This week WCET is starting a new series of blog posts on what distance education leaders should be thinking about as we move past the initial pivot to remote learning. The series, “What’s Next?” will focus on a variety of topics aimed at helping you prepare for the summer term and beyond. Many of these posts will be interviews with leaders at WCET institutions reflecting on the lessons they have learned so far. We’ll also be including analysis on a number of other topics.

In the coming weeks you can expect posts on what higher education might look like in the fall and beyond, using open educational resources (OER), licensure requirements during the pandemic, and how some institutions are using chat bots to help keep students informed. Our goal is to help leaders and practitioners think about how to best serve students as higher education and society enters uncharted waters. If you have suggestions for posts or would like to share lessons you have learned so far, please reach out to any WCET staff member.

– Van Davis, WCET

A few weeks ago began the mass exodus of face-to-face instruction to a technology-based “break-this-glass-only-in-case-of-emergency” solution. When sailing waters full of uncertainty, it is good to have lifeboats ready to save our passengers…and ourselves. However, I am reminded of this brief scene from the 1997 film Titanic, that shows the chaos that can ensue when we are not properly prepared.

The Titanic had too few lifeboats for the number of passengers because the deck would look too cluttered, a passenger drill was cancelled, sailors were under-trained, boats weren’t filled to capacity, and one inflatable was deployed upside down. I hope this does not sound familiar for what happened at your institution in recent weeks.

We all know that that there have been countless heroes among faculty, instructional designers, registrars, financial administrators, IT staff, distance ed coordinators and many others. Thank you all!!

Coping, Bailing, and Keeping Sane

Our remote learning lifeboat is feeling a bit more familiar and we have some good resources to keep us afloat:

But We Need to Focus on the Question “What’s Next?”

The future is uncertain. We’re used to maps and weather reports to help us navigate, but those are back on the ship that sank.

It is time think about “what’s next?”

We are starting with a few people who are focused on “what’s next,” whether they are looking to the next few weeks, the summer, or beyond. If you have actions that you are taking that you would wish to share, let us know.

First Up, Sheri Prupis and the Virginia Community College System

We heard Sheri talking about how she’s helping her colleges move forward in a recent call. She serves as the Director, Teaching & Learning Technologies, for the System’s 23 colleges. Virginians enjoy having a community college within 30 miles of every citizen. It’s a state that ranges from the very urban areas around the Washington, DC area to extremely rural and mountainous regions.

They have been converting tens of thousands of face-to-face courses. The vast majority of their faculty have no experience with online or hybrid courses. About 60% of faculty are adjuncts.

The “what’s next” lessons from Sheri and her colleges:

  • Focused on Converting Summer Courses. To prepare for the likelihood that face-to-face instruction will not soon resume, the System’s Chancellor provided guidance for institutional personnel to begin converting summer term courses to remote instruction. Most campuses are already planning and implanting the conversion of the first half of all their summer courses.
  • Gearing Up Media Outreach for Summer Courses. Given the Covid closures across the state, many learners may assume that the community colleges are closed or that there is no space for them to enroll. An aggressive social media (other media being considered) campaign is being created to keep and attract students for the summer term.
  • Converting “Passport” Transfer Courses by Summer. Virginia’s Passport “is a 16-credit hour community college program in which all courses are transferable and shall satisfy a lower-division general education requirement at any public institution of higher education.” There is focus on converting these courses by Summer.
  • Flipping the Focus of Faculty Development in the Short Term. To achieve the rapid conversion of face-to-face courses, the initial focus in working with faculty was on the tools with good practices secondary. Faculty needed to know what software to download and what buttons to push. That was unfortunate by highly necessary step. Moving forward that focus will flip as the future development will begin with the goal of achieving best practices and then focusing on the tools that can be used to accomplish that goal.
  • Grading Has Gone Pass/Fail in the Short Term. The default grading system for all converted courses is now pass, fail, or incomplete. A student can request by the last day of instruction to switch to receiving a letter grade. Once that request is made, the student cannot switch back to the pass/fail option.
  • Sharing Expertise. The colleges have been sharing what they know and their processes. For example, Northern Virginia Community College enrolls over one-third of the headcount in the state. They have extensive online learning experience to share. Germanna Community College has experience with building templates with online courses that they can share.
  • Creativity in Addressing Rurality. Virginia has some extremely rural areas with insufficient broadband access. Some courses are offered via phone with coursework exchanged via U.S. Mail. As Sherri said, “it’s the only way to do it.”
  • Celebrate and Be Thankful. To recognize the hard work of instructional designers in her state, Sheri Prupis created and mailed them hats reading: “Instructional Designer: Because ‘Freakin’ Awesome’ is not an Official Title.” You’ve gotta love it.

What’s Next in the “What’s Next” Series of Frontiers Posts?

Graphic with "what's next"

In future blogs, we’ll share how other colleges and universities are navigating through the immediate crisis while planning for a summer (and maybe a fall) term in which all their courses must be available via “remote learning,” online learning, and/or related modalities. Several common themes are emerging from these stories that we can share to whet your interest in what is yet to come:

  • Remote learning is NOT online learning, is it? But wait, delivering classes via Zoom and other video tools meets the federal definition of distance learning, doesn’t it? And the former campus-based courses ARE online, aren’t they? Sure, but what concerns some chief online officers and instructional designers is that, at least in the short term, resources and processes used to build and to distinguish quality online courses cannot be leveraged in one or two weeks to support every course, every section and every faculty member. Some see the “kitchen sink” approach to digital delivery as a huge step backward. One designer told us, “How will we ever get back to our quality-first orientation?” There is no doubt–we are immersed in a digital learning experiment on a grand scale.
  • Today’s “mash up” remote course does not need to be tomorrow’s “online course.” Some campuses are using the time between today and the beginning of the summer term to incrementally improve the first-generation remote course to a higher standard for summer delivery.
  • Remote learning at scale is expensive. The cost of enterprise-level remote proctoring and collaborative video licenses challenges budgets at a time that austerity measures may be n place, or for institutions opposed to increasing the cost of education during this crisis.
  • Hands-on, clinical and lab instruction remains a challenge. Some institutions are considering delaying lab course delivery to late summer or even to the fall term.
  • Faculty are discovering that online learning isn’t so bad after all. Faculty new to digital education are discovering benefits to teaching online and may be interested in pursuing blended and online teaching after the immediate crisis is behind us.
  • Students have discovered that remote learning provides a pathway to graduation, and are grateful.

Stay tuned. We hope that you find some useful strategies to use not only in the short term, but long after the COVID-19 crisis is in the rear-view mirror. Without a doubt, higher education and online learning will never be the same again. And that might be a good thing.

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Russ Poulin
Executive Director
WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

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Russ Adkins
Russ Adkins, Inc. (Higher Education Consultant)

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