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Keeping Faculty and Learners Engaged While Isolated

The EvoLLLution | Keeping Faculty and Learners Engaged While Isolated
Faculty who have been creative in their remote learning will come back with new innovative teaching styles for future learning.

The speed at which institutions have been able to respond to the COVID-19 crisis has been fast, but was it enough? Are learners able to stay engaged with the content? In this interview, Cathy Sandeen discusses how the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA) team was able to not only respond quickly to the crisis but how the faculty has managed to engage students, and the impact remote learning will have on online education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has UAA responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Cathy Sandeen (CS): During spring break, we decided to eliminate our face-to-face classroom instruction and go directly to alternative delivery modes. For those who went on a trip or back home, it didn’t make sense for them to come back only to be sent away again. That decision was made fairly quickly, but it was easy one to make because the biggest metropolitan area near Anchorage is Seattle, WA, a coronavirus hotspot. A lot of us fly through there, so when the University of Washington made their decision we followed on their heels.

Even though no one had tested positive yet in Alaska, we knew it was coming. We had to respond right away by going to alternative delivery. We use that term deliberately because it’s not all going to be traditional online courses. A lot of faculty members are using Zoom, and they’re doing a combination of synchronous and asynchronous connection with their students. We extended spring break by one week to give faculty extra time to prepare.

We also encouraged students living in our residence halls to leave because of the close living quarters and, in turn, the danger of someone getting sick. However, we have established an exception policy since some students who have no place else to go, like international students, and students who came out of the foster care system and would otherwise be homeless. We also have a pretty unique situation here in Anchorage, with many students here coming to us from very small, isolated villages across Alaska. These villages could have as few as 400 people and are often completely off the road system, only accessible by air, snow mobile or boat.  The 1918 flu pandemic is very much part of the Alaskan consciousness because many of these rural villages were completely devastated with a death rate as high as 90% in some.

Students from these rural areas don’t want to go back for a couple of reasons. They don’t want to unintentionally introduce the virus into a village, but many also don’t have Internet connections in their villages.

Right now, 75 students are approved to continue to live in the dorms. There are still dining services, but they only provide take out. We’re isolated as a state, and we have this increased feeling of needing to react or help, so we try to protect people in the villages.

Those are the initial responses from UAA.

Evo: What impact might the experience of engaging in these remote learning courses have on the broader perspective of the quality of online education?

CS: It’s not our intention to eliminate classroom delivery forever; this is a temporary situation. That said, some faculty are pleasantly surprised by what they can do with remote or alternative delivery. Where we’ve really seen it is in faculty who teach courses with a laboratory component. We were prepared to make some exceptions for them, like dividing into small groups armed with health and safety precautions for some lab courses, but we haven’t needed to because faculty found creative alternatives.

At UAA, we offer a broad range of professional programs as well as community and technical college programs. But even in our automotive and diesel mechanics courses, the faculty figured out a way to teach in a completely distant format. They’ll probably continue to integrate some of these materials into their regular courses when we’re back to business as usual.

Through this process, they’ve discovered the world of learning objects, open educational resources and other teaching methods not traditionally utilized in the classroom. All of this will make all of our classes better in the future because faculty have seen the full scope of learning.

Evo: How are people adapting to this new normal and the change in operations?

CS: People are very cooperative. Everybody is pitching in and rolling up their sleeves. That’s the Alaska way. As chancellor, I would typically start getting complaints and concerns, but I’m not seeing a lot of that. We’ve been very proactive both within our university but also in collaborating with the other universities in the state—coming up with policies and communicating in uniform. We’ve really worked hard on answering questions that people might have, so we can address their concerns.

One benefit we have at University of Alaska, Anchorage is that we’re very focused on the student success mission. People here automatically go into that emergency mode. How can we get these courses going? What do we need to help our students? It’s been very positive. Supervisors have been very liberal. Our employees are allowed to take home equipment from their offices. Everything to ease the process.

IT has been amazing through all of this by making sure we have enough help desk staff available, that our network is working optimally and that students are able to check out laptops.

Those who work in the library have also really stepped up. We made the decision to close the facility to the public but keep it open for faculty, staff and students. We still have computer workstations available for students, with proper social distancing is in place with hygienic cleaning at those stations. Some students don’t have their own computers, so we’ve been thinking about how to deliver traditional services in this time of crisis.

Finally, the communications staff have also been amazing. They’ve been working seven days a week, making sure that people know what they need to know and pushing critical information out on multiple channels.

Evo: What has surprised you the most about what we’ve seen over the past few weeks?

CS: I did expect it to be all-encompassing, because once you eliminate classroom instruction at a university, it’s a big deal; however, what has surprised me is the speed at which we were able to convert and the faculty’s cooperation.

The ability for us to teach from at a distance or through other alternative delivery has been surprising.   We didn’t think we could do it, but we were able to figure it out. We have a couple of units that are specifically designed to help faculty integrate technology into their classes, so those staff members have been working hard to make sure that they faculty is supported.

Evo: What are a few of the lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience so far?

CS: We have a very robust incident management team. It’s a small team and they’re designed at the drop of a hat. If we have a crisis situation, they step in and start managing it and advising me. Here in Anchorage, we had a major earthquake in November 2018—a 7.1 on the Richter scale—and I saw this team’s strength and the procedures that we put in place, so we are really attuned to disasters. We already had the infrastructure in place to be able to bring people together, knew to ask the right questions and come up with solutions quickly.

The lesson from this is to put together a team that can respond quickly and have basic emergency policies and procedures in place. You need to establish something you can default to when you’re faced with a crisis because it’ll help you respond quickly.

We have very good communication channels throughout the university.  We reach each other by email and video. In fact, we’ll push video messages through many channels, including social media. And parents have been very thankful for the updates since not every student can go home. So, it’s a good rule to keep good practices in place because you never know when you’re going to need them, but assuredly you will at some point.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 24, 2020.

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