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Some Colleges Planned Early for an Online Fall. Here’s What They Learned.

As the coronavirus caused classes to shift abruptly online in March, Adam Golub did something likely familiar to many professors: He punted. He scaled back expectations for his two seminar-style courses, told students to work on their own, met with them one on one through phone calls or Zoom, and allowed them to finish up their projects as best they could.“I’m not proud, but I’m also not embarrassed. I did what I thought I could do,” says Golub, an American studies professor at California State University at Fullerton. “I was more worried about my students’ well-being: getting them across the finish line rather than trying to construct a curriculum.”Fall will be a different story. Because the Cal State system decided early that the semester would largely be online, professors like Golub were given plenty of time to prepare. Over the summer, after taking a few weeks off to regroup, he signed up for two courses on effective online teaching, which encouraged him to rethink not only what he will teach but how.He learned how to use ed-tech tools to foster online discussions, prepared an introductory video, and made course material accessible to students with tech challenges or learning disabilities. He’s also planning a group project, where students put together a podcast, for example, to keep the feeling of isolation at bay.“We’re doing what we can to deliver courses that keep students engaged and keep students enrolled,” he says. “We want them to feel good enough to come back in the spring.”Yet places like Cal State are in the minority. By the end of June, just 80 of the roughly 1,000 institutions for which The Chronicle had collected data had announced plans for a fall online, including 30 Cal State and Los Angeles Community College District campuses, compared to 655 that said they were planning to teach in person.As other colleges make late pivots to online learning, professors are scrambling once again to figure out how to teach their classes remotely. And this time the stakes are a lot higher. Not willing to put up with emergency measures anymore, students and their families are questioning whether the fall will be any better, using derisive terms like “glorified Skype” to describe the experience they hope to avoid.While many instructors — regardless of their institutions’ stated plans — have been trying to learn how to become better online teachers, colleges that decided in May or June to teach the fall online have been better positioned to help them make such improvements. Instead of spending their summers planning to teach hybrid courses in socially distant classrooms, professors at Fullerton and elsewhere have been able to focus their attention on how to design a fully online course.Departments have met regularly to think through the complexities of designing, say, an online chemistry class for 200 students or a service-learning course. Registrars have been mapping out revised course schedules to take into account students who live in different time zones or may not be able to attend “live” classes because of work or family responsibilities.Surveys and conversations with students and faculty members have informed what teaching 2.0 will look like on these campuses in the fall. Gone, teaching experts hope, are poorly thought-out practices, like hour-long Zoom lectures. The focus now is on engagement: What can instructors do to help students feel like active participants in their own education, not solitary learners staring at a screen? Colleges are also asking — sometimes requiring — instructors to use standard course designs and methods of communication to avoid overwhelming students, who expressed frustration in the spring over having to use multiple learning-management systems and tools to keep track of their work.But, even if fall’s version of online learning is more planned out than the spring’s, will it be able to deliver for students, many of whom have been deeply stressed and had their learning impeded during the past several months?Four hours north of Fullerton, Cal State Fresno’s faculty, administrators, and students sensed that more certainty — and better planning — would help avoid a repeat of the worst aspects of the spring.Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, Fresno’s provost, says that those stressors, including the constant sense of flux and “moment by moment reassessment of where we were,” created tremendous anxiety among faculty members and students alike. “What professors wanted was clear, concrete direction,” he says. Deciding to go remote early helped alleviate a lot of that stress. “If you act fast and have a plan, and the plan is backed up by facts and data, people would say, ‘OK, we are going to invest in this plan and make the best of it.’”Over the summer, the campus spent $1.2 million on training, the bulk of it going toward stipends for faculty who enrolled in online-teaching workshops. “Every single faculty member who asked for training in the summer was given training,” says Jiménez-Sandoval.Many students at Fresno and elsewhere in the Cal State system live in multigenerational households, where privacy is scarce, resources are limited, and the internet is unreliable. Designing courses that don’t require a lot of bandwidth to participate is key, say design specialists. And allowing flexibility with attendance when students may need to help younger siblings or older relatives is important.Joy Goto, chair of the chemistry department at Fresno, says her colleagues have been holding weekly virtual meetings since March to talk about the spring and plan for a better experience in the fall. Goto herself ran a three-week boot camp for faculty members across campus on how to better use Canvas, their learning-management system, and Zoom.In the spring, Goto said, instructors felt frustrated because students became names on a Zoom call, and it felt impossible to engage them in live classes. Exams, too, were a challenge, and many instructors redid assessments to make them open-book to avoid cheating.Over the summer, then, faculty members focused on shifting to asynchronous classes, using a flipped model where students will watch short, taped lectures on their own and use class time for discussion. Faculty members have also been trained on best practices in holding open office hours, creating regularly scheduled times in which students can pop in to ask questions.Fresno has invested in training other staff members as well, such as teaching associates, who run smaller lab sections of large courses like general chemistry. Advising and tutoring staff have also been preparing for a fully online, and accessible, “walk-in” model for students seeking help.Despite national concerns that students might not want to continue to study online in the fall, Cal State Fresno has not seen its enrollment suffer. In fact, it reported a record-breaking number of new students this fall. That’s a sign, Jiménez-Sandoval says, of how necessary students consider a college education to give them a leg up in a struggling economy. “A lot of our students don’t have wealthy parents who can simply say, You can take a year off and I’ll pay for your apartment,” he says.Getting students to show up is just the first step. The next is convincing them to stay.Understanding how to keep students engaged will be critical to colleges’ success, says Vikki Katz, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. In April she and a colleague, Amy Jordan, surveyed more than 3,000 undergraduates across the country about their remote-learning experiences. They wanted to know what challenges students experienced and what colleges could do better for the fall.“One of the things that really emerged from that is how overwhelmed they were from the different platforms and programs they were expected to know,” says Katz.Professors communicated with students in a host of different ways; some through email, others through the learning-management system, which made it hard for them to keep track of messages. And everyone seemed to have their own way of posting assignments and deciding when things were due, throwing off students’ routines.Students complained that some professors expected them to watch live lectures, which requires uninterrupted viewing and a strong internet connection, or to do additional work, on the assumption that because they were stuck at home they had extra time.“That’s really tough for kids who don’t have computers that work well, that share computers with others, and who don’t have reliable internet,” says Katz. “It’s not just learning the content, but getting the content that becomes so challenging.”

