Let’s hail the heroes of higher ed’s pandemic-inspired shift into the modern age

April 16, 2020

Professors Murat Arcak (center) and Seth Sanders teach a linear systems class at Wheeler Hall where normally over 300 students are in attendance, on March 10, 2020. in Berkeley. UC Berkeley announced that is has suspended in-person classes.

If there’s one widely accepted story regarding public higher education, it’s that the sector’s pace of institutional innovation lies somewhere between torpid and glacial when it comes to the how — if not the what — of teaching and learning.

Jody Greene

Genuine transformations in pedagogical practice have been slow to arrive.

During the past 20 years, there has been an admirable expansion of conversations at colleges and universities around active learning, evidence-based teaching practices and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Yet enthusiasm for these movements has for the most part outstripped actual changes in classroom teaching practices.

In the University of California system, for instance, where research productivity and grant-winning are faculty members’ greatest responsibilities, we highly value good teaching, but only as long as we don’t have to substantially reconsider how we go about the practice of instruction.

In the last four weeks, all of this has changed, all at once.

That the entire UC system (along with every other two- and four-year college in the country) has managed to move from brick-and-mortar to virtual instruction in a matter of days is nothing short of miraculous. No one would have predicted that the transition to emergency remote instruction would go as swiftly as it has.

Of course, there have been challenges, from Zoombombing episodes to the difficulties of ensuring equal access to students in other time zones or with limited access to the internet. Yet notwithstanding these very real challenges, we have, as a system, largely been able to keep teaching against all odds, and to find solutions, from loaner laptops to enhanced security measures to a mixture of real-time and pre-recorded instruction and beyond.

How is it possible that such a rapid transformation has taken place, in a system widely understood to be incapable of nimbleness?

A great deal of credit goes to the tens of thousands of instructors who have learned new technologies, reached out to students, reconsidered their assessment structures and redesigned entire courses, all in less than four weeks, while navigating previously unimaginable stresses in their own lives.

Yet instructors have not accomplished this Herculean feat alone. They have been supported and guided by a handful — and I do mean a handful — of employees on each of the UC campuses, most of whom are staff members working in offices or centers of instructional design, instructional technology, teaching and learning, assessment and online education.

These specialists in teaching, learning and technology have quietly emerged as superheroes.

As the incidences of coronavirus infection have increased globally, they have built websites, created toolkits, designed workshops, provided thousands of hours of virtual consultation, identified and eliminated technical glitches, sourced laptops, and patiently and professionally answered the same questions from scrambling instructors, over and over (and over) again.

As if they’re not already busy enough, many of these same experts have volunteered beyond their own institutions as part of a hastily assembled international Instructional Design Emergency Response Network to give assistance to those who may work at institutions where there are no staff members working in these fields, or where those who do are overwhelmed. It speaks volumes about those who make up this network that the landing page of its website has only two buttons one can click. One says, “Get Help.” The other, “Give Help.”

I’ve read little in the higher-ed press about the real heroes who have made the shift to emergency remote instruction possible. Without them, I’m not sure where we’d be right now but, at my institution at least, we would not have been able to finish winter quarter remotely, mount final exams online for the first time, redesign close to 1,900 classes for online instruction and start a new quarter with most of our students enrolled and equipped with the tools they need to stay in school this spring.

When the story of how higher ed responded to the coronavirus epidemic is told, we should not forget who made this possible. Instructional design, online education and IT units; centers for teaching and learning; advising offices and registrars; and disability resource centers: all of these — and the list is not exhaustive — deserve our sincere and abiding thanks.


Jody Greene is associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at UC Santa Cruz. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. EdSource is interested in hearing from colleges, faculty and students about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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