Preparing for Spring
Friday, October 16, 2020
In the last few weeks, I met with several faculty, advisors, and students to seek feedback about the fall semester and the challenges they are facing in the classroom. This has been an important step in planning for spring semester. Three main themes emerged during these conversations:
First, students are struggling to build networks, develop social capital and have traditional social activities. While everyone is impacted by this, it has been particularly difficult for students who are new to Athens and UGA. Many raised concerns around loneliness and mental health. We know that even the simple act of going to a classroom, commuting on a bus, or eating in a dining hall creates informal connections that help students develop their sense of place at UGA. These opportunities have diminished greatly, leaving students feeling isolated.
Second, everyone—faculty and students alike—are working through the complexities associated with hybrid and HyFlex instruction. The challenges mentioned by almost everyone include an increased burden on faculty, difficulty engaging simultaneously with in-person and remote audiences, technology issues, managing rotating class schedules, or learning in this remote/hybrid environment. Students are struggling to learn the material, with some feeling that they are teaching themselves. Faculty are concerned about their workload and its impact on tenure and promotion, graduate TA’s are concerned about added workload and degree completion. Everyone is exhausted and misses the kind of engagement that comes naturally with in-person instruction.
Finally, concerns about personal and family health, safety, and livelihood remain central for many faculty, staff, and students. Although the decline in the local infection rate has been welcomed, many remain skeptical whether this decline can be maintained, and some even question the accuracy of these numbers. Students and faculty continue to be concerned regarding the safety of classrooms and continue to seek more information and clearer communication – particularly regarding their health and safety, as well as their roles and responsibilities in their classrooms.
Throughout these conversations, people acknowledged that the challenges created by the pandemic were immense and would likely have a disproportionate impact on faculty, staff, and students who are “on the margins.” There is consensus that we should do our best to help people who may need the greatest level of support. Faculty appreciated the resources available, particularly the “Preparing to Pivot” short course, which was developed by the Center for Teaching and Learning with support from the Office of Online Learning.
Based on this feedback, I have attempted to highlight some key priorities or our classes. These are consistent with the expectations of the Board of Regents as specified in the resolution approved on October 13, 2020.
Some of these measures can be implemented immediately; others should be a focus for the spring semester. The goals are to increase in-person instruction, to include sufficient in-person meetings in hybrid courses and to engage students in high-quality and interactive instruction when classes have to be offered online. It is important to note that for accreditation purposes, some graduate and professional programs must meet pre-determined state or national standards pertaining to the format and frequency of student attendance. In cases where the guidance provided below conflicts with accreditation standards, deans and/or their designees in relevant colleges are allowed to make exemptions to meet accreditation standards while maintaining a safe learning environment.
The pandemic will require us to continue teaching in socially distanced classrooms and to use a hybrid model of instruction for many classes in the spring. Health and safety remain a key consideration in all decisions and data from the first few weeks of teaching in the Fall suggests that COVID-19 clusters originating within classrooms is unlikely. Key university personnel, including UGA’s Medical Oversight Task Force, continue to monitor COVID-19 data to identify emerging trends and take the necessary precautions and actions to mitigate risks. The Task Force supports the CDC and USG recommendation of requiring face masks as we have done in the fall semester, and to continue with good hand hygiene and social distancing to minimize the spread of infection. We will continue to use the modified class periods with an additional 5-minute gap between classes and continue to use the ADA accommodations process for faculty and graduate teaching assistants who are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19, per CDC guidelines.
- Maximize face-to-face instruction while maintaining health and safety precautions. We can take several steps to achieve this:
i. Use social-distancing seating capacities to schedule classes in larger rooms that allow as many students to attend in-person as possible. Whenever possible schedule each class in a room that allows each student to attend class in-person at least once each week. We will continue to use non-classroom spaces, including the Chapel, Tate Theatre and the West End Zone of Sanford Stadium for classes, as these spaces allow large classes to meet in-person.
ii. For more efficient use of instructional spaces, we need to schedule more classes outside the traditional peak demand periods (11 AM to 2 PM). Our existing classroom scheduling policy requires each unit to spread classes across multiple time periods and days; please follow these guidelines for spring semester classes. We must improve access by scheduling more classes in the late afternoon and early evenings, as is being done at many other universities. If you need to explore alternate spaces for your classes or have questions about scheduling, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
iii. Some classes with especially large enrollment will need to be divided into smaller sections or moved to alternative rooms to enable appropriate in-person attendance with social-distancing seating capacities. When that is not possible, these classes may need to be moved fully online. We are working to notify faculty about these classes within the next two weeks.
- Maximize synchronous instruction whenever possible. An overwhelming majority of students prefer live or synchronous instruction over asynchronous teaching for all class formats, whether online or hybrid. Clear expectations for classroom attendance (more details below) and for participation in classroom activities during scheduled class hours also would provide a general structure to students’ daily schedules. It also may help faculty better organize their classes and reduce the degree of unpredictability in your classrooms. Based on direct recommendations from several faculty, I strongly recommend synchronous teaching whenever possible and for all instructional formats. This recommendation is different from what we requested in Spring 2020, when we had to abruptly move our classes online. This is because our circumstances are quite different – in the spring our students were all over the country (and many abroad), in different time zones, and with unpredictable access to technology and internet. With campus open and most students back in Athens, this is less of a concern and most students should have the ability to attend synchronous classes.
