Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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If you’re at an institution that has not invested in an infrastructure for online learning and teaching, this is about to get real.
Even if you are at an institution that has the necessary infrastructure, as colleges and universities close physical locations and transition online for the spring terms, there is a lot involved in that transition. Those of us in this space have been ramping up for the past few weeks, and here are some initial lessons learned from those efforts.
This Is Not Online Learning
One of the first things that emerged from the move from an “outside chance contingency plan” to an “academic continuity plan” mind space is a quick and necessary language transition. Though “online” is the correct terminology for what most institutions are now moving towards in order to maintain operations, the standard usage quickly moved from “online learning” to “virtual learning” and finally settled on – for many institutions – “remote learning.” Part of the reason for this shift is likely vernacular; if our own teams and offices are “working remotely”, then our students are “learning remotely”.
But this language shift serves another critical purpose; it helps communicate that what we are doing right now is not “online learning”.
What we are doing right now is keeping the semester going through the end of an instructional period so that students can progress towards earning their degrees and certificates. We are keeping the wheels on the bus and focusing on accomplishing the courses’ instructional goals for a specific period of time in a specific situation.
This is important to recognize. For all faculty and students out there: what you are currently experiencing is not online learning, even though it is learning delivered remotely.
Online degrees and certificates should be intentionally designed learning experiences that are engaging, efficient, and effective. Online learning as a field has moved away from a “broadcast mentality” of delivering information to an “engagement mentality” of designed experiences that go beyond student-to-content engagement and include rich student-to-student and student-to-faculty engagement. Online degrees and certificates should also have an integrated virtual student support structure that is focused on customer service focused and provides online tutoring, coaching, career services and other critical components of a holistic education.
The use of “remote learning” means we must communicate to faculty and students that:
For any readers who lived through H1N1, this is a horse of an entirely different color. If the situation does not change dramatically in the next two weeks, it is likely that many institutions will be ending their semester online.
This is where I would like to express sincere gratitude for the community of professionals in online learning. Critical organizations in the field, including WCET, UPCEA, Quality Matters and OLC have been collaborating and sharing resources across the nation in order to support institutions.
Many institutions have not invested in the necessary infrastructure — talent, technology, services or otherwise — in order to transition without significant disruption. The community is coming together as is the way of us online learning geeks everywhere — and supporting each other.
Here are a few considerations and things to think about as we move forward in these unprecedented times:
1. Nobody Signed Up for This
One of the first concerns that we heard from faculty (and I was filled with pride to hear it!) was about our students. “What if they don’t have a laptop?” “What if they don’t have a stable internet connection or a webcam?”
These are very valid concerns. Online courses are still growing despite the decline higher education enrollment overall. Many institutions have wait lists for enrollment in online classes, but this situation is entirely unique.
There are many internet providers that are extending options for those suddenly learning from home, including faster internet, or even cheaper or temporarily free access. But that doesn’t solve the issue of access to hardware. Further complicating this problem is the sudden closure of many K-12 districts and the shift to remote learning in many of those schools. Many households don’t have a laptop for every individual.
There are some faculty that don’t have the appropriate technology needed to effectively teach remotely. Many have never taught an online course. Indeed, some may be unfamiliar with the institution’s Learning Management System (LMS).
What can we do?
Provide real-time and off-hours support for faculty transitioning their courses.
By real-time, I mean simple-to-access, with a human who knows what they’re doing standing by. Now is the time to drop everything else and support faculty. Some concrete recommendations include:
Make solid, consistent pedagogical recommendations.
Many faculty members may not have experience with different assessment options online or mechanisms other than proctoring that can be used to ensure academic integrity. Ensure that — across the institution — they are hearing simple, unified recommendations for how to move their courses into a remote format.
Go with the lowest tech possible.
Now is not the time to record hours of lecture capture (honestly, we would never want to do that anyways, but especially not now). We don’t want to rely on mechanisms that assume a level of technical preparedness on behalf of the students. Instead of doing a PowerPoint with voice-over, just post your slide deck with the notes. Keep it simple and keep it low tech.
Editor’s Note: LSU Online has developed specific sites to provide resources and support to faculty and students transitioning to this new modality. To see the student site, click here. To see the faculty site, click here.
2. Everything is Not Solved with Zoom and Remote Proctoring
If a faculty member were working directly with a learning experience designer (LXD) or instructional designer to create an online course, that LXD would never recommend that the faculty member conduct live lectures of significant length that they then post those online. It’s not something we do.
