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Synthesizing Some Lessons of COVID-19

One of the lessons of COVID-19 for universities was an indirect effect of moving from in-person instruction to remote learning, heavily dependent on internet platforms like Zoom.

The global pandemic’s psychological impact is the focus of many current social psychological inquiries; it’s also a topic of popular media. The large disparities in the household situations of students taking courses via online tools became evident quite quickly. The isolation that some students felt was obvious to instructors. Universities could not ignore these impacts because they interfered with their learning missions. Many faculty concluded that they needed to adapt their pedagogy to the new medium. This was even more important at Georgetown because of its devotion to educating the whole person,” the cura personalis commitment.

The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) recently completed a full report of their work with faculty during and after spring semester 2021,  which is just one entry in a useful website for the fall return to campus.

There is wisdom collected in the report from our colleagues’ experiences of teaching and learning during COVID-19.

The report is organized about three themes that emerged through a large set of focused discussions organized by CNDLS and meetings sponsored by MCEF and CNDLS jointly.

First, we learned that increasing flexibility in class activities enhanced learning. The glimmers of this finding emerged in the early survey data in April-May, 2020, permitting faculty to assemble more evidence in Fall, 2020 and Spring, 2021. What does “flexibility” mean? In the zoom environment the cognitive load for students absorbing the lecture format became starkly evident. Instructors achieved improved student engagement by interspersing lecture content with small group exercises, breakout room meetings with report-outs, and quick polls about a concept. Some faculty reconceptualized the course assignment structure, using cumulative exercises with intermediate feedback, collaborative Google docs, and other ways of increasing the self-reflection that is useful for synthesis of course lessons. Multiple tools, adaptively applied, improved engagement.

Second, we learned that attention to the social aspects of the class paid dividends for achieving learning goals. The remote environment prevented enrollees from socializing as they wait for class to begin or walk out of class together. Some faculty attempted to integrate current events that students were experiencing into the lessons of the course to level the price of engagement. Others deliberately periodically reached out to each student, or had students work consistently in small groups to assure ongoing social contact. Still others encouraged students to form private chat rooms (e.g., to interact among themselves outside the oversight of the instructor. All of these ideas were versions of using the social group to enhance mutual learning.

Third, faculty who more intentionally designed their use of time in the course appeared to achieve their learning goals more readily. In a way, this third theme is highly related to the first two. If flexibility is desired and supportive group environments are sought, some advanced planning is required. Course content needed to be streamlined. Identifying the content best introduced through slides, exercises, or didactic group work needed to be more intentional. What is presented in asynchronous material versus synchronously needed forethought. One faculty member noted that they had never spent as much time thinking about pedagogy as they did during the COVID-19 remote learning. This required new approaches to course design.

There is an important critical content at the end of the report – the judgment that, during the last academic year, Georgetown did better at supporting students than it did on supporting faculty. I acknowledge that perspective and share much of that assessment. It was indeed the case that most efforts attempted to reconceptualize what cura personalis for students should mean in a fully remote world. We are all proud of what the faculty accomplished during this period. It’s important to note also that our staff colleagues worked long hours, some on campus, some at home, to support our students and faculty. We together should be proud of our accomplishments in that regard. I hope that the summer gives us a bit of a respite and that returning to campus in-person gives us a renewed energy.

The CNDLS report is a good read. Reflecting on the lessons we learned in the past 15 months is a good way to identify what we should retain in our future work.

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