Justin Reich joins NPR’s On Point with Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the challenges higher education is facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some strategies for navigating them.
Justin Reich joins NPR’s On Point with Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the challenges higher education is facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some strategies for navigating them.
They discuss the need to engage the student who are most struggling, respond to pre-recorded testimonials, and provide advice for faculty for enduring these difficult times.
Meghna and Justin are accompanied by Christina Morales, a senior at the University of Florida, who describes her experience transitioning to online course work, and Amardeep Kahlon, dean of distance learning and computer science professor at Austin Community College in Texas, to discuss the administrative perspective of the rapid change.
Special thanks to Meghna, Grace Totter and the whole team at NPR’s OnPoint for producing this episode and letting us share the conversation with you.
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Justin Reich: Hello and welcome to TeachLab. I'm your host Justin Reich, and this is part of our special COVID-19 series to support teachers and learners through the challenges of distance learning. In this episode, we're sharing a full hour from NPR's On Point with Meghna Chakrabarti. I joined Meghna for a powerful conversation about the things that colleges and students are navigating in the midst of this pandemic, and some strategies for making learning work.
Justin Reich: The hour starts off with Christina Morales, a senior at the University of Florida. I'll chime in about 10 minutes into the conversation and stay on for the rest of the show. Later in the hour, we'll hear from Amardeep Kahlon, dean of distance learning and computer science professor at Austin Community College in Texas. Here at TeachLab, we found this conversation to be really useful for professors, college students and their families, and we hope you do too.
Meghna Chakrabarti: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti and this is On Point. Our studios are on the campus of Boston University, and just a few weeks ago, the street outside was packed. Throngs of students filling sidewalks and coffee shops, dorms, labs, libraries. All their backpacks, instruments, gym bags as they navigated their busy on-campus lives. Well now, those students are mostly gone. The dorms, the classroom buildings, the library, they're all empty. School is still in session though, but like most colleges and universities across the country right now, it's gone online in an effort to flatten that curve and slow the spread of coronavirus.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Sherry is a On Point listener from Alaska. She's also a marine biology professor, and she told us she misses her students. But there's at least one upside to teaching from home.
Sherry: I don't really see a whole lot of positives, other than I can get my laundry done while I'm preparing my lectures.
Meghna Chakrabarti: We'll take the small victories, Sherry. This is our On Point. Coronavirus, closed campuses and moving colleges and universities online.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So let's start with a student's perspective. Christina Morales joins us from Gainesville, Florida. She's a senior at the University of Florida. She's also editor in chief of the student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator. Christina, welcome to on point.
Christina Morales: Thank you for having me.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So first of all, how are you doing and what's it been like over the past couple of days for you?
Christina Morales: It's been a lot to handle. It's a lot. I am juggling four classes online, as well as just daily coverage at the paper. We were still printing three days a week up until recently. And so that's been just a lot to handle. We've been doing the paper over Google Hangouts, and then all of my classes are on Zoom. So it's been quite overwhelming.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Okay. But you may be able to stay in healthy social contact with your friends and family as you're trying to navigate all of this?
Christina Morales: Yes. Some of my friends are still here, so we do Netflix parties where we watch Netflix movies together and chat about them. My boyfriend also lives close to me, so I do see him every once in a while and we do classes together as well.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Okay. So tell me about student life now, in terms of actual academic life. You're doing all of your courses online at the moment?
Christina Morales: Yes. All of my courses are online. It's changed a lot. We're doing classes over Zoom at the same time that our lectures are usually at. And so it's just a lot of coursework that we have to do as well as tuning into the lectures. But everybody's been quite understanding about everything that's been going on and has been quite flexible.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So give me an example of how it works. Pick one of your classes and you have the regular time and you attend the lecture via zoom and then how [crosstalk] different is that though from actually going to to the lecture with your professor?
Christina Morales: It's so different. There are a few upsides to it. I can get up directly out of bed and go right to my class. But for instance, my Spanish class is the best example. I have that at 11:45. So at 11:45, I have to be logged in to Zoom, which is like a Skype service, except it has all of my classmates in it. And my professor will show her screen, we'll do activities. It's been quite a challenge because that's a very discussion-based class where we just benefited from being around each other and getting in groups to talk in Spanish. And it's been a lot harder to do that over Zoom. And sometimes there are connectivity issues and stuff like that. And so, that's what a typical class would kind of look like. And then after that I would do my homework and then come back again on Monday, Wednesday or Friday.
Meghna Chakrabarti: I see. So when you're doing the independent work, that homework, in the past was there a lot of group work that was done and if so, you obviously can't do that now? You can't all meet together and do it?
