Embracing the ‘New Normal’ in Higher Ed

Embracing the ‘New Normal’ in Higher Ed

When James B. Duke wrote the Indenture of Trust that established The Duke Endowment, he included four institutions of higher education among his beneficiaries. Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University have each received funding from the Endowment since 1924.

Earlier this year, along with campuses across the world, the coronavirus pandemic forced the schools to empty their dorms, cancel events and adjust to emergency remote teaching. This summer, they’ve been working through ever-shifting challenges to plan for the fall.

“The higher education community should accept that perfection is not the goal,” says Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for Digital Education and Innovation at Duke. “For students and faculty alike, the fall semester is going to be about minimizing harm and maximizing resilience, flexibility and grace.”

Dr. Laura Colson McLean, dean of Metropolitan College of Professional Studies at Johnson C. Smith, agrees. “It’s like the ‘choose your own adventure’ books we used to read when we were younger,” she says. “Due to the unknown, we will have to use our institutional intelligence to choose one direction or another to make sure the educational needs of our students are met.”

With classes beginning soon, we checked in to see how these schools are helping faculty members prepare for the “new normal.”

Davidson College

Davidson Fall 2020

After the abrupt switch to online learning last spring, Davidson tapped design teams made up of students, faculty and staff to recommend strategies for the fall, with safety as a foundational priority. Plans for 2020-21 include three modes of course delivery – online, hybrid, flex – and all courses will be accessible to students who are learning remotely.

The college’s digital learning team has been guiding faculty through a Digital Learning Institute. With more than 200 participants, the sessions and readings were created for liberal arts instructors accustomed to teaching in person. Faculty members learned strategies for building classroom community. They worked together to create flexible syllabi. They heard tips from students about keeping them motivated.

“There are a lot of questions, a lot of conversations,” says Sundi Richard, Davidson’s assistant director for digital learning. “We’re trying to help them move their vast experience into spaces they may be less familiar with.”

Davidson plans to reconvene with the first day of classes on Aug. 20.

Says Richard: “Whether students take in-person classes or online, we want them to experience all the things that make their Davidson education special.”

Duke University

Duke United

With classes beginning on Aug. 17, university leaders say the 2020-21 academic year “will be unlike any other in Duke’s history.”

“We’re helping our faculty do the best they can, given the circumstances, to support student learning while mitigating the risks,” Rascoff says.

Feedback from the spring helped shape plans for the fall. Duke used student surveys and focus groups, as well as faculty input, to create a data-driven list of teaching recommendations.

For the university’s approximately 3,000 courses, faculty will use four formats: Face-to-face in newly configured classrooms and other spaces on campus; online synchronous (live with a regular meeting time); hybrid (face-to-face with significant online components) and online asynchronous, with recorded lectures, online discussion and lab work. Faculty have selected the approach appropriate for their circumstances, with the caveat that a version of all courses will be accessible remotely for students who need it.

Duke Learning Innovation, the unit that supports teaching and learning, calls this “flexible teaching.” They are sharing their guides to flexible teaching under Creative Commons licenses to enable colleagues worldwide to borrow and build on their work.

Rascoff believes this moment will change mindsets about teaching and learning – especially digital learning. “Academic leaders now see that digital learning infrastructure is a must-have,” he says. “While I fervently look forward to the return of normal campus life, I am confident the knowledge and skills that faculty (and students) are developing now will have future benefits.”

Furman University

Furman Focused: Fall 2020

Beneath her email signature, Dr. Diane Boyd includes an apt quotation: “Teaching is an art. Improving teaching is a science.”

As executive director of Furman’s Faculty Development Center, she and Assistant Director Ben Haywood spent spring break 2020 meeting with faculty after COVID-19 closed the campus.

“We asked them to take a moment to pause and reflect on their teaching values and how they enact them,” Boyd says. “Repeatedly, colleagues mentioned interaction with students and fostering critical thinking as foundational to their courses. With that as our collective starting point, choosing which course content or goals to cut became slightly more seamless.”

The learning curve was steep, she says, but faculty members were diligent in trying new technology.

This summer, her office has spent hundreds of hours in workshops for professors and academic staff. They’ve offered two “Redesign to Teach Online” courses and a “Redesign with Flex in Mind” course, each with modules of asynchronous and synchronous learning. In early July, they launched another course to help faculty conceptualize how they will safely teach face to face and use synchronous and asynchronous components – all while observing social distancing protocols. Classes at Furman will begin on Aug. 18.

“We center the magic, practicality and challenge of liberal learning when we work with colleagues on redesigning their courses,” Boyd says. The main goals are to share evidence-based options that will help colleagues “claim their agency” in unpredictable teaching times.

Johnson C. Smith University

COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus Information

How well did online teaching work this spring? What hindered remote learning?

That’s the type of information academic leaders at Johnson C. Smith were searching for when they surveyed students and faculty at the end of the 2019-20 school year. They’ve used the answers to create training workshops and seminars to prepare for fall instruction, which will be delivered solely online.

“Faculty are working with instructional designers to develop their classes,” says Dr. McLean at the university’s Metropolitan College of Professional Studies. “I think many are seeing that whether you’re in the classroom or at home, teaching can occur anywhere.”

McLean says Johnson C. Smith had an edge this spring because online work was already part of the university experience. Metropolitan College has offered undergraduate adult degree programs through evening and online courses since 2009, and the university’s learning management system (Canvas) has been integrated across the campus in academic and support services. A learning management system is a special platform for educational institutions that streamlines and integrates digital tools and content.

Does she see a silver lining to the crisis?

“Using technology is the way of the world,” she says. “Students are going to gain more and more online and digital experience, which is important when you look at the corporate landscape and the leadership roles we’re preparing them for.”

Developing Faculty Leaders

The Duke Endowment’s Higher Education program area works through Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University to support academic excellence, educational access and success and campus, and community engagement.

As part of its focus on helping the schools recruit, develop and retain strong faculty, the Endowment awarded a $150,000 grant to each institution in 2018 to support faculty leadership development. With the funding, the schools have launched initiatives focused on building essential leadership skills among faculty. 

At Duke, the grant supports the initiatives of the university’s first Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, hired to oversee efforts that strengthen faculty recruiting and provide tools for success. His office hosts the university’s “Leading an Academic Unit” program, which offers a year-long workshop series with sessions on topics such as effective communication strategies and fostering a respectful teaching and learning environment.

At Furman, the funding helped advance the work of the university’s new Faculty Development Center, which provides sessions on listening with empathy, conflict management, giving and receiving feedback and other topics. Workshops used cohorts to strengthen social networks and professional growth. The university also created a mentoring program that matches strong department chairs with professors who are new to the role.

Davidson and Johnson C. Smith, with campuses just 20 miles apart, chose to work together, pairing faculty from each school for dialogue and problem-solving. Along with individualized executive coaching, the program offers group sessions on managing change, approaching difficult conversations and developing a leadership vision. The first cohort began working together in 2019. 

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