very helpful to that end.
Evo: What are a few lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience so far?
KM: We need to be less confident that our faculty are prepared in all the ways we think they are. We definitely need a program for faculty development that helps them become more nimble and gives them strategies and support to enable them to pivot and respond to whatever situation comes. In this case, our staff did a good job of maintaining business continuity; we had a plan, we revisited and revised it, submitted it for approval, and were able to implement it with no wrinkles.
AT: Strong leadership and constant communication is critical. Although we already offered online classes, all staff that teaches them is normally on campus, so we had to adjust to being separated, and keeping in touch has been crucial. Karen set up a standing Zoom meeting for senior leadership, which really helped us connect and come together as a team. Communication also helped us work together to tackle obstacles, solve problems, and figure out whose skills could help other faculty and students.
One thing we realized was that some resources can become overwhelmed very quickly. We have a great center for digital innovation learning, but it only has so many staff to support the whole university. And many institutions don’t have these kinds of support at all. So, regardless of the institutional setting, it’s important look within a team and understand what relevant experience and expertise each member has in order to match those them to problems or people in need.
KM: Continual assessment is also very important: checking in with instructors to see how their classes are going and what challenges they or their students face. Using that data, we’re developing a series of supports, handouts, videos, and drop-in sessions to respond to concerns.
Another important element to remember is that it doesn’t matter what your title is. What matters is what you know how to do and what you can contribute. It’s about what our faculty and students need and who has the skills and knowledge to support them.
AT: Do not dwell on what you don’t have. Some teams get completely paralyzed with bemoaning the things they lack. Think about how you can use what you have and deploy it quickly. This approach has made a big difference to us–just maintaining an attitude of, “We can do this. We will do this. Here are the resources we have, and here is how we can deploy them for greatest impact.” If I had only one message, that would be it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 24, 2020.