Christina Morales: There are some pretty inventive ways that we can do group work. For one, The Alligator's the best example, right? That's a whole group project every night with up to 20 people working on the paper at once. But we just get together over Google Hangouts or we do it over Zoom. We FaceTime each other, and we just kind of see each other one-on-one to get some group work done. And, we could use things like Google Slides, Google Docs, that allow you to share and edit things at the same time. So, luckily for a lot of people in college, technology has been really, really helpful in this transition, where we can still do group work together.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Okay. Well, so Christina, I should say that maybe you've got sort of a natural facility with doing online coursework. Because, if I understand it correctly, the University of Florida has a program where at least, what is it, for the first year, some students can do their entire, at least first year, online and don't even have to be on campus. Did you do that?
Christina Morales: Yeah, yeah. They call it the PaCE program, which is the Pathway to Campus Enrollment. And so, the university essentially made me go online for the first year. And so I did two semesters fully online. And so I was kind of used to that. And then what I did was after I got my 60 credits, I transitioned, what they call transition onto campus, where I then was allowed to take on-campus classes. And so now it's like I'm back in the program midway through this semester.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Which version of student life did you prefer? Online or on-campus?
Christina Morales: That's a tough question because, I love being online because of the flexibility. And when I started working at The Alligator as a staff writer, all I did was wonder what would it be like if I didn't have to get up at a certain time and go to class, remember to leave at this time to take the bus or walk there to get there on time, while balancing everything that I had to do at The Alligator. Which at times could be squeezing in five minutes in between one class or another, or five minutes between my walk to class to write something or to edit something. So, I like the flexibility of online classes, but I really do miss seeing my professors and other students face-to-face. And I just miss the culture of being on campus and being a student.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Yeah, I was just going to say, so there's a convenience factor with online for sure?
Christina Morales: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Meghna Chakrabarti: But you're missing that community as you just said. Do you think you're learning as much?
Christina Morales: That's a good question. I did feel that I was learning a lot in all of my classes when I was online. I think the University of Florida has a pretty good UF online program. And I still think I'm getting that. It's just the community that I'm missing. I used to be able to take my three-hour journalism class that I have later, then walk into the hallway and see five of my friends that I work at The Alligator with and we would get together to study or write a story. It was just that sense of community that makes it easier to do some work that I'm really missing. I do think I still am learning probably the same thing that I would have if I was in class, but that that definitely depends on different majors for sure.
Meghna Chakrabarti: I also say, oh yeah, if there's majors that need a lot of lab work for example.
Christina Morales: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Meghna Chakrabarti: I get it. Those are particular challenges. Also Christina, I'm just going to put it out there. You sound like a total go-getter, so I don't think that anything's going to really, you won't let anything stand in your way. You're going to get the education that you want and more power to you. One last question for you Christina. Because you're a senior this year, are you going to have a regular commencement? A regular graduation? How do you feel about that?
Christina Morales: Honestly, it's gotten to the point where I'm kind of numb about it. I figured it was going to happen, and I'm kind of disappointed. But, safety is priority and I think I would have rather it be postponed for everybody's safety. And that's what's happening. It's July 30th, I think, to August 2nd. So it's been postponed until then. So we'll see what happens. And I'm still planning on coming to my commencement ceremony and my family is too. So I'm pretty excited about that. I wish it would've been traditional and I would've gotten the senior year that I was hoping for and to graduate like everybody else. But, it is what it is.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Well, Christina Morales is a senior from Miami. She's studying journalism at the University of Florida. She's editor in chief of the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper there. And she was joining us today from Gainesville via Skype. Christina, thank you so much for sharing your story with us and best of luck to you in the rest of this academic year.
Christina Morales: Thank you so much.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Okay, well let's turn now to Justin Reich. He is joining us from Arlington, Massachusetts. He's an assistant professor in the Comparative Media Studies and Writing Department at MIT. He's also a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and co-founder of EdTechTeacher, it's a consultancy devoted to helping educators use technology and serve students. Justin Reich, it's good to talk with you again.
Justin Reich: Hi Meghna. Thanks for having me.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So Chris, so we're talking about moving an entire college experience online, in the midst of coronavirus here. And Christina sounds like the kind of student who's going to thrive no matter where she is or what challenges are put up against her. But is that the case for all college students in this struggle to get their education online now?
Justin Reich: It's definitely not the case for all college students and I think the students we should be most worried about are the students who are most struggling with their learning and most vulnerable anyway. Christina, it sounds like as you said, an incredible go-getter, and also a student who is attending a four-year residential college. That's actually a relatively small proportion of the total college population in the country. Over half of our college students across the country are full-time working adults, and they face a whole series of challenges as their kids are coming home and those kinds of things.
