The Explosion of Online Learning
Anthony Bradley, Charles Reese, Candace Wicks, Theodore Williams, and Linda Samek
Given the sudden shift to distance learning in the spring of 2020 and the continued anticipated disrupted classroom experience into the 2020-2021 academic year, the CCCU hosted a conversation with a team of faculty from a variety of disciplines at campuses across the country to share the lessons they learned from the spring and their insights on questions of education quality, accessibility, and innovation in the future.
The discussion was moderated by Dr. Linda Samek, professor of education in residence at George Fox University and former chair of the CCCU’s Commission for Chief Academic Officers. Panelists included Dr. Anthony Bradley, professor of religious studies and director of the Center for the Study of Human Flourishing at The King’s College in New York City; Charles Reese, professor of theater and co-chair of the theater department at Bluefield College in Bluefield, Virginia; Dr. Candace Wicks, associate professor of biology at Hardin-Simmons University; and Dr. Theodore Williams, associate professor of communication at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana.
Linda Samek: This past spring, college and university faculty faced an unprecedented challenge in an abrupt shift from a typical in-person format to finishing out the academic year through remote delivery. As the disruption from COVID-19 continues and increasingly looks to impact the upcoming academic year as well, we also recognize that what has been and will be happening throughout this year is going to impact our classrooms, our students, and our colleagues possibly for years to come.
We would like to start today by asking each of you some questions that are focused on your classroom experiences from the spring. Dr. Bradley, you teach theology at The King’s College, which is located in New York City, one of the earliest epicenters of the pandemic in the U.S. Could you briefly share what the spring looked like for you as a faculty member and for your students? What lessons are you reflecting on as you prepare for fall?
Anthony Bradley: I would say the one word to summarize our experience is “crazy.” It was an absolute circus to very quickly change our modality from on-campus to online. We had about a week to go completely online, and it happened around our spring break, so that gave us a bit of a buffer. …
I think for me, the biggest thing that I actually lament is that you could really see the disparity between the wealthy students and lower income students. That’s where my heart really broke. Students who had great Wi-Fi access, who had great options in terms of hardware, who had home lives that were very stable and well-suited, they got the highest grades. Some of my more intelligent, high-performing, really sharp students performed poorly because they had so many distractions. Some of them didn’t have good Wi-Fi connections. We learned that some of our students didn’t even have a laptop. Some of them had laptops with no cameras on them — things like that.
So the disparity between the high-income families and the low-income families was really laid bare. For the fall, we’re thinking about ways to close the gap by making the delivery such that, regardless of [students’] capacity to have the best Wi-Fi and the best hardware, we can still have the best delivery opportunities for our students.
Linda Samek: Dr. Wicks, I’m going to turn to you next. As a biology professor, you teach in a field that has unique classroom needs. How did you and your colleges manage the transition in the spring? What are you thinking about for the new year?
Candace Wicks: One of the things that was helpful for us is many of our [education] resources quickly made a lot of their digital resources, including lab simulations, available online at either a discounted or for no cost for the remainder of the spring semester. So a lot of those accommodations allowed us to push forward and do that within the biology department. There were other avenues that a lot of my other faculty [colleagues] were able to utilize. They contacted a lot of our distributors that we work with for our in-person labs, and [the distributors] were able to provide kits that we then put together and sent off to the students. So labs, dissections, chemistry experiments — students were able to complete those things at home with those resources.
However, we did run into the same issue [of disparities]. We have a large disparity between our students who are from metropolitan areas versus the rural areas who don’t have access to a stable internet connection. There are students who, if they’re at home, they’re responsible for working and helping bring in an income in that household, so they weren’t able to focus and do well in those classes. [Like King’s,] we also had the same situation on hardware. So those labs simulations that we were able to use — if students didn’t have a compatible machine to access those simulations, that put them at a disadvantage. I had one particular student who was sharing a computer with their parent; they weren’t able to log into any synchronous Zoom classes if they were at the same time that their parent needed to access the computer. Some students were trying to complete the semester on their cell phone — which is very difficult to do when you’re trying to do chemistry, biology, and mathematics. …
Those were some of the things that we had to look at on the back end in order to offer those options to the students so academically they wouldn’t suffer because of those disparities. Now, moving forward, I will say that chaos and craziness do feed into innovation. So some of the things and some of the resources that we were able to access in the spring, moving forward we think these are good things to integrate into our classes anyway. …
Linda Samek: Professor Reese, you also teach in a very experiential field in theater. What happened for your classes in the spring? What are you considering as you prepare for the fall term?