It’s not just learning the content, but getting the content that becomes so challenging.

Students also struggled with motivation, Katz says. “They’re missing the rituals of campus. They’re missing their peers. No amount of clever content will replace that.”Those findings suggest a few things that professors can do to improve online coursework for the fall, say Katz. She boils it down to rhythm, routine, and relationships. “The degree to which we can help maintain that,” she says, “will make a massive difference in how connected they felt to the course over all.”Be consistent about where you post assignments and when work is due, Katz advises. Communicate regularly with students. Flip the classroom so that class time is spent on small-group discussions, whether synchronously or asynchronously. Create regular office hours, which Katz suggests calling “student hours,” since many first-generation students think office hours are for when professors want time alone.Why are these routines important? Because otherwise students will burn out, says Luna Laliberte, a senior at Rutgers.A communications major interested in instructional design, Laliberte says she was better equipped than many of her classmates because her high-school experience was entirely online.“My peers felt like whatever routine they had with school was gone,” she says. “I really empathized with that. You’re great for a couple of months, and then all of a sudden you drop off a cliff. You’re not productive, you’re not going outside, you’re not exercising.”Despite her familiarity with online education, Laliberte, too, struggled to get through the spring and summer. At Rutgers, she notes, different schools used different learning-management systems, and she had to toggle among three different ones.While the school of communication made sure professors were consistent in where they posted materials in Canvas and how they communicated with students, that was not true in her other classes.In one summer course, there was no contact with the professor unless Laliberte initiated it. “It was like, Here’s a list of instructions. Read this thing, watch this thing, write a paper about it,” she says. “It felt like one big cram session.” Another course was better in that the professor tried to make it engaging. The one problem: All of the “live” classes were condensed into one week, which gave the course a strange rhythm. “You’re not speaking with anyone for weeks, then all of a sudden you’re speaking with everyone for four days straight.”During this stretch, Laliberte, the first in her family to attend college, also had to contend with a broken computer and finding secure off-campus housing. She worries about what’s in store for the fall. As of mid-August, her course schedule provided almost no information about how classes are structured or will be taught, other than that they will be online. And when she pressed administrators in a town hall about faculty training, she was only told that it was really good, she says. “I was kind of scared that it was going to be as disorganized as in the spring.”Some universities have included students in their plans to improve online learning in the fall.Cal State Fresno put students on its fall-planning task force and invited them to talk to faculty members during online-teaching workshops. Hisham Ayman Qutob, president of Fresno State Associated Students Inc, the campus student-government organization, has told faculty members about the importance of empathy and understanding. Some students will have technological or family challenges, he has said. Others will have trouble simply keeping track of everything going on.Qutob, a senior, took seven courses in the spring, and while he normally considers himself organized, he would lose track of the stream of communication he was getting from professors on different platforms. Another concern he heard from students: How will they get to know their classmates? Students often learn best from other students, he says, and may be hesitant to reach out to a professor with questions. To that end, he says, he asks faculty members to build breakout sessions into their live video sessions, or otherwise find ways to connect students with one another.The University of Texas at San Antonio, which also decided early to stay almost entirely online, has similarly included students in planning. As a result of talking to, and surveying, its often local and first-generation students, San Antonio has asked faculty members to design asynchronous courses whenever possible.To help build connections with and among students, faculty members have been receiving training on ed-tech tools that support various types of communication, like posting notes in a collaborative work space, or commenting on videos. The university also has a standard course “shell” in its learning-management system and has all instructors follow the template, when possible, so that students know where to find the syllabus, how to sign up for office hours, and how long each assignment is expected to take.The additional time also helped faculty members work through trickier challenges, like rethinking coursework that relies heavily on experiential learning.K. Jill Fleuriet, acting dean of the Honors College, says faculty members spent their summer constructing new ways to teach such courses, which are a central part of the honors experience. In a couple of humanities courses, where students study concepts like peace and justice alongside people who have been incarcerated, students will now work collaboratively through the mail, a process which took time to set up given the complexity of the prison system.“Time allowed us to figure out, What do we really need to pay attention to and what do we need in terms of resources?” she says.For a required civics course, professors designed an online version that uses tools like taped video lessons, facilitated live discussion sessions, and peer review. All of that leads up to the final project: designing a service experience that fits students’ beliefs about civic engagement and issues that excite them. Faculty members are so pleased with the redesign of the course, she says, that they plan to keep it online even after face-to-face teaching returns.Engagement is something that Robert Morrison is taking to heart. A religion professor at Bowdoin College, he understands how high the stakes are for liberal-arts colleges like his, one of the first to choose to remain online for the fall. Baked into their identity are small, discussion-driven classes, regular and informal contact with professors, and close ties with classmates, with whom they study and talk, often late into the night.How can you foster those connections online? This summer, Morrison took a course-development workshop to try to figure that out. Part of a three-college program, with Colby and Bates, Bowdoin was helping professors like him create a sense of community remotely.Normally, says Morrison, the course he’s teaching this fall, on the Quran, is driven by the reading list, on the idea that you put a bunch of good books together with interested students, “and I’m fired up, and it all works out.”Now, he’s leaving little to chance. For Morrison, that meant working backward by deciding first what he wanted students to learn, then determining how to get there. He also wanted to reduce the cognitive loads, knowing students were going to be more distracted than usual. So he began building in weekly assignments and regular group work to help keep them on track and more regularly demonstrate what they’re learning.He is also mandating that his students engage with him at least every other week, through email, Zoom, or group chats. And he is putting his students into learning communities. Some are fixed — the same three or four students will be part of a group all semester long — and some are organized around a single assignment.“I’d rather lose a little serendipity,” he says, “than a lot of students.”Morrison’s training this summer was made possible by Bowdoin’s Continuity in Teaching and Learning group, created in the spring to help map out the possibility of an online fall. “This was one of those committee reports I was hoping to be buried in a drawer,” admits Rick Broene, a chemistry professor and the group’s chair.

