As our computer screens filled with tiny squares of faces of students and faculty alike, we watched them fidget with their chairs and screens and heard their voices ring in our earphones … Social distancing measures took hold at Wheaton College forcing the same screen encounters that are now spreading across higher education nationwide.
In the wake of the effort to control the rapid spread of COVID-19, the conversations we have been having with students and faculty are not as different as you might imagine. Both groups described new contexts in which they would be learning: now sharing confined spaces at home with others, unable to have all the answers they needed to understand the future of their work, working through the differences among themselves and the others who now inhabited their unexpectedly virtual classes.
The virtual technologies for connection have included many tools that are now ubiquitous in higher education such as Google Meet and Zoom, a doubling down on course management system use (in our case, Moodle), shared documents and worksheets, as well as immediate connection tools such as slack and project management tools like Trello.
But perhaps most importantly, this transition has enabled us to see continuity in three key issues that Wheaton’s Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning (CCTL) has been addressing since it launched a year ago: inclusion and diversity, the educator as learner, and the strategic importance of centers for teaching and learning in the educational mission of colleges and universities.
When students were surveyed about their access to technology, their ability to focus on school projects in their relocated settings and changes in their autonomy to manage their schedule, the inequalities were stark. While some students had stable connections and multiple devices, others were only able to access phones and had no privacy. Similarly, as we got a sense of faculty familiarity with technology and how the changes compelled by social distancing affected child and elder care, it became clear that the move to remote teaching and learning was fraught with inequities.
Differences in access arising from a wide variety of inequalities are always present in higher education, and the transition to our work in the cloud only clarified these. Our work in a close-knit liberal arts college with a social justice bent moved us to pay attention to inclusion. The CCTL was already mandated in its mission to focus on inclusion. To this end, we regularly work with the educators in our college to maximize the access for all learners in classrooms and co-educational spaces such as peer advising and residential life leadership trainings. We work based on the idea that to enable inclusive teaching, we begin by viewing ourselves as learners.
In the past two weeks, we have lost our ability to ignore how much we need to learn about technology and the changing world, but most importantly, to learn about one another. Reframing educators as learners central to our mission was no longer a difficult sell. In the transition to remote teaching, learning to sustain connections with our students is critical as we manage the need for physical distance. A college like ours that has for the past 186 years prided itself as being a community where relationships between faculty and students are fostered and valued is remaking itself anew driven by the need to sustain our connections—albeit, now at a distance. To honor our legacy, our work in teaching and learning is focused on the intentional creation of connection and community. Today, in the midst of physical distancing measures that have been misnamed as “social distance,” and the isolation of lockdowns, this heritage is more important than ever.
A humanized virtual experience
Strategically, our problem became less about learning the tools to make us virtual and more about creating courses where students and faculty alike have the possibility of being successful through a rapidly morphing global crisis. In other words, our problem was how to create a more humanized virtual educational experience that enables our students and us to withstand the unknowns that are to come.
To provide a sustainable and humanized educational experience, the work of the CCTL is grounded on our values: We view our students as full persons, we prioritize our relationships and collaboration with each other, and sustain our commitment to thoughtful and impactful teaching.
In practice, this has meant that, in less than a week, we have consulted individually with 25% of our faculty with more consultations scheduled in the weeks ahead. We have also facilitated a network of colleagues willing to support their peers with learning new technologies—relationships that we hope will yield as much community as they do technological capacity. Our approach is based on the understanding that proficiency in software tools is not the same as knowing how to use tools to further pedagogical goals. Next week, we begin communities of practice where we can discuss pedagogical strategies as they emerge. Pedagogical practices will require sharing, problem solving and iterative revision as we transition to remote teaching that communities of practice enable. Prior to COVID-19, Wheaton College did not offer any online courses with regularity. Supporting educators as fully social persons at a time of physical distance, we believe will yield fruit in the student experience.
Though the strategic work of our CTL has moved quickly constructing offerings curated tools, a menu of pedagogical strategies in the span of a week, and one-on-one support, our pre-existing toolkit focused on inclusion, collaboration and connection has been invaluable to our rapid take off.
We have worked to assuage what one college termed “the pressure of feeling that you have to go at it alone.” This work has involved colleagues at all stages of online-readiness. We work with colleagues who have decades of excellence in teaching but who are now just learning to turn on the camera on their computers, as well as with colleagues who are ambitiously trying to recreate classroom discussions through novel use of collaborative mapping tools such are Mural. In both cases, the work we do together revolves around core values: how to teach effectively and compassionately, and keeping the varied student experience that each approach will yield at the center of our concern.
The value of a pedagogy focus offered to colleges and universities by centers for teaching and learning has, in our experience, provided a sense of calm and clarity. Instead of fearing new technologies, our one-to-one approach to a pedagogy-centered transition gave faculty members we heard from the agency they had originally thought they had lost in moving to the cloud. Enabling colleagues to repurpose their expertise as teachers, albeit in a different venue, empowered one colleague to now feel that she can “continue to find the right balance for my students.” Finding balance can sometimes be a challenge, one that she realized she is familiar with in a face-to-face class. In both settings, online and traditional, we balance tools to best support our students’ learning.
M. Gabriela Torres, Claire Buck and Cary Gouldin are co-directors of the Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.