Charles Reese: One of the biggest challenges for us is that you have theater as an academic discipline, but then you also have theater as a performance discipline. So a big part of what we do had to go away. One of our biggest productions to the season was canceled because we couldn’t bring audiences together. Our acting classes faced unique challenges; there was no way to do the partner work they needed to do to do scenes, so they had to shift to monologues, and it’s just not the same experience.
I think the biggest thing we’re facing in the fall is that same scenario and finding new solutions to these problems. So for instance, our fall production, we are looking at doing a radio show, a reenactment of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast from 1938. For Christmas, we’re looking at doing a live-streamed reader’s theater of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Another major challenge for us is that we are teaching a profession that right now is on hiatus. I’ve got friends and colleagues throughout the professional world who are writing and saying, “We can’t do what we do.” So it’s a particular challenge in the performing arts — for musicians, theater artists, and dancers — that I think will be with us for at least the next couple of years.
Linda Samek: Dr. Williams, I would imagine that there are people who would say that a field like communication might be well suited to online transition, given that we’ve learned how to communicate electronically even before the pandemic. But I think that everyone would agree that the past few months have shown not just the strength and flexibility that online education can provide, but also some of the ways that communicating remotely can fall short. What was your spring like, and what are you reflecting on as you prepare for the fall?
Theodore Williams: I teach traditionally face-to-face, but I have taught online on the adult education side. … One thing I learned early on in online teaching was the key of really connecting with the students. I love the face-to-face — I love the energy. I tell jokes; I’m excited; I’m personable. But the first online class I taught about five or six years ago, one of my evaluations said that [the student] felt like some kid who had been dropped off at a picnic by their parents and then their parents came back a week later. I was like, “Yeah, that’s probably about what it was.” From that semester on, I really began to develop opportunities where students could always hear from me, see me posting videos, and checking in.
I think that’s the key to online. I had a lot of students this past semester that, if you didn’t stay connected with them, they would just float away. Unfortunately, I did have several students that, even during the face-to-face, they were just there, but at least there was an accountability because you could see them. Once we went online, I had at least a handful of students that I did not hear from at all. They just fell off the face of the earth for various reasons. I think that was just tougher for those individuals where face-to-face was the only thing that was keeping them tied to the class.
[One strength for faculty] was the creativity, as Dr. Wicks talked about, toward innovation. We had a lot of people who were sharing best practices. Our administration was intentional — the key words were flexibility and grace. They were going to extend flexibility and grace to us as professors; we would extend those to our students, and we would hope our students would extend those to us. We did away with the faculty evaluation for this one semester, and we did away with some other things that took the pressure off; [our administration would] say, “Just be a great steward. You know your students; you know your gifting; you know what needs to be done. Just do the best that you can do.” … [For fall,] once again, [we’ll focus on] grace, flexibility, and just keeping to the main thing, which is how we can offer the best services to our students to honor them and honor God.
Linda Samek: I want to take a few minutes to think about implications for this disruption on the future of teaching and Christian higher education in particular. Probably all of you have heard from parents and students who have concerns about the quality of the education that they might be receiving when we’re using primarily remote delivery. I would like to hear what you say to students and parents who are very concerned about online and other forms of remote learning. What are some of the positive outcomes that you have seen?