Justin Reich: One of the things that we know about online learning is that it can be really challenging for people, and more challenging than on-campus learning for those who struggle in school. So we have now 10 years of research of trying to do large-scale, widespread online learning, and we find what sometimes gets called an online penalty. When you compare students in on-campus courses with online courses, they tend to do less well in online courses. They tend to have lower grades. Be more likely to fail, drop out of classes, those kinds of things. And that online penalty can sometimes be quite small for students like Christina, but they can be quite large for our most vulnerable students. So students who had low prior achievement, low grades going into courses, for ethnic and racial minorities in the United States for younger students. So there's a lot of students that we should really be concerned about as we transition to online learning.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So we've got about 30 seconds before we have to take a quick break Justin. What's your reaction or your feeling about how we have, basically we're talking about millions of students right now trying to do exactly what you just said. They're trying to get their education, their higher ed online now. This seems unprecedented to me.
Justin Reich: It's absolutely unprecedented and I think one of the things we're going to have to think really hard about is, what are the most important things that we really can't let students fall down on? What are the most important parts of our curriculum that we don't want to miss, and how are we going to help students get caught back up? Whether that's now or in the summer or in the fall.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Okay. Well we are talking about online learning in higher ed. Specifically this hour as campuses across the United States are closed down due to coronavirus. We'll have a lot more when we come back. This is On Point.
Speaker 1: Hello listeners. I hope you're enjoying this conversation. While we're on a short break, I want to take a moment to ask for your support. We're doing this series on COVID-19 to help support teachers, and you can help us reach more educators by taking a moment to rate teach lab on iTunes or to leave a review, or you can share the podcast with your colleagues or friends. If you're new to teach lab and looking for more inspiration, be sure to subscribe and check out our recent episodes on Equity featuring conversations with amazing people like Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum and Jeffrey Canada. Thanks and let's get back to the interview.
Meghna Chakrabarti: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. We are talking about the challenges of online learning in higher ed, as campuses across the United States are closed down in order to flatten that curve on coronavirus. I'm joined today by Justin Reich. He is director of the MIT teaching systems lab and cofounder of Ed Tech Teacher, a consultancy devoted to helping educators use technology to serve students.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Now, Justin, yesterday we sort of put a call out to listeners to share their stories via voicemail with us about how they're coping with online learning across the country. So let's first listen to W Ralph Eubank. He teaches English at the University of Mississippi and he sent us this voicemail. He says he has taught courses both online and in person and he prefers in person for a number of reasons.
W Ralph Eubank: It's much harder to build a relationship with your students virtually, since the technology is Zoom and Google Hangouts, I believe, places a digital barrier between the interactions that's just difficult to move beyond. And here in Mississippi there is the question of access to broadband. And that's the biggest question that has come up with my students. Whether they will have the sufficient broadband access to do their classes virtually. More than a million Mississippians, over a third of the state's population, lack access to fast wired broadband at home. And those statistics have born out for me since about a third of my students are now scrambling to find the type of broadband access they need to continue their classes now that they are completely online.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Wow. So that's W Ralph Eubank from the University of Mississippi. Well On Point listener Robert is a professor at a community college in Covington, Virginia. And here's what he told us.
Robert: When we went to online only as we shut down our campus, a lot of our students don't have reliable internet access at home. And if they do, they don't have fast enough speeds to do Zoom or Skype or watch videos. So some of our students are really struggling, and we're not sure when we'll be able to get back in class. A bunch of my students actually only have internet access when they're on campus, so I'm not sure what we're going to be able to do going forward if this keeps going into the next year.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So that's Robert, a professor at a community college in Covington, Virginia. So Justin, even before we get into the nitty gritty about how you teach online, we do need to sort of hit this head on, that there are millions of students, you heard Robert say, who only have broadband access when they're on campus. So now are they just completely cut off from their higher education experiences?
Justin Reich: Well, students and families are extraordinarily resourceful about finding ways to connect online and there are lots of initiatives that broadband providers are starting to do in different communities to make their internet essential packages or other kinds of low cost packages more available to folks. But even the ones that are being advertised as free, sometimes they still have a $5 a month router rental charge or other kinds of things like that. So I think we'll find that students working together with their communities, especially if their colleges can provide support, do improve those numbers somewhat in terms of internet access. But absolutely this is going to be a huge barrier.
