Thursday, June 02, 2022

Many tasty choices in post-pandemic teaching modalities--but...

Seeking one of the greatest treats ever, the Rita's chocolate-chocolate Misto, he dutifully waits in line.

A customer in front of him says, "I'd like a chocolate custard and banana water ice Misto."

"Please, a Misto with vanilla custard mixed with chocolate water ice," says the customer directly before him.

All was well.

He knows what he wants when it's his turn: "I'd like a chocolate-chocolate Misto." The Rita's team member shows consternation: "I'm sorry, but we can't mix that combination."

He stands, befuddled. He has seen the possibilities. He sees the water ice tub. He sees the chocolate custard dispenser. "Why don't you just, uh, put the chocolate water ice in the chocolate custard?" It's all so close, so tantalizingly close.

"It's just not the way we do it." Despite the protest, the worker seems equally befuddled. Both are frustrated.

Fortunately, Rita's does offer the extraordinary chocolate-chocolate Misto, which combines these two chocolate flavors and seems to shunt them to an extra-dimensional space from where they return as an exponentially more chocolatey dessert.

This tasty and seemingly ridiculous analogy is really not far off from where many institutions stand in terms of teaching modalities now that the pandemic is (hopefully) subsiding. Many teachers have demonstrated clearly that they can offer courses effectively not only using a wide array of modalities but, more interestingly, through mixing those modalities. Many students have also leveraged modalities to access content and engage in class community.

I am not saying all professors should teach anything-goes Hy-Flex courses, using advanced in-class technologies and accompanying pedagogical techniques to meet every student request. But we've been mixing for a while through hybrid teaching, and now since 2020 students and teachers dipped in and out of modalities as they suffered through the ongoing assaults of COVID. Both groups have experienced modality fluidity. For instance, for better or worse, everyone realizes snow days might be a thing of the past because students can be engaged for a day of school-related online activities. Quick shift.

But institutions are often limiting the modalities through which classes can be offered, sometimes strictly. Mostly, they are compelling courses to be offered  in person as part of the collective return to normalcy.

I do get it. For institutions, things are complicated. They are pressured to provide to students an onsite, on-the-ground, face-to-face experience--both in and out of classrooms. Faced with difficult decision-making, as is often the case in such situations, some have resorted to a frustrating absoluteness: Strict, firm rules about modality.

We're in the middle of a pedagogical shift, an unprecedented moment of offering instruction in a wide array of "flavors." I don't fault institutions for trying to control some of it. They are under these real pressures from students and sometimes parents.

But we must remember that the choices are right in front of us, and everybody knows it. Professors have recorded video of lectures in the classroom. Zoom rooms have provided synchronous conversation platforms. Asynchronous discussion groups have served for recitations and in-class conversation.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Strategic Student Engagement, in the Classroom and Beyond: What college leaders need to know," Melody Buckner, associate vice provost for digital learning and online initiatives at the University of Arizona, said, “You don’t walk into Starbucks and just get offered a black cup of coffee anymore. You have a whole menu of options to choose from, and I think that the success of higher education depends on offering a menu of modality of learning environments and investing in each one of those” (1).

When students are told they can't Zoom into a class one day or watch a video of the lecture they missed  or use an asynchronous lesson for a class when they were sick, that one size fits all, they only have to think back to a few terms ago when on-the-fly alterations were a regular occurrence. They know it is not true.

They can see how easy it is to scoop some chocolate water ice into whatever flavored custard is available--and they can't understand why anyone would deprive them of the glory of the chocolate-chocolate Misto.

Note:

1) This 2022 research brief was written by Alina Tugend.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

What do they really want?

In my new position as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in Drexel's College of Arts and Sciences, I have a renewed perspective on issues facing a university.

Our past two year's experiences with COVID-induced remote learning raised many questions, to put it mildly. A primary question we faced was what people really want from education, divided into stakeholders: What did students want? What did parents want? What did teachers want?

Seeking answers often led to difficult conversations, because, although this should be obvious, none of these groups had monolithic views of educational delivery and modality. Hearing the news, you might want to have a knee-jerk opinion and say, "Parents want their kids back in school" or "Students want to return face-to-face" or "Teachers don't want to go back into the classroom."

In truth, we saw wide variations within these populations. No question, our administration heard from parents who feel the price paid for college includes an in-person experience, even if these were "squeaky wheels" (at times it felt that every unhappy parent seemed to know our provost if not our president, and would they go right to the top with complaints). Yet other parents didn't want their students on the ground, in classrooms, dorms, and other shared spaces, while any remnants of the pandemic existed.

As I learned last fall in my own course, when we finally returned face-to-face, many students were exuberant about being back together in person. But some students have been among the most mask-conscious people I know and have been articulate about their own health concerns. Also, while some students loudly objected to they what they viewed as the lesser experience of online learning, some students loved the flexibility online and remote learning offered.

Many teachers were wary of returning to classrooms, especially being compelled to do so, but others were tired of teaching through masks and longed for the face-to-face experience that had drawn them to teaching in the first place. In terms of technology, while, sure, some instructors bumbled around in Zoom, many have learned, in ways that often surprised themselves, the advantages of remote, online, and hybrids, especially the "chrono-hybrids" I discussed previously.

COVID-19 is ongoing and will continue to present modality-based challenges. I do think we got a lot right. For instance, tough as it was, through the year we have tried to reduce the number of modality shifts after courses were listed on our term master schedule (TMS). Students are often surprisingly accommodating about these changes, but I think it is reasonable that the modality listed on the TMS should provide some level of assurance as to how a given class will be offered.

Simply, we can offer education in more ways now, so we shouldn't be surprised when it's more difficult to determine what people want. Students and faculty both realize that the old ways of teaching and studenting can yield to improved approaches. It's worth noting that I think that we have not done a great job communicating these things clearly to parents.

Education is multi-faceted and complex. Giving people what they proclaim to "want" isn't always the best solution. Part of the contract of education, one that makes it unusual, especially higher education, is that you pay someone to teach you content and in ways that challenge you. You cede to their expertise in ways that are supposed to help you be a more fulfilled person.

In general, for all demographics, we have to be clearer about articulating what it is we are doing and why, so that when our actions are not aligned with peoples' "wants," we can explain that course of action. Will this make everyone happy? Of course not! But it will help resist one overarching problem: When people feel decision-making is happening in a black box.

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