LEARNING IS CARING: COVID-19 PROMPTS EDUCATIONAL PIVOTS
Experiential or discussion based? Lectures or by the book? Remote or in person? No matter what method of teaching a professor employs, establishing a connection requires one crucial factor: Learning is caring. The present-day reality of the COVID-19 pandemic reinforces the essential and evolving need to find new ways to engage and impart knowledge.
Six months ago, in mid-March, a seismic shift hit the University of San Diego campus community due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Students were moved off campus and faculty made a monumentally quick move to remote instruction in the middle of the spring semester.
This caused the need for students and faculty members to lean on Zoom, Blackboard and other technology platforms for everything from class to office hours, networking, staff meetings and Mass. Signature events had their first virtual experience. The pandemic also cut short promising spring sports seasons as well as the official graduation ceremony for USD’s class of 2020.
Plans were in place to move to a hybrid learning model when classes resumed. Then, on July 29, President James T. Harris announced that USD was shifting to remote instruction for the fall semester.
“Due to the continuing progression of COVID-19 and the number of confirmed cases in California and San Diego, neither the State nor the County has issued guidance for institutions of higher education to reopen this fall,” Harris said. “With less than a month to go before we begin fall classes for undergraduates, we reached the point where a final decision had to be made. Until we receive further notice, I am announcing that all undergraduate and graduate courses will be delivered in a remote learning format.”
Neena Din, associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, expressed confidence in delivering a successful hybrid class experience during a Zoom Q&A. “We’ve equipped 125 classrooms with new technology, Panopto, which is a capturing system that will allow faculty to be viewed from the back of a classroom as though you are sitting in the room,” Din said. “All of our instructors will accommodate students who need to go 100% remote.”
Clearly, all of that preparation has proven prescient.
While the mantra for COVID-19 protection measures — washing your hands, physical distancing and wearing a mask — is gospel for most of us by now, USD had begun its planning by taking steps to implement precautionary and proactive measures for the start of the 2020-21 academic year, instituting a “low-density campus” population.
On July 9, Carmen Vazquez, vice president of USD Student Affairs, expressed confidence in the work done by campus officials assigned to task force committees to carry out a six-point plan announced by President Harris to reopen the campus in the fall. With enhanced health and safety protocols in place, a physically distanced residential living setup, a hybrid academic learning model that would accommodate in-person and remote options, and faculty gaining confidence following remote training courses this summer, USD officials were committed to a successful reopening.
“We will offer high-impact learning experiences, both in person and remotely,” Harris said.
But a pandemic doesn’t care about the best laid plans of mice and men. And when the daily cases of COVID-19 in San Diego County skyrocketed in July, a tough decision was inevitable. Remote learning was the responsible way forward, at least until the curve flattens.
When the pandemic and the abrupt end to in-person classes in March shifted students off campus, for USD’s faculty, it was imperative to immediately begin a deep dive into the best ways to deliver their course content effectively online.
For some undergraduate faculty, the shift to online teaching meant undergoing a major learning curve in the middle of a semester. But many responded to the possibility of long-term remote teaching by spending the summer enhancing their skill-set to serve students better.
“It was brand new for everyone then, but now we all have a little more experience under our belts,” says Lisa Nunn, PhD, a sociology professor and director of USD’s Center for Education Excellence (CEE), an entity that works closely with faculty to enhance their learning and teaching capabilities. “Now, we all have a better sense of what this is all about. This summer has been a chance for everyone to learn and be more thoughtful in how fall classes are designed.”
The CEE, in conjunction with USD’s Learning Design Center (LDC), hosted a number of one-week training courses — Remote Teaching 101 and 102 — to help faculty with their remote teaching needs and gain tips on best practices. “I’ve seen faculty who are highly motivated and have shown a lot of energy in wanting to learn about what’s most effective in both remote and hybrid teaching,” Nunn says.
“USD is known for its small class sizes and high-touch experience,” adds Ashley Kovacs, director of the LDC. “The goal is, ‘How to do this in an online class? How do we make sure students are engaged?’ We are leveraging what we know to enable faculty members to still connect and have those aha moments with students.”
Simon Croom has taught in the School of Business since 2005. Teaching supply chain management to both undergraduates and through a hybrid master’s degree program, Croom understands the importance of getting from point A to point B and beyond.
“Students have such different learning styles and approaches; it depends on the subject as well as on the individual,” he says. “Listening to someone lecture and expecting someone to understand it all is known to not be very effective. You learn by doing, by really digging in.”
Alternative routes to presenting information can be a spark for learning.
“Say you’ve got a flipped classroom, an option in hybrid where students can review content before a class session,” Croom explains. “You can expect them to accomplish what you are trying to explore back in the classroom. It really helps to flip the paradigm with a hybrid approach to student learning. That can’t be anything but a good thing.”
Croom is a big believer in student learning being the main objective, regardless of the platform provided.
“It’s very clear that one of the biggest problems with the quality of education at the post-compulsory level around the world (persons ages 16 and up) is poor learning experiences because of focusing more on content delivery rather than student learning,” he says.
“USD is very much about student learning and I think that’s what sets us apart, regardless of the learning mode. A hybrid approach enables faculty members to explore so many different ways of designing curriculum for student learning experiences.”
He also believes — from both personal experience and by speaking with colleagues — that the spring 2020 semester was actually beneficial for USD students.
“I think what makes a difference is that students seemed to have a much closer connection with the faculty in the spring, because the faculty went that extra step to connect and make it personal.”
The School of Business organized working groups when USD went to remote learning in March. Croom, who has experience with online teaching dating back to the mid-‘90s, was placed in a faculty group for teaching/learning and technology. While the execution of online learning experiences differed among faculty members in the spring semester, Croom believes it provided great impetus for honing those skills moving forward.
“When I’m on Zoom sessions for webinars, discussions or we have drop-in events, there’s a lot of gray hair,” Croom says. “A lot of the senior faculty are very proactive. I’m impressed by how many faculty members have really explored things. For example, we know flipped classroom design has educational benefits over traditional classroom design, so it’s great to see a lot of faculty doing it. There are younger faculty members who have experience teaching online-only and blended classes, and those who use project-based and experiential learning looked at how they could take it to the next level.”
Other benefits of remote teaching are the tools that serve to strengthen connections between current USD students, faculty and alumni.
“My summer undergraduate supply chain class had three webinars and two guest speakers. I don’t think I would have been able to do that in a traditional classroom environment,” Croom says.
When it comes to higher education, the pros and cons of students taking classes on campus, remotely or using a hybrid model are still being evaluated and enhanced. But 2020 promises to deliver a notably positive contribution.
“I think we’ll look back at this as the dawning of a whole new era of enhanced learning experiences,” Croom says.
And President Harris is confident that when conditions improve and it’s safe to do so, that USD can pivot again.
“When we receive permission to move forward with our plans, we will continue to offer our students the options for remote or in-person instruction — whichever approach they believe is in their best interest. We still remain hopeful we will be able to return to campus later this fall. However, our first priority remains the health and safety of our campus community.” — Ryan T. Blystone
Photo of USD student Evelin Morales ’23 (BA), who says, “Remote learning has turned out better than I expected, because it allows students to access educators in ways that weren’t possible before.”