Justin Reich: That's also not taking into account that everyone in the house now needs more access to the internet. If you're coming home to a house that has high school students that are also trying to graduate this year, parents that are trying to work or look for work from home, there's going to be a lot more demand on a limited number of devices. So faculty should be really thinking about what will it look like for my students to do this work on their cell phone, on an e-reader, with cell phone broadband access rather than wired broadband access. Those kinds of things.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So Justin, I just want to stick with this for a minute, because I have to say it's quite easy to ... When we say college students to, for some people to sort of mentally arrive at a default that sort of affluent elite American college student who has every piece of technology they could ever want, and they're wired to the hilt, and they're good to go no matter where they are or who they are. But just to reflect what you were saying earlier, that is first of all, a very inaccurate stereotype. Just the number you were saying, that like half of American college students are working adults, and many of them have all sorts of financial, food insecurities, things like that. So lack of broadband access for many of these students is simply ... Is one more thing, one more challenge in their suite of challenges that they already have, that could further set them back. It's multiple penalties, multiple learning penalties as you were talking about before.
Justin Reich: The Hope Center at Temple University does great research on this. They've been doing a real college survey for a number of years. Some of their key findings are that 39% of their respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days. They didn't have sufficient access to nutritious food. 46% of their college going respondents were housing insecure in the previous year. 17% of respondents were homeless in the past year. So when we look across the entire population of people who are accessing higher education, there's more than 4,000 institutions in the country, the media tends to fixate on the Ivy league and big state institutions, flagship institutions like where Christina goes in Florida. But people are attending for profit institutions, and cosmetology schools, and everything in between. Nursing programs, health professional programs, and a lot of students have all of these challenges in their lives, and participating in higher education is a real challenge even before there's a national pandemic that moves all of their courseware online.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Yeah. All right, so I thought it was important to really acknowledge that, because there's a great diversity in higher education experiences in this country. So Justin, let's talk about that actual act of moving courses that are usually taught on campus and moving them very quickly online. Because we've been talking about online education for several years now in higher ed with all of those sort of the massive online courses that are out there. But those are designed differently from the ground up, aren't they? They're completely different than the courses that one would expect to take if they were on campus.
Justin Reich: They can be very different and it totally depends on the content. As Christina was saying, it sounds like she's in an advanced Spanish class where they're doing lots of discussion. That's a different kind of thing to try to take online than an introduction to micro economics lecture that might go out to 300 students and is a series of lectures and quizzes and those kinds of things. The higher education curriculum is incredibly diverse, and what it means to move each of those courses, those labs, those seminars, those discussions, those lectures online is something different. But people when they're creating online courses, they typically take months or years. They spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to be able to do that for the most expensive courses. Hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to move them online. Some folks have said we're not pivoting to online learning, we're pivoting to disaster learning or emergency learning or something like that.
Justin Reich: And one thing that I think me and many other folks who've studied online learning for a long time have thought is that the logical thing to try to do during an emergency is to try to make as much of these learning opportunities as asynchronous as possible. It's going to be very difficult, especially as more and more people get sick. More and more families are implicated in the recession and losing jobs and those kinds of things, for folks to be able to show up at exactly 11:45 each day to participate in some kind of learning opportunity. How can we set up online courses that were the learning experiences are as asynchronous as possible? Here's some readings that you can download onto your phone. Here are some things that you could watch. Here are some assignments that you can do, not due the next day, but a couple of them that are due over the course of the next week or two.
Justin Reich: But I think faculty, one of the things that we know about teachers when they start using education technology is their first instinct is to do whatever it is that they were doing before, more or less the same way, which is I think why we're hearing so many faculty saying, "Well, I'm just going to take my lectures and do them over Zoom. I'm going to take my course discussions and do them over Zoom." But it's a good time to think about how challenging that's going to be both for lots of students and for lots of faculty to try to maintain that over the next couple of months.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So I presume you have already been working with faculty on this exact question. Is that the first piece of advice you give them? Think asynchronously?
Justin Reich: The very first piece of advice that I give to faculty is partner with your students. I would encourage all faculty members, even if they've started teaching and haven't started partnering with them yet, ask them what they want this course to look like. Ask them how they learned best and most successfully, and really try to make sure you're asking that question to the most vulnerable, most struggling learners that you can. That will do two things.
Justin Reich: One is, young people and college age working adults spend an enormous amount of time learning online, and they'll have good advice to give to faculty about what to do. And second, when we invite learners to partner with us as faculty, it gives them more investment. It gives them more ownership, it makes them feel like they're part of addressing this challenge together. So the first piece of advice I would give is to ask students what they want. And if you've been facilitating a small group seminar, a dance seminar of seven students, and they say they really want to get together synchronously, of course you should try to continue to facilitate that as best you can.
Justin Reich: But then I would say generally speaking, as much as possible we should be thinking about what kinds of experiences can we provide for people that are mostly asynchronous that focus on the most important part of what we've been trying to teach in the second half of this spring. There's no way that we're going to teach as much as we would before a pandemic. So faculty and departments and universities need to be really strategic about the particular parts of a course they want to make sure that the students can keep up with as best they can.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Interesting. Well, let's listen again to some On Point listeners out there who sent us to voice memos about how they are coping in the time of coronavirus. Scott teaches a tabletop and video game design course from Los Angeles, and you'd think, "Wow, video game design. Maybe that's something that could be adapted pretty well for online learning." But here's what Scott said about the challenges to moving to remote instruction.