Candace Wicks: One of the things that we do hear quite a bit is, “Well, if I’m online, why do I need to come to Hardin-Simmons? I can go to a college that doesn’t cost me as much and take the exact same class.” What I tell the student or the parent is, “Yes, we’re delivering the information online, but you’re paying for the access to the elite faculty that we have here at Hardin-Simmons. That is who is delivering that course material.” The [faculty-student] relationship can still be maintained and developed. We make sure that our students can access us. … A different institution may be hiring an adjunct faculty to teach a course to keep their costs down. We’re still the full-time faculty at Hardin-Simmons that is invested in how well our students learn and in their futures. You still get that quality education, and that’s why it’s still worth doing those online classes at Hardin-Simmons or at their [CCCU] institution of choice.
One of the things that is essential with any teaching experience is you have to be open to the feedback that you get from students. So the simulations that I pulled out and I started to use in the spring, I’m using them online this summer and planning to use them in the fall. I’m currently getting feedback from those students. [They might tell me], “So I really didn’t like that simulation, or I didn’t get anything out of it.” So what that tells me is that I need to create a pre-lab lecture that helps them focus in on the points that they need to [learn].
It’s all about communication. As Dr. Williams says, in having grace and flexibility — you have to have that with yourself. It’s great that the university is giving that to us, and we hope that we’re getting it from the students. But we have to give that to ourselves as well, because without that, we can’t grow and we can’t get a better product for our students to make sure that they’re getting the quality education that they need. So with innovation, you also have to take the critique in order to continue to improve upon those new ideas that you’re using.
Anthony Bradley: What’s important for every CCCU school is that this is an opportunity for us to actually sell our distinctives. Every Christian college cares for its students. But we come from different traditions; we come from different perspectives; we have different histories. Those [differences] are the things that people are actually paying for.
At King’s, we have a unique core curriculum — it’s politics, philosophy, and economics. There are only a handful of universities in America that still do that. You can’t go anywhere and get that. So you’re getting something distinctive by doing that at King’s with our faculty. You’re also doing this with a cohort of different students [from institution to institution]. So it’s not just the faculty — you’re actually learning in a community with different people who are feeding into and co-contributing to your learning together, which is also important.
I think the online delivery also allows us opportunities to be flexible with different learning styles. There are some students that I experienced where they needed a lot of one-on-one time, and others who were like, “Leave me alone. Let me go do my work, and I can come back and later learn.” Because of the flexibility, we were able to really frame and deliver the education in a way that actually fit learning styles — which, by the way, is something very large universities cannot do. The smaller schools have the flexibility to really meet students where they’re at in ways that other schools don’t. I would actually say this: In this environment [at CCCU institutions], you actually get more bang for your buck, because of the ways in which we, as full-time faculty, are engaged with students that you won’t get at larger state schools.
Theodore Williams: I think the beauty of being in the CCCU is this foundational value that we are really trying to honor God in our teaching. So in terms of how this disruption impacts the quality [of classes], I’m working under the premise that the disruption should make it better. I’m a firm believer that God uses all things for the good of his people. As a professor and a pastor, I’ve been preaching and speaking that maybe the disruption was [actually] because of the [prior] complacency that set in.
When you think about long-standing institutions — whether it’s in academia or in the church — we have a tendency to get comfortable with how we do things. Every now and then, God has to shake things up because we can go on autopilot. As professors, we have certain evaluations [of our work], but I think there needs to be a self-check that we do also to make sure we don’t grow stagnant in our teaching. So for a lot of us, [the disruption] shocked us out of the slumber we were in, in terms of, “Wow, I had gotten so used to teaching the same courses. I know how I’m going to do it. I know on this day I’m going to tell this joke. They’re going to laugh. I’m going to follow with this.” So I think the disruption, if anything, it’s going to spur the quality to another level, in terms of individuals having to go back to the drawing board to really think about, “What is the best way to get this information to our students?”
