What we need for the Second Iteration

What we need for the Second Iteration

We're finishing up week 3 of The Big Pivot, during which my department has managed to take 100+ courses taught by 40+ faculty and go from a tiny fraction of those being online to all of them online. From the beginning, I begged the faculty to keep two precepts in mind: Keep it as simple as humanly possible and Aim for adequacy, not excellence. The first week was rough, not just pedagogically but emotionally. I was getting messages from some of our best faculty that said things like "I am barely holding on" and "I can't do this any longer". But we came together as a department, and here at the end of week 3 I can say: We and our students made it work. And it's turned out... surprisingly mostly OK. We've achieved adequacy.

But now we have a new challenge: Next semester. For us, that's the Spring term that runs May through mid-June. Normally it's a mix of fully-online and face-to-face courses, but it was decided that once again, all of these courses will be online. But next semester won't be a continuation of the last three weeks. It will be a second iteration of The Big Pivot. That makes next semester a very different situation than now. As with all second iterations, we have to accept the first iteration for what it is, study its shortcomings, and get better.

In the second iteration of this pivot, we should still keep things simple, but now we have to aim for excellence, not adequacy. It's time to plant our feet, take a breath, and figure out how to get good at online teaching.

I get it: Nobody wants to hear this right now. I see faculty who are just tired and need to take a prolonged break; the last thing they need is to be told to level up in a mode of teaching that a month ago (!) was completely foreign. And yet, we do need to think about leveling up, because online teaching isn't going away, but our students' need for an outstanding education remains constant.

We are all going to need three important ingredients to make this happen:

Guidelines. Maybe the hardest thing about the Big Pivot was that it was so sudden, and the rules of engagement so unclear. Early on, before campus was closed down, the department faculty and I had a pop-up meeting to simply address the question What the hell are we supposed to do now? Once we put our heads together, established global guidelines (Keep it simple, adequacy not excellence), and shared ideas about how to restructure our courses (how to do exams, how much faculty could change their syllabi, etc.) --- it was at that point the department found its footing. We will need that clarity moving forward as well. Faculty need the basic practices for building a well-designed online course; fluency with all the technology needed to manage such a course; guidelines for social presence and eliciting student engagement; and a host of administrative rules, many of which have been bent beyond all recognition over the last three weeks, for governing their work. Students will need guidelines too, given with compassion and solidarity, to let them know what the expectations are for their work and how best to operate within an online environment.

Support. "Support" here means several different and related things.

  • It means training. Faculty who are unused to online teaching have a lot to learn in a short period of time, and they can't be expected to self-teach all of it. Universities and colleges need to step up and provide quality professional development for faculty that has a minimum of fluff that gets faculty up to speed as soon as possible. Fortunately many good resources (example, example) are already out there.
  • It means support for the other areas of faculty work besides teaching. Many faculty have put all other aspects of their work on hold during the Big Pivot, but with tenure and promotion being what they are, that can't go on forever. Faculty need support from administration to learn how to get their other work done, and done well, just as they're learning how to teach online well.
  • It means emotional support and having a support network. One thing we've all learned from this crisis is how much human interaction matters. And the most powerful lessons that I've learned as a department chair during this time have been about human emotional needs. The Big Pivot has exacted a staggering emotional toll on faculty, particularly contingent faculty. Faculty need kindness, grace, and explicit appreciation. They need their needs to be heard and addressed. And they need -- we all need -- to connect and lean heavily on each other.

Real leadership. All of the above requires real leadership to ensure that it happens. I do not mean "thought leadership" in the form of yet another webinar or Tweet offering unsolicited advice, as helpful as it can sometimes be. Nor do I mean people in leadership positions exerting themselves or holding forth. (One strong lesson I've learned this semester is that the set of "actual leaders" is not a subset of the set of "people with leadership titles" --- and vice versa.) I mean people:

  • Who are connected to the people they lead and know what those people need;
  • Who connect people with resources and with other people to at least partially fulfill those needs;
  • Who put their people first, before their policies;
  • Who listen more than they talk;
  • Who take decisive yet thoughtful action based on the best information they have at the time, which includes the ideas and opinions of those they lead;
  • Who understand the essential nature of clear lines of communication;
  • Who are unafraid to make difficult choices on behalf of the people they lead; and
  • Who embody a strong sense of the purpose of their university.

Those people will make plenty of mistakes in these times, but grace will be given to those who at least try to be a leader.

None of us chose to have a global pandemic to live through right now, and we didn't have much of a choice in our first-iteration response to it in higher ed. But now, moving on to the second iteration, we do have a choice in whether we adapt and get better, or whether we stay happy with adequacy.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.