Scott: So this has created a big challenge for me on how do I teach a analog social experience to a bunch of people digitally. So we've been experimenting with lots of different types of games, often with pretty bad results, actually. But finding out what the limits of the medium can provide, because as game designers, historically we've been able to make games for any type of technology. And so I am pushing my students to create game experiences for people to be played over video conferencing.
Meghna Chakrabarti: That's Scott from Los Angeles. And just to note again, he also teaches tabletop design. So maybe that's that analog experience he was talking about. But Justin, actually Christina mentioned earlier in the show that it really depends on what kind of major you're in and what kind of classes you have. Because I did want to ask you about what about all those classes that have labs? Any one of the science majors where the learning can literally only be done in a very highly specialized laboratory environment that is only on campus, or design labs even. For all those sort of STEM students out there. There's no way. Legally they couldn't replicate those labs in their homes anyway.
Justin Reich: Right. So we should not be mixing chemicals and having people go under the sink to find ways of doing chemistry labs, and those kinds of things. There has been a flourishing over the last two decades of online lab simulations. The University of Colorado has a set of simulations called PHET, P-H-E-T, that are openly licensed and are probably a terrific replacement for some fraction of all the labs that are happening around there. I know that in departments like mechanical engineering, people have gone back to their learning goals and said, "Okay, we usually do this in the maker shop that has all kinds of access to tools, and 3D printers, and lathes and all kinds of machines, but what fraction of our learning goals could our students tackle with cardboard boxes and duct tape, and scissors, and things that they have at home?" So I think to some extent people will find creative ways of taking some fraction of what we would typically do in a lab, and be able to do it at home independently.
Justin Reich: But I think one of the most important things that departments, that faculty, that provosts should be doing right now is thinking to ourselves, what would happen this Spring that probably won't happen really well, and we're just going to miss and we have to make sure that we catch up on? As an example, people in literature, and I don't mean to say this is just in the humanities, but people in literature for a long time have recognized, you don't try to cover all of 19th century English literature in a British literature class. You selectively sample out of a canon. So if you take a Shakespeare class, if in the first part of this semester you read The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet, and a few sonnets, and you were going to read Henry the Fifth and a couple of other plays in the second half and you don't get to that, that's probably okay. You probably still had a pretty reasonable Shakespeare class.
Justin Reich: If you were taking an introduction to statistics class this Spring, and the second half of the class covers multivariate regression, which is going to be essential for all of the other statistics learning that you want to be able to do in your major over the next three years, it's not going to be enough to just give students a pass or give students an A and say, "Well, that was a tough time that we had together, but we all sort of muddled through." People are going to have to figure out how are we going to identify the parts of our course materials that have the most dependencies? That are most important for our learners' academic careers, and find ways coming back in the Summer, coming back in the Fall, to have extra courses, extra time, extra support to be able to make sure that the things that students can't really miss in their major, or as part of these chains of prerequisites and dependencies, that we're able to help them catch up on when we're not dealing with a recession and a Pandemic.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Yeah, I think this is a really important point, basically saying administrators and instructors as you're saying, faculty of all kinds, a major part of their responsibility right now hopefully, is figuring out that plan to help students catch up when they can come back to campus, regardless of what major or class they're taking. Because as you keep saying, Justin, there's going to be some fall-off. This is not the same as an on-campus experience, no matter how good the transition is to online. I mean, to that end, I'm curious what you think, should students even be getting charged tuition, paying for those credit hours in the same way right now? I mean, are they getting the same value as they would if they were on campus?
Justin Reich: Well, as you heard Christina say, in schools that have really well established online learning infrastructure, a lot of them may be having a reasonably effective learning experience. Some faculty will handle the transition, the pivot to online learning better than others. My intuition would be that rather than trying to refund tuition for students who feel like they didn't get a full learning experience this Spring, is make a commitment to completing the learning experience over the course of the next year. Saying, "Okay, we know that in some courses it was impossible to finish that lab, because you had to be able to be on campus to be able to do these kinds of experiments. We're going to make sure that we make some opportunity up for you to be able to do that this Summer, this Fall, this Spring, sometime in the future."
Meghna Chakrabarti: Well, we have a minute or two before we head into a break, so I want to hear from another listener. This is Dan, a professor at Boston College Law School, and he told us that he's experimenting with different approaches to the material he usually teaches. He's trying to stay flexible.
