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Digital Transformation Requires Transformative Coaching Skills

Coaching—used in many industries but is less common in higher ed—can be used as a leadership tools to help learners think and understand more clearly about their career paths. 

Much has been written about what the COVID-19 global pandemic means for the future of higher education. Many traditional universities that have resisted alternative instructional models have shifted drastically in just a few short months, moving classes from face-to-face formats to synchronous distance learning, asynchronous online formats, or hybrid models of every definition. This has required instructors to learn to develop new technical skills as they employ new technology tools and rethink the ways in which they organize and present their content. 

Most in the field agree that there will be no going back to the pre-pandemic days. Now initiated, a much greater number of professors will want to work remotely and use their technical tools moving forward. Once implemented, universities are unlikely to let their investments in infrastructure go to waste. This opens up unprecedented opportunities for higher education, if both online and traditional colleges and universities continue to develop not only the technology but also the pedagogy needed for excellent learning.

The necessity of online and distance learning has been greeted with amazingly fast growth in technical skills among college professors. Educational technology providers are doing their part to make their products even more accessible to the less tech savvy. This is a positive development for students because, as online proponents have argued for years, more options mean more flexibility, potentially higher retention and greater accessibility for all students. However, with these technical skills, professors must finally make the shift that has been inevitable since the advent of YouTube–a move from disseminating information to supporting students’ transformative thinking.

As a dean on the front lines of online learning innovation, I spent many years trying to help educators understand that competency-based online learning was just the visible part of the iceberg representing the being-doing continuum. Competencies are the doing–the things above the surface that we want our students to demonstrate (not simply parrot). But for a high-level competency to be attained, the “being” under the surface must be developed–the thinking, emotion, attitudes and habits of mind that are necessary for expertise. The “being” is developed through independent and group practice, questioning, reflecting, feedback and coaching–skills many of us lack as educators.

The technology tools used in distance and online learning make information dissemination and assessment consistent, streamlined and (after intense initial design work) easy. But as any online teacher can tell you, teaching online is NOT easy. Yet given appropriate (and often expensive) support from instructional designers, the time involved in setting deadlines, grading, lecturing and preparing presentations is reduced. Educators have time for deep and meaningful interactions– through synchronous and asynchronous tools– to support students in transformative learning. But do they recognize the need to develop these skills or have the tools to do so?

Unfortunately, the speed at which change has occurred has left many educators thinking that they have mastered online learning simply because they learned how to use a learning management system and Zoom. Others, with the support of strong institutional leadership, have embraced the challenge with creative instructional strategies. Some are “flipping the classroom” by providing short edited videos of lectures and interactive readings online and then planning face-to-face discussion sessions using Zoom and Google Hangouts. Others use virtual simulations and real-world projects for online student groups. Teachers “drop in” to Zoom breakout work sessions to ask prompting questions and listen to student thinking. Some regularly meet with student leaders assigned to project groups and hold them accountable for deadlines and demonstration of leadership skills.  These educators are learning that  coaching tools are even more necessary when they can no longer rely on their role as content provider and must instead be diagnosticians of student understanding and supporters of student thinking as they grapple with complex concepts.

Coaching is an approach to helping students see clearly and think deeply, and ultimately, be confident enough to make decisions and identify and solve their own problems. Coaching skills are easy to understand but require the habits of mind that many of us rarely develop–asking not telling, questioning with curiosity instead of giving answers, listening for clues for student perspective and understanding, making observations by paraphrasing what we think we hear a student say, offering feedback that is reflective instead of judgment or praise, and offering support to keep students accountable to their goals. These skills, as thousands of professional coaches can attest, are developed through practice and can be used in any setting—face-to-face, synchronously via video conferencing, or asynchronously via discussion boards, chat, recorded feedback, group and individual messaging and more.  Professors with these skills help students take responsibility for their own learning while feeling supported and being held accountable.

For twenty years, many industries have used coaching as a leadership tool. Businesses are beginning to see that intentional leadership is even more important when the majority of the workforce is remote. Coaching has always been an important part of the competency-based education movement as educators have sought ways to maximize adult learning. Now, traditional higher education institutions are learning that if they wish to remain relevant to the students’ lives in unprecedented times, neither technical skills nor previous tactics will be enough. Higher education leaders have spent the last 6 months investing in the technology needed to teach in a volatile environment, but they must now invest in training and coaching faculty as they learn the skills that will make these initiatives successful in a post-pandemic world.

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