- If your class is approved to be delivered in an online format, please make sure you develop your course to include significant interactive learning opportunities, a high level of engagement with students, and implement active learning strategies. The Office of Online Learning can assist you with these through one-on-one consultations, facilitated communities of practice, and help compiling customized resources to help you meet your teaching and learning goals. The Office of Online Learning can be contacted via their website or email: email@example.com.
- It is critical to set clear expectations about each course format as quickly as possible. We need to make this information available in Athena before students begin registering for classes on November 5th so that students know exactly what to expect in their classes. Department Heads or
program directors, in consultation with faculty and their deans, are responsible for
making these decisions and providing this information in accordance with the expectations
set for the spring. Detailed instructions about how to include this information in
Athena will be distributed to department heads, deans, and room scheduling officers.
Every spring semester class should be identified as fully face-to-face, hybrid synchronous, hybrid asynchronous, online synchronous, or online asynchronous. Please visit this webpage to see what each of these terms reflect. Note that teaching a class in an online format (both synchronous and asynchronous) needs approval from the Office of the Provost.
Change of delivery format after student registration or beginning of classes is not permitted without approval from the Provost’s office.
- Develop and communicate a clear plan. Once you know the maximum number of students that can be accommodated in your assigned classroom, develop your plan for synchronous and asynchronous learning activities and in-class attendance schedules. Communicate your plan through as many communication channels as possible: upload your syllabus to the syllabus system so students can access it via Athena prior to the spring semester, use eLC, departmental websites, or other forms of communication. This early communication will help students manage their overall schedule of classes, work schedules, and other engagements. Also, take a look at your classroom to learn about the technology available in it and communicate any needs to your unit head. Note that we will continue to make significant technology upgrades to several classrooms between now and the beginning of spring semester.
- Develop, implement, and communicate your course performance expectations early. If you will be using an online proctoring system for tests/final exams, that information and cost must be listed in Athena so students know when they register for your class. UGA supports Respondus Monitor for test proctoring at no cost to your students. We have heard from many students (and echoed by their advisors) that they feel overwhelmed by the workload in their hybrid and online classes. To find the right balance for your students, consider using the course workload estimator at https://cat.wfu.edu/resources/tools/estimator2/ .
- Consider implementing learning activities like small group work, asynchronous discussion boards, peer evaluation, and student video presentations of their work to help students connect with each other. Many of our collaboration platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have tools that can be used for this purpose. Let students plan and arrange some of these activities (e.g., rotate the role of discussion leader among all students in each small group). Because the entire class cannot be in the classroom at the same time, the amount of learning that would normally occur in a student-to-student context decreases for each individual student and students miss that interaction.
- Prioritize and maximize in-person instruction for all new students. Our first-year students – undergraduate, graduate, and professional – have been particularly
challenged by the pandemic. An additional 1,500 or so new students will join us in
the spring. It is critical that we do our best to support them and maximize opportunities
for in-person instruction for all new students and, in particular, first-year undergraduates.
Therefore, all First-Year Odyssey Seminars (FYOS) will continue to be offered in-person;
this fall the FYOS was the only in-person class for many of our freshmen, and many
report they are grateful to have that in-person engagement. When possible, let’s try
to offer first-year classes in smaller sections to allow more in-person teaching.
Whenever possible, please prioritize the use of our largest classrooms for courses
that are likely to be taken by first-year students.
Attendance Policies and tools
In my conversations, I heard several questions about our attendance policies. We asked faculty to be flexible with their attendance policies this semester, so no student had to choose between attending class for grades or staying home to avoid the spread of infection. Regardless of our call for flexibility, our attendance policy has not changed. You still have the flexibility to adapt and enforce an attendance policy that best suits your classes. However, the pandemic will likely require some students to quarantine or isolate for a period of time, and, as long as you allow sufficient flexibility for public health needs, you are allowed to implement an attendance policy that falls within the overall requirement of our academic affairs policies. Clearly post your attendance policy, especially for hybrid classes, on your syllabus. Encourage students to use DawgCheck to help them make an informed decision about coming to campus each day.
Many faculty reported that student attendance in classes has been poor this semester
and asked if we had tools students could use to sign up for in-person attendance each
day. We are working on a widget within eLC to address this need. In the meantime,
we have made available an Excel tool that your students can use to sign up for attending classes in-person. If this is
suitable for your classes, I encourage you to use it now.
Classroom and Learning Technologies
We made significant investments in classroom technology over the summer. Feedback about these classroom enhancements was mixed. Some faculty were satisfied with it, some were quite surprised how well it worked, and some were rather disappointed. The reasons vary and depend on the classroom itself or on pedagogical needs. However, it became evident that synchronous instruction and engaging lectures need more than just “lecture capture” technology and really require more video-conferencing capacity.
