About the University
by C. L. Stambush
As you read this, things may have already changed, but that’s an issue for later. Since mid-March and the COVID-19 outbreak, USI has heavily focused on educational shifts and health and safety. Students and faculty were on Spring Break when the campus transitioned to remote operations. To prepare for the pivot, USI extended Spring Break, affording faculty a brief 14 days to transform any classes that were designed for in-person into online learning environments.
The effort took a team of departments—from Online Learning, Instructional Technology, Disability Resources, David L. Rice Library, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and Office of Planning, Research and Assessment— working together to deliver workshops and services to assist faculty’s shift to online learning and staff to remote work environments, says Dr. Shelly Blunt, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs. Meanwhile, the advising centers, Academic Skills and the Registrar's office provided tutoring, writing assistance, captioning for online lectures and other services to students off campus.
“Department chairs and directors worked diligently since campus closed to ensure faculty members were equipped with needed technology— laptops, webcams, scanners, headsets, tablets and software—to teach their classes remotely,” says Dr. William Elliott Jr., Chair of the Geology and Physics Department.
While faculty, staff and administrators hustled to keep student learning on track, the University assembled a presidential task force with four committees to address returning to campus safely, student progress and educational successes, student issues outside of academics and operational needs for returning to campus in the fall. Assisting the main task force were five essential support teams, for a total of 129 administrators and staff partnering to reopen the University in a manner that strived to safeguard everyone’s health and continued to provide academic excellence on and off campus.
“When we surveyed students in May, they overwhelmingly wanted the in-person course offerings, meaning they want things to be as close to normal as possible,” says Dr. Jennifer Hammat, Dean of Students. “And, according to social media, most students seem willing to don a face covering to be able to come back to campus for classes and access to services.”
In the weeks leading up to the Fall Semester, USI’s Facility Operations increased fresh air intake in the buildings, installed plexiglass barriers in offices, stickers on classroom seats indicating where to sit, “foot openers” on doors for hands-free access, hand sanitizing stations, signage and floor markers to remind everyone of the safety protocols.
Each classroom’s maximum occupancy had to be determined per social distancing guidelines and the Fall schedule reconfigured to accommodate—a herculean task that each college’s department chairs undertook with guidance from the task force, deans and faculty.
"We are making sure academic wellness is redefined." - President Ronald Rochon
The future is about flexibility and options—providing learning modalities to fit students' learning preferences and their individual health and safety needs while keeping their educational goals on track. The Academic Affairs Committee of the Presidential Task Force determined the percentage of the four instructional modes already used at USI: face-to-face, technology enhanced, hybrid and online.
“These course modalities allow us to offer an on-campus experience for the students who want to return to campus,” says Blunt. “These modalities are better suited for courses with experiential learning outcomes, such as laboratories, clinicals, studio, practicums, etc.”
Many classes traditionally taught on campus in a classroom were converted to hybrid courses because of classroom capacity limits. Students in these courses will be online 50% to 74% of the time, with the remaining being face-to-face. For example, classes meeting twice a week (Tuesday/Thursday) could have half the class attend Tuesday while the other half Zooms from home, switching places on Thursday. Each faculty member determines the online versus face-to-face ratio and informs students which days they attend in-class versus Zoom.
Faculty teaching any course, except those already designed as online, had to develop a contingency online course plan in case the campus closes again. “They prepared each week/section/module for both in-person and online delivery methods for the Fall Semester,” says Dr. Kim Parsons, USI’s Chair for Council of Chairs and Program Directors. “While we hope course delivery will continue as planned, we recognize that our situation is fluid and changes may be necessary. Additionally, the online delivery method may be required even when courses still meet face-to-face, since it may be necessary for students to quarantine if they have been exposed to COVID-19.”
Developing an online learning environment requires far more of faculty than taking a course designed for in-class and uploading it to the internet. Seeing a growing need for online learning, the University created the Online Course Development Program (OCDP) in 2015 to assist faculty with the design, development and delivery of effective online courses founded on preestablished objectives. “The success of the OCDP has to do with the fact that instructors are paired with one of USI’s three instructional designers,” says Dr. Belle Cowden, Executive Director of Online Learning.
The instructional design process not only teaches professors to develop highly effective courses, other academics rigorously vet their classes. “As they begin to teach the course, three peer reviewers from other institutions assess their course.” says Cowden. Faculty are paid a stipend to develop a course and record content that is then owned by the University and can be used by other faculty with tweaks, such as a new intro video from a different professor.
To help faculty teach the various new modalities offered in the Fall, a series of boot camps and workshops were launched to assist faculty and instructors in online course design and prepare them to use the available technology—Zoom, VoiceThread, Blackboard and more— to enhance classroom experience and engagement.
“The Course Mapping Boot Camps and other workshops have offered an opportunity for faculty to reflect on the learning objectives, our resources and how we can meet those learning objectives using different course modalities,” says Dr. Kenneth Purcell, Associate Professor of Physics and past Chair of Faculty Senate. “This increased knowledge of the possibilities and the increase of resources available will make a last-minute change much less disruptive for our students.”
Some students had a rough ride last Spring. "About 20% of our students did not have reliable access to the internet to transition to a remote learning environment when they moved off campus," says Elliott.
Overall, the Spring Semeter’s learning curve revealed more positives than problems because of the attitudes faculty, staff, students and administrators showed up with every day. “Students were resilient, engaged and appreciative of faculty efforts,” says Blunt. “It was gratifying to observe faculty collaborating with colleagues in their departments to make the transition to quality online learning in the Spring as smooth as possible. They shared resources and ideas for creating an effective learning environment for students.”
Money can be a game changing resource for students. Mary Jo Harper, Director of Student Financial Assistance, says the University received $2.9 million from the Federal program HEERF (Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund) through the government’s CARES Act in emergency financial aid grants for students. The funds help them cover expenses related to the campus’ disruption due to the novel coronavirus. “Although the funding is heavily regulated, we are following the Department of Education’s guidelines and have been successful in serving 4,798 students with need, totaling just over $2.8 million in awards” she says, noting the remaining funding will ensure more student access to education this Fall. “The Financial Assistance team has done an outstanding job of serving our students.”
The pandemic certainly shook and shuttered the world, but as USI planned for the 2020-2021 academic year, its mission and vision remained, as always, fixed on the future. “It was not always easy,” says Parsons, “but the amount of grace, empathy and caring that was demonstrated during these times revealed the true character of our USI community. It’s what I consider the greatest success of the Spring Semester!”