Dan: What I'm doing is I'm actually creating these small, sort of modular lecture fragments that are accompanied by a page of my own notes, and then I post them when I can online and my students then get to watch them at their leisure, and sort of pair them with the reading that they're doing. And then hopefully that relieves some of the pressure of trying to all be in one place at one time, which can be really difficult at this time, if only for technological reasons but for any number of other reasons.
Dan: So I'm trying to make that flexible, and then I have two times a week when students can meet with me in person, or in Zoom person. And those are times when we can speak together and ask questions, students can ask questions about the lectures that I posted.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Well, Dan also says though that he is adapting to these extreme times.
Dan: This is not the way that I would normally teach. I'm actually a blackboard teacher. I enjoy the experience of sort of working through the class on the blackboard. And this is not as effective, not as useful a way of doing the class I don't think. But it is in its imperfection, the best we can do at this moment. So, one of the things I'm prioritizing for my students is to encourage them to be okay with the imperfection.
Meghna Chakrabarti: That's a good lesson at any time, I'd say. We are talking about online learning, as college campuses across the United States are closed. We'll have a lot more when we come back. This is On Point.
Justin Reich: Schools across America face unprecedented challenges, and the MIT teaching systems lab has tools and resources to help teachers and school leaders focus on educational equity. If like many of our listeners, you're finding yourself at home with some time on your hands, you can still join our free online course, Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices. To enroll, you can visit edx. org, that's W-W-W, dot E-D-X, dot O-R-G, and search for Becoming a More Equitable Educator, or search for my name, Justin Reich. Thanks, and enjoy the rest of the conversation.
Meghna Chakrabarti: This is on point, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. We are talking this hour about online learning, especially in the context of higher education as campuses across the United States are closed due to Coronavirus. I'm joined today by Justin Reich. He is an assistant professor in the comparative media studies and writing department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's also co-founder of Ed Tech Teacher, a consultancy that helps educators use technology to serve students.
Meghna Chakrabarti: And joining us now is Amardeep Kahlon, a professor of computer studies and Assistant Dean of Distance Learning and External Relations at Austin Community College. And Amardeep joins us from Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome to On Point.
Amardeep Kahlon: Hi Meghna. Nice to talk to you. And hi, Justin.
Meghna Chakrabarti: It's very good to have you, Amardeep. I'm wondering first of all, just how have you been doing in these first days and weeks of a different way of living, as we're dealing with Coronavirus?
Amardeep Kahlon: Right. It's been a shift all right. It's been such a rapid shift, and I've been listening to your show today, and I agree with so much what Justin said about the student population. We have a huge number of students who go to the community college, and they face a lot of challenges getting online. And we've had to work very rapidly to make the shift to online learning. We are lucky at Austin Community College, that we already have a very successful online presence. Our distance campus is the largest by headcount, and we have great leadership for our distance learning programs. So we have that infrastructure in place. But I constantly think about colleges that are struggling to figure this out, to use the cliche, as they're building that plane as it's going down the runway.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Right. So can you tell me a little bit more then, about how distance learning was already structured at Austin Community College?
Amardeep Kahlon: Right. So we have, like I said, our largest campus by headcount is distance learning. We have pretty much almost all our programs in some form or the other in distance learning, because there is a high demand for distance learning. And we have very good standards set up for our distance learning courses. For example, making sure our courses align with quality matters, making sure we employ in many of our programs, we are excited to use competency based education in our distance learning courses. And in general we have a lot of support for distance learning.
Amardeep Kahlon: So here's what we did when we thought that this was going online, that we were going to be closing, for example from my area, I'll tell you about my area in computer science and information technology. Our Dean, Linda, department chair Mary, and myself, we got together and we created a lot of different support systems for our faculty, a lot of different cross- reference documents, and a lot of different resources for our faculty to quickly go online. We also created mentors, to mentor a faculty who had never been online. They also have course templates that they can use. So we are well ahead of the game in that sense. ACC is a leader in distance learning in the state, and we have all those systems in place that are helping our faculty come online.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Yeah. So can I just jump in here? Because I want to give people a sense as to the size that you're talking about. I mean, is it what? More than 50,000 students at Austin Community College?
Amardeep Kahlon: We're about 50,000 students, yes. And in my program there are 3500 students.
Meghna Chakrabarti: I see. So it's a huge community college then.
Amardeep Kahlon: Huge.
Meghna Chakrabarti: And many of these students, are they entirely distance learners?
Amardeep Kahlon: Yes. Some of the students are entirely distance learners. We have entire programs that are on distance learning. And so these students are coming to the distance campus. But on the other hand, we have a very large service area. So there are students who are not distance learners, so those are the students who chose not to be distance learning at the beginning. So how do we get those students onto distance learning, and how do we do an effective job of it? That was the question that was facing us.