Therefore, we are reviewing our classroom technology and looking for available enhancements. We plan to improve and enhance the technology in many classrooms throughout the
fall semester, although supply chains remain tight for procurement.
Scheduling challenges and workload issues for students
Many students brought up two issues that I’d like to share with you directly:
First, many students felt that their workload this semester has been excessive. Some felt that faculty were prescribing a significantly greater volume of readings/videos/exercises than a typical semester. Most felt this was being done with good intent – since faculty have far fewer opportunities to engage directly with students, they were providing more learning resources for students. Nevertheless, when this occurs across multiple classes there is significantly greater work, and many students are struggling to stay on top of it.
Second, students are struggling with the complexity of their schedules. With different mixes of classroom rotation schedules, requirements for labs/discussion groups, or in-person vs. online attendance requirements, students are finding it difficult to structure their plans. This is further complicated by not knowing where they can go between classes, study with others, or be able to work individually between classes.
As you continue to teach your classes this semester or plan for your spring classes, please keep these two things in mind. For the former, the best approach may be to simply ask your students how they feel about the learning resources or assignments that you have provided. The Center for Teaching and Learning recommends using an anonymous, open-ended survey to collect mid-semester feedback: ask students to share what elements of the course are helping them learn, what specific changes they might suggest to help them learn, and one step they could take to improve their own learning in the course. Use a workload estimator to determine the balance of work appropriate for your classes.
For the latter, some programs may be able to coordinate classroom attendance policy and rotation schedules for certain groups of
students. Programs that tend to have students taking classes as a cohort should attempt to
have uniform rotation schedules. We have identified clusters of classes with considerable
overlap in class rolls and have provided these to the deans. We hope department heads
and faculty will work collaboratively to address these issues in their classes. If
you know of students trying to determine where they may be able to work between classes,
please point them to this campus map with possible study spaces.
Student Support, Mental Health, and Engagement
We recently launched two programs to help students network with each other and with faculty. “DawgsTogether”pairs new undergraduate students with other more seasoned undergraduate students. “Connect” is a program to help form student and faculty connections and is open to graduate and undergraduate students at UGA. In addition, the Division of Student Affairs has created several new programs to facilitate teambuilding, networking, and other social engagements. We also have enhanced support services such as tutoring and academic coaching. Despite these programs, the pandemic continues to lead to stress and anxiety, and may lead to more significant mental health problems over time. We must step in now to prevent these issues from turning into bigger problems.
Several faculty have found creative ways to engage with students during the pandemic.
One faculty mentioned taking time to foster casual conversations between students
(some in the room, others on Zoom) at the end or beginning of their class period.
Another mentioned how they break their class into small groups for brief periods of
time during their class with some random discussion topic as an ice-breaker. Others
have applied a variety of trauma-informed approaches in their teaching. These are small steps, but they can go a long way in fostering
a sense of community, helping students find a cohort of fellow learners, and easing
students’ anxiety. I encourage you to be alert about mental health issues amongst
our students and to help address these issues whenever possible. If you are worried
about a student, please contact the Student Care and Outreach team for assistance.
To help support instruction during the pandemic, we launched a “teaching continuity” fund for the fall semester and awarded over $400,000 to our faculty. This fund supported a variety of needs, from software for virtual labs, to special cameras to record field experiences, to funding for teaching aides to support interactive teaching in hybrid classes. I am pleased to announce that we will be able to offer the Teaching Continuity Funds for the Spring 2021 semester as well. To ensure the most effective use of the funds, we have asked the deans to collate, review, and submit these requests to us as a group. Please look for communication from your dean about this. This fall, the Graduate School and the Office of Instruction partnered to nearly double the amount of funding available for graduate teaching assistants for the academic year. We are attempting to identify additional funds to support new classroom instruction needs for the spring semester as well.
Finally, I continue to have discussions with various faculty committees about spring break and hope to have a final decision about it in the coming days. Significant travel during spring break increases the risk of infection spread. On the other hand, a lack of a mid-semester break creates additional stress for students, staff, and faculty alike and disrupts many academic activities that are traditionally planned over that week. We are working closely with faculty governance committees to determine the best way forward.
I know many of you continue to teach under great uncertainty, evolving COVID-19 related information, and a wide range of needs and requests from students (and administrators like myself!). I also know of many creative ideas that you have implemented to enhance teaching and to engage with your students. For all the efforts that you continue to put in to ensure that our students learn and be successful – thank you!
Finally, a special note of thanks for the many faculty, advisors, and students who took the time to discuss these issues with me: the OVPI Faculty and Student Advisory Boards, the Educational Affairs Committee, the University Curriculum Committee, the Teaching Academy Executive Board, the Teaching Academy Fellows, Lilly Teaching Fellows, Executive Committee of the Academic Advising Coordinating Council, student leaders and the deans or associate deans of each college. I remain interested in additional feedback and input, so if you have more suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vice President for Instruction