There is significant data explaining how students stop watching a video after 6-10 minutes. An LXD would instead work with the faculty member to understand what the content delivery mechanisms are and recommend a variety of media types best suited to the content — articles, videos, interactives, animations, and even micro-lectures (they have their place!).
But because of the pandemic, we are instead recommending that faculty consider the simplest way to deliver information in the online course (back to that broadcast mentality).
I am a huge fan of Zoom myself, but I use it as an interactive technology, not primarily as an information-delivery technology. We need to ensure that students in homes without a lot of bandwidth aren’t then further disadvantaged by being unable to access a lecture livestream taking place during a specific 90-minute timeframe., particularly when it seems like everyone else in the world is doing it at exactly the same time.
Likewise, proctoring is not the only way to ensure academic integrity.
Though now is also not the time to engage in rich professional development around formative and summative engagement strategies. It is the time to provide tips and tricks for other ways to assess student learning. We need to shift the conversation from “How can we be sure that’s the same student and they’re not cheating?” to “How can we ensure that the student of record can actually meet the course objectives?”
There is a place for proctoring in this change, to be sure, but remote proctoring is not the only way to achieve this. Create quick recommendations with those alternatives for faculty. If you’re worried about student access to technology, the only thing that’s going to make that more fun is if you have students who can’t get to a testing center and who also don’t have a functioning webcam.
3. If It Isn’t Working, Fix It
There are two different applications of this recommendation.
First, you’re going to need to scramble to figure out some technical things. There might be limitations with contracts, specific access to remote drives or other issues. Whatever it is, figure it out and figure it out fast. Faculty and students need us.
Secondly, everything is your job. If someone calls you with an IT question, coordinate it, get it solved, close the loop. Same thing with a faculty or a student question. We are in “fix it” mode. Round up the troops, coordinate, and use the great talent that exists across every campus. This is not an 8 AM to5 PM world. Get used to working bizarre hours and encourage your teams to pace themselves across those hours. You’ll find you have folks who would prefer to work during Saturday and Sunday because they’re also suddenly homeschooling their four children.
4. Phone a Friend
Don’t try to solve any of this in a vacuum. As we were researching different models, I reached out to several folks in the field to see if I could get some answers to questions that I had never needed to ask from an accreditation standpoint.
These are extraordinary times. We can lean into them by being with each other (or rather, at least 6 ft. away from each other) and sharing common practices to ensure our collective confidence in our operations.
There are a bunch of accreditation concerns surrounding the transition to remote learning, including (among many other things):
There’s even a situation wherein teaching hospitals are no longer having nursing students interact with patients in the same way because they don’t have the required personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks and gowns, for the students.
Go ahead and call your accrediting agency, but also coordinate with others in your situation. If multiple institutions need to adopt an adjusted practice, moving forward together with a standard workaround is a better option than going at it alone.
6. Vendors: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
The partners that we use for proctoring and synchronous web conferencing both reacted amazingly when this shift happened. We were already concluding negotiations on pricing for a remote proctoring solution, and our partner immediately started working with our on-campus team to manage the logistics behind multiple models at scale (for a campus community that was not used to online test-taking).
On the other end of that spectrum are the many vendors reaching out directly to faculty with their “free” product — typically some sort of courseware, web conferencing, or proctoring — and offering to “help” with our transition.
To those vendors I say: Please. Stop. Helping.
If those vendors were smart, they would instead reach out to institutions with which they already have relationships and deepen them by providing more support and services. Wasting my time, my staff’s time, and our faculty’s time by promising solutions to problems we’ve already solved with our existing infrastructure is frustrating, takes us away from our core work, and makes me feel less inclined to use that vendor in the future.
In Conclusion: It’s Only March
My final recommendation during this extraordinary time is that we need to pace ourselves. Be as flexible as you can with your team. Our ability to provide support for students and faculty starts and ends with our teams and our talent. They are also going through a lot right now. We don’t know for how long this will upend daily life.
Take care of your own physical and mental health as well.
You’re going to need it.
To see Louisiana State University’s faculty and student websites, please see below.
Faculty Site: https://online.lsu.edu/online-contingency-plan/
Student Site: https://online.lsu.edu/learner-support/
Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted on March 18, 2020.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students