Entering a New Normal for Higher Education

John Bansavich, Ed.D., Director, Instructional Technology and Training, University of San Francisco

John Bansavich, Ed.D., Director, Instructional Technology and Training, University of San Francisco

Working in Higher Ed technology for almost 25 years, I have participated in many changes over the years. From campus wide email adoption to internet and web-based applications, communication platforms and distance education. I felt prepared for the global pandemic that sheltered us in place. In March of 2020, our team prepared hundreds of faculty to teach remotely in a matter of days. Earlier goals for online teaching were accelerated due to the need to provide emergency and remote instruction.

With more than 50 percent of the public fully vaccinated, California opened up for business again on June 15, 2021. In preparing faculty for the new modalities of instruction planned for the return to campus this fall, our hope is that students will return safely to the college campus and to pre-pandemic norms. To assume that academia will return to normal is still unknown. Will faculty and students feel safe to return to small classrooms? Will masking and social distancing still be needed? Will international students be able to travel back to college campuses and stay? The hope is yes. Unlike prior semesters, we may be returning to a campus in flux and adapting to whatever may happen next.

How Might the Classroom Be Transformed?

This fall, colleges and universities are preparing instructors to teach using multiple modalities of classroom instruction. Some classrooms have been re-designed for flexible instruction or HyFlex so that courses are taught both in a physical classroom as well as synchronously with a remote cohort of students connecting from anywhere in the world. At the University of San Francisco (USF), 19 classrooms were outfitted with technology that supports HyFlex instruction. Instructors teaching in these classrooms will be expected to engage students in the physical classroom while also being mindful of remote students who are paying the same tuition. At USF, we are defining HyFlex instruction as formats in which a class meets on-campus in-person for every class session, with synchronous remote participation for some students. Some faculty have opted to teach in a HyFlex classroom, while others may find that they will need to include remote students in a non-HyFlex equipped classroom through Zoom and a webcam from their laptop.

At the University of San Francisco (USF), 19 classrooms were outfitted with technology that supports HyFlex instruction

In HyFlex learning some students will participate in face-to-face synchronous class sessions in-person (in a classroom); while others will participate in face-to-face class sessions via video conference (e.g., Zoom). Instructors are expected to always be on-campus in-person. A HyFlex course makes class meetings and materials available so that students can access them online or in-person, during or after class sessions. All students, regardless of the path taken, will be expected to achieve the same learning objectives.

Pandemic teaching improved faculty’s skill by using Zoom to teach remotely and increased their use of Canvas to support their courses. Classroom engagement suffered for both instructors and students. Pandemic teaching helped faculty improve their digital skills and even introduced new technology tools. Today, faculty and students are better equipped and prepared to rapidly shift to entirely remote instruction. Could the Pandemic actually help higher education consider alternative modes of learning: online, remote, hybrid, HyFlex and other modes we’ve yet to imagine? Technology was the life support for higher education during this period, not to mention the impact that technology had on the global economy. Imagine communication without a stable video conferencing platform to rely on for classroom instruction, webinars, and recording of lectures. The Pandemic forced innovation and ingenuity to bring communities together when we were unable to gather.

Preparing instructors for the fall semester involves training them on the hardware installed in the HyFlex classroom. At USF, a pilot group of faculty began in May of 2021 to prepare for the fall semester by practicing teaching in a HyFlex classroom. It was tricky because faculty were required to come to campus and teach a lesson in the classroom, while an external audience was connected to the room and provided feedback on the remote learning experience. A trainer was also in the classroom with the instructor along with other staff to help debug and support the instructor while they shared presentation slides, wrote on the whiteboard in the classroom, and attempted to respond to chat messages in Zoom. The feedback we received from the pilot was helpful in identifying technical issues and the challenges of teaching two groups of students in real-time.  Portable Zoom Kits, equipped with a tripod, webcam, and microphone, will be made available for faculty to use in the non-HyFlex classroom to support ad-hoc and planned inclusion of students who are unable to be on campus. Student navigators will be hired and trained to support faculty teaching in the HyFlex classroom.

In planning for the fall semester, I oversee a team of instructional technologists who support faculty and students with technology in teaching and learning. I am also an adjunct faculty member who is planning to teach in the classroom but may need to pivot to include students who will connect remotely to the physical classroom, creating an ad-hoc HyFlex learning environment.

Returning to campus this fall involves organizing resources, communication and support. Higher education is preparing for a safe return to the campus, one that provides more choices in classroom instruction.

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