Meghna Chakrabarti: I see. So earlier in the program, Justin was talking about a piece of advice that he gives to faculty as they're moving online. And he was talking about asynchronous learning, just not presuming at all that every student could be available at 11:00 AM for a lecture, and then follow on with group work even if it's via video. You at Austin Community College have been doing for a while, a version of that, about competency based coursework. Can you tell us more about that?
Amardeep Kahlon: So we started down our journey with competency based in 2012, with a Trade Adjustment Act grant, with which we took our computer information technology program online and competency based. So basically just to give your listeners an idea, competency based education assumes that time is not the constant, but learning is the constant. And I always love giving an example of my favorite student, Johnny, who comes to class bright eyed sits through class, gets A's in all the tests, comes to week eight which is when traditionally you give a midterm, bombs the midterm, you can't take Johnny back to week one. So we test for mastery all along the way. Our CSIT competency based program, which is an award winning program, we created it to serve 350 students, and we've served well over 1400 students with that. And we've had great successes with that, particularly increasing diversity and towards equity. And ACC is really committed to that equity piece as we do this transition online.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Interesting. Justin, what do you think about that? That this crisis actually could be, I mean, I'm always looking for solutions and silver linings as we move forward. It actually could be aiding Austin Community College's efforts in competency based education.
Justin Reich: I think that will be some more experimentation that happens during this period. I think some of the most exciting experimentation opportunities are going to be for things that let students have some choice over how they want to learn. Kind of a crazy thing about online schooling is that while online schooling is hard for a lot of people, almost everyone in the networked world is pretty good at online learning. If you identify something that you're really passionate about and really excited about, figuring out how to beat a level in one of the new video games that have come out or tracking what's happening with the virus spread or pursuing a hobby or those kinds of things, people do an incredible job learning around those things. So one opportunity that things like competency based learning has is to say, students, we need you to demonstrate some proficiency with these kinds of standards. But we can be pretty open ended about how you develop and demonstrate those proficiencies. I'm not sure how much progress lots of people are going to make towards that in the midst of a pandemic. But I think there are opportunities at least to start experimenting with. If we know that one of the hardest things about online schooling is helping people maintain their motivation, one of the things that we can do to support their motivation is to give them some choice and some agency and some autonomy.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Right. Amardeep, go ahead. Did you want to add more?
Amardeep Kahlon: Yes. I wanted to say that we started CBE earlier. At this point, people are just struggling to get things online. But there's parts that are coming out of it that if this happened in the future, how could we structure this so that it is most effective for the students, for someone who's coming into the online world, who's new to the online world? And the other thing that I want to add to this, to what Justin was saying earlier and to what we were talking about now is it's not just the curriculum that's moving online. There are these, this whole other part of a student's life. For example, advising for example, tutoring, which are very important to student success. What do you do with them when you're moving things online? Advising is moving online. Tutoring, we are going at warp speed, trying to get tutors online right now and get advisors online. So there is this whole other element as well along with curriculum.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So this is really important and I'm really glad you brought it up. I want to actually just play two pieces of tape of voice memos that we received from listeners again. And this first of all is Mike from Omaha and he teaches online classes for K through 12 and for college students as well.
Mike: Probably the biggest challenge from a teaching perspective is that when a person has a problem that's in person, you can usually solve it very quickly. But when you are trying to solve it online, it can often take much, much longer to type out an email or do a video response.
Meghna Chakrabarti: That's Mike from Omaha. On that theme, Emily who is a student from New York University, she sent us a voice memo saying that thus far her online instruction has gone okay. It's a little odd though, she thinks. But here's specifically what she misses about on campus life.
Emily: The social dynamic has been almost entirely effaced, having moments before or after a class to talk to maybe someone who's sitting next to you or a friend in the class is just gone, like those casual connections because you're in a video chat.
Meghna Chakrabarti: So that's Emily from NYU. Amardeep, I wanted to play those two for you because you talked about mentoring and tutoring and the relationship between faculty and students is really one of the things that's at the heart of any higher education experience. I'm wondering, are you telling faculty at Austin Community College right now that perhaps one of the most important things they could do has nothing to do with academics, but checking in with their students in all the other ways they might have casually done on campus?
Amardeep Kahlon: Absolutely, Meghna. So the handout that I prepared for our faculty, which are distributed to our faculty, the first section in that handout is titled Communicate. Talk to your students very often because students are scared. Just like faculty are scared, students are scared. What's going to happen to my transfer or what's going to happen to the job that I was thinking of applying to? So soothe them, give them the time, give them the advise that everything is going to be okay in the end.