Another benefit — a lot of our students live online; they live on social media. For them, it probably wasn’t as big of a transition as it was for us. They’re like, “Finally, welcome to my world. Now you’re on my home turf.” We’d be on Zoom or on a different platform, and they’d be like, “Hey, by the way, Professor Williams, do this. Here’s how you should be doing it.” So it was an awesome opportunity for us teachers to become students, and that interaction became genuine because all of a sudden, students felt more empowered because, in some ways, they were the experts. It was a give and take.
So I think there’s lots of pros to this particular transition, in terms of the quality of making sure that we connect with our students. There are some downfalls and disadvantages, but I think the quality will not suffer if all those involved are committed. I think that’s most important, regardless of the modality. If people aren’t committed, it could be the best, and it still will suffer. But if people are committed, no matter what you’re working with, it will be all right.
Charles Reese: I would echo what Dr. Williams said about this idea of being shocked out of our complacency. I would say, though, there’s also a degree of complacency that happens with students sometimes. I think students often view college education as a passive thing: “I come in. I go to the place that you tell me to go for four years. You give me a degree.” What this has challenged all of us to do is to take a greater ownership of the educational process. I’ve got to make sure I’m communicating with each one of my students, but they’ve got to be as involved, making sure that they are taking ownership of their own responsibility in their education.
I had my theater majors in courses and they pretty much stayed involved. But then, among the students who I had [general education] courses with, I had students who dropped off the face of the earth because it wasn’t something they took ownership of. They were relying on that passivity. It doesn’t happen that way anymore once we get into this modality.
Linda Samek: All of you in one way or another talked about accessibility. We’ve heard and experienced the reality that our students, many of them don’t have access to internet streaming, at least at the quality required for some of the things that we asked them to do last spring. What would you to say to cabinet leaders and other campus decision-makers about accessibility for students? What do campuses need to do to make sure that a Christian higher education is accessible to anyone who wants to take advantage of that?
Charles Reese: I think one of the biggest issues is infrastructure. I do a lot of traveling around the world, and it shocks me that countries that we would think of as not as advanced, perhaps, as we might see ourselves have a much greater infrastructure for the internet, for computer accessibility. We have got to enter the 21st century. We have to invest — both as schools and as a nation — in making sure that we can communicate on the same level as the rest of our neighbors in the world.
Anthony Bradley: We’ve already been talking about flexibility — that’s going to be key, flexibility and grace, as it was mentioned earlier. For those of us who are professors, who see classrooms as these classic spaces where we deliver the most amazing content ever, we’re going to have to be flexible because the ways in which that content is delivered will be received by people in different stages and different places. So we actually have to, I would say, chill out, and be more open to the fact that for some students, we have to be more flexible and extend more grace in terms of allowing the students to get assignments in, maybe even allowing them to take tests at different times than normal.
The other dimension that I would really encourage administrators to think about is the mental health disparity. That’s as important as the other ones. One student told me he was so “Zoomed out,” he was actually experiencing depression from having to engage in this platform. That’s an additional variable, and administrators and those who work in student success are going to have to work with the faculty and the students who are managing the mental health component of being isolated and engaging in this [remote learning] platform. God did not design us to engage with other human persons [in this manner].
Candace Wicks: This is a question with a lot of different arms going out. I first want to address the social aspect of things. The social problems that have been present on campus — and we may not have experienced or known about them — are amplified when we move to an online platform because those disparities become very apparent. So we have to make sure that our students are comfortable enough to open their mouth and let us know that they don’t have access to certain things. If they weren’t comfortable [telling us that] on campus, they’re definitely not comfortable telling us that they’re lacking something through a screen. So moving to an online platform isolated even more those students who already felt isolated.
So basically, we just took this problem [of disparities] that we wanted to keep in a little bubble and we basically just blew it up. Now, we’re having to not only address those disparities, but we’re also having to get to the root of the problem, and say, “Okay. We need to address this. But we also need to make sure that if you experience problems going forward, that you’re comfortable enough coming to us and telling us so we can help you alleviate these issues and these problems. Or at least be able to meet you where you are and give you those accommodations to make sure that you have the ability to be just as successful as the student who doesn’t have these disparities.”
