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Multi-Modality: How To Avoid Becoming Higher Ed’s Blockbuster Video

The EvoLLLution | Multi-Modality: How To Avoid Becoming Higher Ed’s Blockbuster Video
Higher education is in the midst of a disruptive change, and institutions can either define the change or let the change define them.

In December 2018, UMass Amherst announced a strategic expansion of University Without Walls (UWW), which will extend the UMass Amherst traditional academic experience to all students regardless of location or mode of life. Our Chancellor is often heard referring to UWW as the Cloud Campus for non-traditional students.  UMass Amherst has a very inclusive definition of what constitutes a non-traditional student: anyone who is not a full-time, matriculated student in-residence on the UMass Amherst campus. This can range from a 16-year-old pre-college student to a hybrid commuter who lives in their hometown taking both on-campus and online courses to the working professional pursuing a master’s degree part time.

While a number of the major online players in higher education are continuing to silo non-traditional students with stand-alone virtual campuses, UMass Amherst wants to blur the line between the traditional and non-traditional student experience. Our ability to execute our non-traditional student strategy is heavily reliant on engaging and leveraging our faculty to design and deliver courses that effectively engage this key student demographic.

We Don’t Want To Be Blockbuster!

Traditionally, the student experience has often taken a back seat to how and where faculty designed and delivered their courses. Faculty were accustomed to a conventional delivery mode (e.g., lecture) where students were responsible for coming to class to get the content and instruction they needed. But today’s student, traditional or non-traditional, has a much different expectation with respect to how and where they engage in their academic experience. These students want a fully integrated experience where they can choose where and when they learn—on-campus, online, synchronously, and/or asynchronously. We have responded to these demands with what we call multi-modal courses.

We have used Netflix’s disruption of the video rental industry as a cautionary tale, warning our faculty and staff that “we don’t want to be Blockbuster!” We make it clear that delivering multi-modal courses won’t occur overnight. Just as Netflix started as a DVD-by-mail service and took time to develop its streaming model, we should be looking at near-term strategies that ultimately help us achieve our end goal.

But make no mistake, disruptive change in higher education is here.We have two clear choices: We can define the change; or let the change define us. So, we are realistic that multi-modal courses fully integrated with the UMass Amherst campus academic experience won’t be an easy lift. We need to create a culture of change where faculty see the benefits of moving in this strategic direction, with the realization that keeping the status quo is not an option. The Blockbuster cautionary tale has made that quite clear.

Everyone Out Of Their Silo

At UMass Amherst, one of our key strategic goals for moving towards a fully multi-modal experience is to eliminate the “online silo.” As we started to pursue this strategic initiative, we quickly discovered that there were two silos to address—online and on-campus—and both come with their biases and path dependences. Our online faculty tend to view courses through a pure online and asynchronous lens while on-campus faculty lean in the opposite direction with a bias towards face-to-face, synchronous instruction.

There is one anecdote that really captures the essence of some of these silo biases and challenges. We routinely meet with academic departments to discuss our new multi-modal strategy and to stress the benefits that they could realize with a shift in this direction. One faculty member asked if we could provide an example of how a multi-modal course design would benefit both faculty members and students. We pointed to a campus closure due to inclement weather and the disruption to the course schedule. A multi-modal course allows you to shift the course to a virtual classroom where everyone can stay on schedule. The faculty member was quick to point out that their course could not go online in this manner because it required face-to-face interaction. We quickly asked, “face-to-face or synchronous?” The response was: “It makes no difference, online is asynchronous.” And, interestingly, online faculty support this bias as there tends to be a preference for keeping the majority, if not all, interactions asynchronous. It is evident that we have work to do on both fronts, but our mantra continues to be, “Everyone out of their silo!”

Embrace the Multi-Modal Faculty Experience Too

Much is made of the online student experience. Understandably, it is a key factor for any university who wants to compete effectively in the online learning space. But as pointed out earlier, the benefits associated with a student-centered learning experience also extend to the faculty. Multi-modal course design comes with many benefits for a wide range of faculty. One obvious advantage is the ability to engage more students efficiently and effectively using a number of innovative learning tools and technologies.

But the advantages of multi-modal instruction are not limited to a pure teaching mission. Faculty with a research focus stand to benefit as well. Multi-modal courses can simplify a faculty member’s teaching responsibilities where they can teach multiple sections of the same course in the same term, using a number of different teaching modalities (e.g., online, on-campus, etc.). Taken a step further, faculty engaged with field research can take their courses with them, much like a remote student. Ultimately, it is up to us to provide the necessary learning tools and service support to make this a viable option for faculty. If done well, faculty stand to benefit just as much as the students.

At UMass Amherst, we strongly believe that to effectively navigate the disruptive changes to higher education, an institution of higher learning must have a viable strategy for engaging non-traditional students. We are excited about our multi-modal strategic initiative, but are very cognizant that the key to engaging this student demographic is faculty buy-in. What every student really wants is the opportunity to engage with subject matter experts and thought leaders. If we can successfully support our faculty to provide all students with access to the UMass Amherst academic experience via multi-modal courses, we will have succeeded.

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