Amardeep Kahlon: The second thing that faculty have to do, it's a little more work, is build those times and those spaces online to communicate with students and to allow students to communicate with each other. For example, virtual office hours more frequently than you would normally do office hours. Virtual happy hours, so to say, where you allow students to congregate and get together and talk to each other and also build that sense of community. It's going to be a learning curve for a lot of people. It's going to be a steep learning curve for a lot of people. But that's I think the silver lining that we all get to learn to do things a new way.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Well. Oh, go ahead Justin. Please.
Justin Reich: I completely agree with what Amardeep said. I would also emphasize that if we set up these social experiences so that they're all inbound so that they all depend upon learner initiative, then we know from lots of research that the students who are most likely to struggle most are some of the ones who are least likely to ask for help unfortunately. So I would also encourage faculty to be thinking about how you're going to proactively reach out to the students who aren't showing up to office hours and happy hours in class and those kinds of things. I've been telling faculty, take your rosters and print them out on a grid. And every time you make a connection with a student, every time students show up, ask a question, post something in the discussion forums, you give them some feedback, put a little tick mark next to their name.
Justin Reich: Watch out for those students who aren't getting any tick marks next to their name. And particularly if you already know that those were students who had a low grade point average who were struggling with attendance and those kinds of things. And it doesn't have to be technology mediated and complicated. We can call students. We can send text messages. We can send emails. I think reaching out to the students who we most expect to be struggling will be one of the best low tech things we can do to try to help everyone be as successful as they can during these challenging times.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Yeah. This is an emerging theme in our conversations all week long about the intentionality that's required to stay connected, especially at times like this, but perhaps like that intentionality can really bring, I think a lot of even deeper connections than we had before. We've got about two and a half minutes left here and I'm wanting to ask one last question of both of you this hour. And Amardeep, I'll start with you. This is a crisis. It's a historic moment for humanity. But I'm wondering in terms of higher ed, do you think that there's something good or positive that might come out of this when we were on the other side of the pandemic?
Amardeep Kahlon: Absolutely, absolutely. Because we are actually, while we are rushing and getting things online, we're all also self-reflecting and looking at, is this going to be successful with the students? Is this how we are going to connect with the students in the future and what works and what doesn't work? And how do we motivate our students? And how do we reach the students that need us the most? As Justin just pointed out, who are the strugglers? How do we reach them? How do we make online effective? So we're all going to build processes along the way that are going to help us in the future, that are going to help us become better educators. Not just in the online space but also in the face-to-face space. And not only are we going to build curriculum, we're going to build other wraparound processes that are going to help these students. And we are going to examine them and see if they work or not.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Yeah, well Justin, in the minute or so that we have left, last words goes to you today.
Justin Reich: Well, I'll just say that we're learning how much that our K-12 schools, our colleges, our universities are not just learning institutions, but they're really crucial parts of the social safety net. They're crucial parts of our society. And I think, as they disappear, we're going to realize, oh these places, they provided food and nutrition. They provided shelter. They provided a safe place for people to go. They provided internet access. And we're going to realize how insufficiently we provide that in many places in people's homes and communities. And so hopefully people at the end of this will realize what incredibly important institutions, schools, and colleges and universities are in our society and really recommit to funding them at the level that they need to be funded to be able to serve learners and help them achieve their goals in their lives. I think we're also going to have an incredible set of heroic stories of K-12 teachers, of college, university teachers, administrators who are just doing everything they can to serve their students as best they can. And we're going to realize what extraordinary people commit themselves to this service during their life.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Well Justin Reich, faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. Justin, it was great to talk with you. Thank you so much for being with us.
Justin Reich: Yes. It was nice to be here again. Thanks.
Meghna Chakrabarti: And Amardeep Kahlon, professor of computer science and assistant Dean of distance learning and external relations at Austin Community College in Nashville, Tennessee. Amardeep, thank you so very much for joining us today.
Amardeep Kahlon: Meghna, I want to correct that. The Austin Community College is in Austin, Texas. I'm currently in Nashville.
Meghna Chakrabarti: You are currently in Nashville. Okay, so Amardeep is in Nashville and Austin is in Texas. My apologies, but thank you so much for being with us.
Amardeep Kahlon: Thank you, Meghna.
Meghna Chakrabarti: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.
Justin Reich: I'm Justin Reich and thanks for listening to TeachLab. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get future episodes on how educators are tackling distance learning during COVID-19. Special thanks to Meghna, Grace Tatter and the whole team at WBUR's On Point for having me on the show, producing this episode and letting us share the conversation with you. This episode was recorded and produced by the incredible team at WBUR's On Point. TeachLab segments were produced by Amy Corrigan and the sound was mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe and we'll see you next time.