We take a lot of things for granted; that became very apparent when we switched to online. We assumed that all of our students had the equipment that they needed. We assumed that our students had access to internet. We assumed that these students are coming from places where their home life is stable. So when we sent these students home and said, “Hey, you don’t need to be on campus, but we’re going to still make sure that you have the same level of education,” we set some of our students up to fail because we took a lot of these things for granted.
So I think one of the things that the admins and the higher-ups need to know is that, we need to make sure that when our students enroll, that they have different opportunities to satisfy some of those [technological] requirements that we’re asking of them and at different price points. Give them different ways of paying that off so they don’t have to go further into student debt in order to meet those requirements to succeed. We need to give our students options, and we need to make sure that our students have a safe space where they can actually express the things that they need to express, so we can meet them where they are.
Linda Samek: It’s been a hard year. It’s been a very busy year, and it looks like things are not going to be slowing down in any of this fall. What is giving you hope and energy at this moment in time?
Charles Reese: The thing that I’m looking forward to the most is being back with my students. In the theater, we are a very, very hands-on-communal kind of people. I had that family yanked away from me with no warning — seniors I didn’t get to see graduate, freshman who I haven’t been able to spend time with. I’m looking forward to the chance to be back in the classroom; even if it’s with a mask between us and a glass partition, at least we’re in the same room. That’s where my energy is right now.
Theodore Williams: For me, I have taken advantage of the last few months to allow God to work on me. I was not one of those individuals where I couldn’t wait to get back to normal. One thing God was telling me is, “We’re not going back there. The plan was never to go back to that.” So there’s a new thing that God is trying to do. He’s trying to keep us all dependent upon him and keep us from growing complacent.
So I took advantage of being away. I’m excited because I was able to, in the midst of this stay-at-home time, to actually stay at a home. My mind was where it needed to be in terms of focusing on my marriage, and focusing on family, and eating right, and preparing. So I’m excited about that. I’m also excited about the synergy that takes place when you’re able to be around like-minded people, whether it’s colleagues or students. I’m excited just to be able to see what God has been doing in all of our lives. That’s what excites me.
Anthony Bradley: So this has been an exciting time, as Professor Williams said earlier, for innovation. It reminds me of [Exodus], as God’s people came out of captivity, came out of the Red Sea, they had a new world, and they had to pivot on the spot and reorganize everything.
This is an opportunity for us to actually be creative and to do new things that take some risks and to try out some new things. I think it’s wonderful because it’s forcing us to do that. In Christian higher education, if we don’t innovate, we’re done. We don’t have the margins of big state universities; we don’t have the endowments of the Ivy League. So this is an opportunity for us to figure out ways to be sustainable.
The other thing that really gives me hope is Generation Z. Given the world they were born into after 9/11; given the fact that they withstood the financial crisis of 2008; given the election of 2016, and now this — I mean, this generation could be the most resilient generation we’ve had in decades. So I’m excited because they want to make this work. So as students dig down deeper in their own courage, in their own readiness, and in their own flexibility, our innovation and their flexibility could create something quite extraordinary in the future.
Candace Wicks: I think Dr. Bradley was peeking at my notes over here. At the very top of my page, I have the big word, resilience. I think that is going to be the big banner after all of this. The thing that gives me hope and gives me energy is that, because we’ve had to change, it’s giving us the opportunity to evolve. We don’t have to just reach the students who can come to us. We can reach out and we can go as far as the interwebs will take us. … It’s allowing us to be better as a faculty, as individual instructors, and as people, because it keeps pushing us to move forward.
We’re also stretching our students. They are in such an uncomfortable place, and I absolutely love it, because I know that on the other side of that, they’re going to say, “Hey, I went through this. I went through this. I’m resilient. I’m able to conquer whatever you throw at me next.” It’s going to build confidence in them. It’s going to give them the opportunity to innovate in the future. It’s going to give them the hope and the energy that’s now coursing through our veins, and that we’re excited about, and we’re praising God about. I think that energy is going to get passed along to our students.