Amid all the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to American life, higher-ed administrators know this for certain: Fall will be here before we know it.
The question is, how do university decision makers prepare for campus reentry? How do you allocate resources, invest in hybrid learning, and update your infrastructure to maintain continuity of education in a time of such unpredictability?
Higher ed administrators and technology specialists also have to ask themselves another question: “What’s our appetite for risk?
After all, every decision is a gamble. The costs are high and uncertainties abound with a pandemic that has yet to be vanquished and students struggling to determine their comfort levels with on-campus vs. remote learning. And to make things just a little more complicated, there’s that ever-present x-factor: the reality that technology is constantly evolving, now faster than ever.
So educators are doing what they’ve been trained to do: ask questions and do their best to avail themselves of all available information to make informed decisions.
If uncertainty complicates back-to-school decision making, the fast-approaching fall term is intensifying the stakes. Nevertheless, say educators, it’s essential to achieve consensus about how to move forward.
Buy-in begets buy-in
“A little bit of listening really helps,” says Jorge Mata, Technology Project Manager for the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). Faculty buy-in is essential, and that only comes from taking the time to understand instructors’ concerns about how hybrid technology investment will impact their ability to teach. “Our plan was, ‘We’re going to listen to you, and we’re going to come up with something that works for you, and we promise you’re not going to have to learn all these new things.’”
The benefits go beyond the obvious. By working closely with faculty, not only do you avoid “unnecessary headwinds,” says Mata, but you create a legion of technology trainers who will speed adoption of the new technology. “You’re always going to have educators who are less comfortable with change, or need more information to commit.” But this population will be encouraged by colleagues who embrace the technology. The undecideds will be more apt to make the leap. Simply put, explains Mata, “They don’t want to be left behind.”
Across the LACCD’s nine colleges, the system’s early embrace of online learning along with its decision to enlist faculty members to assist with training made Mata’s job a lot easier. “We didn’t have to hire huge numbers of [trainers]. We didn’t need to fill a stadium to conduct the training. We mobilized faculty who were already aware of and practiced in the technology.” This enabled LACCD to scale its efforts, while still keeping the training personal, with instruction taking place among people who already knew each other.
That’s one of the reasons Western University of Health Sciences (WesternU) created its Curriculum Technology Committee, says Miary Andria, executive director of the Upland, California-based institution’s Center for Innovation. “It’s a venue for representatives of all our colleges to discuss technology implementations, issues, and challenges. Whether at the faculty, student or administrative level, the technology committee is critical in making sure that we identify all the issues so that we can preemptively address them.”
LACCD has taken a similar approach and, as a result, says Mata: “We have the creativity of thousands of professors and administrators all thinking about how to solve our challenges. We don’t want to say no students. We want to say, ‘Yes, and here’s how.’”