I’d rather lose a little serendipity than a lot of students.

Instead, its recommendations have provided a blueprint for the campus, emphasizing that professors place values such as student-centered learning, universal design principles, equity, and community at the heart of their online coursework.Faculty members have been asked to be flexible with deadlines, for example, after a campus survey found that students who ran into inflexibility tended to disengage with their courses. Bowdoin also devised an entirely new course schedule, in which classes are held more often, and at different times, throughout the week, to accommodate students who are in different time zones or need options.Broene, for example, has moved his organic chemistry class, which he normally teaches three mornings a week for an hour, to Mondays at 10 a.m., Tuesdays at 5 p.m., and Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Students only need to attend two of the three classes, which meet for 90 minutes.That, of course, places additional challenges on professors, who now have to think about how to make those synchronous classes valuable to everyone in the room, he says, no matter who shows up.Teaching students how to learn effectively online is another common element of fall preparation. For faculty members, that typically means planning out strategies for students to take charge of their own learning instead of lecturing to them.That may mean designating class time for small-group work or asking students to create projects that explain their understanding of the material. “Doing effective learning is not easy,” says Katie Byrnes, director of Bowdoin’s center for teaching and learning, and another member of the continuity group, pointing out that students often resist active-learning strategies. That, she says, is why connection and communication are also integral parts of their online strategy. “The relationship with faculty is often what keeps these students going.”Community colleges have typically been quicker to move to a largely virtual fall. Primarily commuter schools with large adult enrollments, their calculations are different from residential colleges. And although they continue to wrestle with the challenges of teaching hands-on courses, such as welding or nursing, safely in person, Four times as many community colleges have said they will be fully or primarily online as have said they will teach in person.The Alamo Colleges District, which has five campuses around San Antonio, began offering online-teaching boot camps for faculty members in March, shifting more than 6,000 courses online. Many of their students are in high need, so the district spent about $10 million eliminating outstanding balances and offering free online summer courses, as well as free assessment tests, to keep them enrolled.The spring results were solid enough — with spring completion rates equal to the previous fall — that administrators felt they could stay online without harming students’ chances for success. Those spring boot camps were enhanced and continued throughout the summer. Luke Dowden, the district’s chief online-learning officer, estimates that virtually all 2,200 faculty members have received some training.The district’s human-resources department has been calling 100 employees every day to ask them about the challenges they are facing. Early on, says Kristi Wyatt, associate vice chancellor for communications, instructors expressed a sense of worry about whether they could be successful teaching remotely. Now, she says, those questions have dropped away. Faculty members seem to feel a different emotion about an online fall: confidence.

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