Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
All crises might not be the same, but they can prepare you for any unforeseen situations to come. With the COVID-19 crisis, CE divisions were faced with the challenge of getting more traditional classes into the remote learning space, which also meant getting the opportunity to lay down an online structure that could be used well into the future by faculties across the university. Using their expertise, CE leaders have the chance to collaborate with the main campus to keep learners engaged during a particularly challenging time. In this interview, Ramu Nagappan discusses how the Extension at UC Berkeley used their past experiences to inform their reaction to the current crisis, what they’re doing to keep business as usual, and how to take advantage of the many opportunities coming out of this situation.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role has Extension played over the past few weeks in helping the rest of UC Berkeley adapt to remote teaching and learning?
Ramu Nagappan (RN): In some ways, because we’ve entered this crisis so rapidly and unexpectedly, we haven’t been working hand in hand with the campus. Extension has years of experience teaching online. It’s a part of who we are through distance learning, so this crisis didn’t give us the luxury of time to sit down with our campus colleagues to help the campus transition. It was abrupt. In the span of a couple of days, all in-person instruction on campus and on Extension was moved to a remote format. We’re all in this together now.
That said, we had a bit of a dress rehearsal back in fall 2018 and 2019. We had a series of wildfires here in the Bay Area followed by some outages imposed by our electrical utility PG&E. In both cases, we had very little time to think about moving instruction to a remote format. We were in close conversation with our campus colleagues to think about how to continue instruction and avoid too much disruption. Both the campus and Extension formed working groups around instructor resilience. Our groups have worked together to think of online education tools to use, like Zoom, and about the ways in which we can support our instructors while empowering them and giving them the room to be creative in very difficult circumstances.
What we’re looking forward to over the next several months, is thinking a little bit more about the long-term future of online synchronous learning. Because Extension can be nimbler than the main campus in that we don’t follow the traditional academic calendar, we have the flexibility to experiment. We’re working with our instructors at Extension to identify unique things they’re doing, innovative ways they’re engaging with their students and then sharing that information with our campus colleagues because that kind of entrepreneurial spirit is part of Extension’s DNA. That’s where we will ultimately be able to support and help our campus.
Evo: What is it going to take to make sure students who are currently engaged in remote learning courses understand the difference between what they’re doing now and what really good online education looks like?
RN: That’s something we’ve spent a lot of time talking about in our leadership meetings in the last couple of weeks. We’ve had for over 20 years online learning at Extension. These courses were designed by an instructional design team working closely with subject matter experts. It takes several months to put together a high-quality course. We’re in a very different realm here, but we see it as an opportunity. We were sometimes hampered by the fact that putting together an online course required several months. That’s not to denigrate good instructional design, but there’s an interesting medium, where we are thinking about offering these remote courses even after this crisis. We don’t like the term remote, as it has negative connotations of being distant but not accessible. So, we’re looking for a better term right now.
We’re hearing some positive things in certain areas. In our design program, both the program director, instructors and students have all reported a favorable experience; they like being able to see and interact with one another in real time. That’s not something we had much of in our traditionally designed online courses. There is an opportunity here to find a silver lining in the midst of this very challenging set of circumstances. We can develop a new suite of courses that will take advantage of students’ new receptivity to online learning. People are getting comfortable with the idea of being in front of a webcam and participating in a course. We’ve all been forced to do that, either to teach or learn. We see this as a long-term trend even once we’re past the crisis.
Evo: How open do you think more traditional faculties will be to experiment with online and flexible learning options over the next few years?
RN: At this stage, because we were thrown into this so suddenly and everyone recognized the need to carry on, most of our faculty at Extension have been willing partners. They’ve gotten onboard. We’ve offered them as much support as we can and have multiple touch points each week. There’s ongoing training and one-on-one support if they need it. We’ve been able to give them the resources to be successful. As this goes forward, some instructors will embrace this new learning modality, and others who will find it too challenging–or their particular subject or discipline doesn’t lend itself to online. We’ve heard this concern before, even 20 years ago when online courses first emerged on the scene.
So, there’s always that initial resistance, but we didn’t experience it in these last couple of weeks because there was no choice. In the future, when there is more of a choice, we’ll continue to have people who hesitate to adopt change, and that’s fine. We need to understand what their hesitations are and find ways to support them too. The same dynamic is playing out on our campus. There will be a point when we’ll have to make decisions about what courses lend themselves to this new online modality.
Evo: What has the shift to remote learning meant for Extension courses and learners?
RN: Some students complained that this isn’t what they signed up for and that they wanted a face-to-face experience, so we worked to help them get comfortable with the format or figure out an alternative solution. The vast majority of our students are accepting it. There’s a striking number of them who also are really embracing this form of learning as a source of community in a time of great isolation. We’re all stuck in our homes right now, working and learning remotely, but some of our students have said they look forward to the class because they can interact with classmates. And so, we’re glad that Extension can be there for them, too, and provide that continuity in their lives.
Evo: Have you seen many cancellations or are folks mostly comfortable with the format shift?
RN: We’re still getting a handle on the numbers, but we haven’t had a huge number of requests for drops and refunds. There have been some, and our campus is sticking to standard policies for refunds. As a general rule, we’re not issuing refunds to anyone who asked for one. They have to present a case for an exceptional situation, and then we’ll grant it to them. What we are seeing is a significant drop in future enrollment in our face-to-face courses, which we expected. We anticipate that’s going to continue for the next six to 12 months. There’s a smaller dip in our online summer and fall courses, but we’re anticipating that that drop will be relatively minimal as people seek out new opportunities.
Historically when we’ve been in recession in the United States, continuing education and professional education has been a lifeline for people, and enrollments surge. What we’re doing now is really thinking about programs that will serve our audience in the next six to 12 months–what can we do to support people’s retraining, up-skilling and other kinds of workforce development. That’s the next big wave that’s going to hit once we’re past the public health crisis.
Evo: What role do you think divisions that have historically focused on serving adults play in helping colleges and universities adapt to serving more non-traditional learners?
RN: We’ve always been on the cutting edge of online learning. Our campus has frequently looked to Extension as a source of expertise to develop online courses and how to translate particular curriculum to a different learning modality. We’ve been enthusiastic partners in that kind of work. As we look to the next several months, we’re seeing some hesitancy among students to come to the Berkeley campus–both international and even domestic students whose families may not want them to come. Our campus has asked us to think about how we can leverage the existing set of Extension online courses to provide courses to students who may not want to physically be here.
Depending on the public health state of things in the fall, our campus may continue to do remote learning, but that could be augmented by other online courses Extension is offering, both in the remote format and the more traditional online courses we’ve had in our portfolio for years. Some courses we’ve kept up to date, so they can serve undergraduate learners as well. There’s an opportunity for us to share our experience and expertise. Beyond that, we can share our courses with undergraduates or potentially graduate students on campus.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how this pandemic is forcing a rapid innovation in higher education, and how long that innovation might last?
RN: I’m following the trends as closely as I can, and, at times it feels like just an utter fire hose of information and best practices coming from all directions, and it’s great to see. We’ve been trying to compile those so that when we have the time to reflect, we can use what we’ve learned to come up with what we can do for this next stage.
We’re eager to learn from our colleagues at other Extension and continuing ed units. Although we’ve been thrust into this, we want to take advantage of this opportunity to build on our successes in online learning. We’ve done a lot over the last few years, and we’re going to take this quantum leap forward.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 6, 2020.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students