A video-based community responds to the coronavirus

I’ve been thinking a great deal about virtual communities and online relationships lately.

There’s the obvious fact that we’re relying on them and participating in them more than ever.  Such connections are increasingly how we learn about the pandemic, how we cope with it, how we seek to understand the extraordinary event.

I participate in a great many of these digital networks across a range of platforms, from Twitter to LinkedIn, email and Gchat, Facebook to Mastodon.  I have a sprawling personal learning network (PLN) that cuts across all of them.  My students intersect with them through even more tools, including class pages.

One is the Future Trends Forum, a video community we launched in early 2016.  The center of this group is weekly, hour-long video conversations about the future of higher education.  Hundreds of guests have appeared.  Thousands of people have participated by listening, watching, asking questions, and generally being part of a large, ongoing discussion.  Just about every session is recorded and posted to YouTube.   (Here’s the full archive, approaching 200 videos now)

What can such an enterprise do in response to a global pandemic?  Let me outline what we’ve done.  Perhaps the story can be useful for others.  It’s also a key phase in the Forum’s nearly five years of existence.

Back in February I thought the Forum could serve as a venue for discussing COVID-19’s impact on higher education.  It could be a place for information sharing, for storytelling, for questions and first attempts at answers.  We could host experts in particular aspects of the unfolding crisis as well as practitioners with crucial experience.  We could also support each other as we endured enormous stress.

So in early March I started rescheduling upcoming Forum sessions.  Our last pre-COVID-scheduled event was March 12th, with the amazing Bernard Bull, one day after WHO declared the virus to be a global pandemic.  From then on the Future Trends Forum focused on the novel coronavirus and what it meant for higher education.

Each session was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, starting with March 19:

March 26:

April 2:

April 9:

April 16:

That’s a month of conversations, live and emerging as the pandemic spread through the world.

One way of grasping the nature of those conversations is to look at the questions raised by participants, aimed at guests, myself, and each other.  Here’s a sample from one week, drawn from questions submitted via a text box and unedited:

– I see 4 types of challenges & am curious how we navigate them going into the fall: 1) instructional challenges; 2) institutional/structural challenges; 3) societal structural challenges; 4) regulatory

– How do we prioritize 4 sets of challenges: 1) instructional, 2) institutional structural, 3) societal challenges, and 4) regulatory challenges?

– I hear a lot about “going back to normal”-and while that’s comforting to some degree, we don’t always ask “did normal work?”.How can we move to “this is an opportunity to do better”.What is better?

– To get through the spring, we asked faculty to focus on only the most relevant learning outcomes. But for fall, should we expect the “full” menu of a course outcomes if we are still online?

– It’s April.  Everyone on this webinar has 3-4 months to work with faculty to prepare at least hybrid classes for students in the Fall.  Any suggestions about how best to proceed?

– Given the extreme existential threat to universities this poses, as well as our responsibility as public intellectuals and scientists, how can we step up as leaders to demand rational action

– in a more public way as *leaders* in public (rather than just our institutions) along lines outlined by AEI and others?

– Robin — you talked about so many students/teachers use rural broadband. Are you seeing programs/platforms being used ubiquitously that simply don’t work for these folks?

– Curious if the panelists have come across any really interesting examples of how institutions that focus on hands-on, polytechnic have developed a blended learning approach? pre-covid or post covid.

– Curious if the panelists have come across any really interesting examples of how institutions that focus on hands-on, polytechnic have developed a blended learning approach? pre-covid or post covid.

– What are strategies you would suggest to help instructors get to the “next step” or “phase 2” part of delivering courses online, especially for instructors that haven’t taught online before?

– In the context of the pandemic, who do you involve in starting to think about the next academic year? The entire community: students, faculty, trustees? Or alternatively, smaller senior teams?

– Are you seeing any forward thinking glimmers of campus health and wellness plans  for a return to the physical campus?

– In what ways have people been successful in building community in this remote learning environment?

– Would it be prudent to develop templates for “dual mode” teaching in the Fall.  Teaching remote and campus students simultaneously.  Students may want a choice.  It might help recruitment.

– On what Goldie is saying: how can colleges create plans that are maximally adaptive and flexible, e.g. to provide from some mix of in-person and virtual learning that can pivot to fully virtual?

– Do you think the “2020-21 academic year” should itself be on the table for reconsideration? Is it a mistake to presume Sept to May? Or semesters? Or 3-credit hour courses over 15-week periods?

As the Forum’s moderator I quickly scanned each of those as they came in.  Now, as a blogger, looking back at them with more time to reflect, I’m struck by their intelligence, skepticism, imagination, and diversity of topic.  It’s a testimony to how synchronous video conversations can be of the highest quality – and also of each participant’s awesomeness.

Between sessions the Forum community had the chance to direct where the whole thing would go.  I opened up a poll about next steps.  64 people completed it, which is about one third of our average weekly audience over the past month (good) or around almost 2% of our official email announcement list’s subscriber base (not so good).  Given that limitation, let me share some questions and responses.

We asked how much of a focus the Forum should have on COVID-19, going forward.  Leading choices were “all pandemic, all the time” and “alternating weeks between crisis and normal Forum topics.”  The answer:

Forum coronavirus poll_all COVID or not?

I think we’ll split the different and go for 3 weeks of COVID-19, 1 week other.

We drilled down on topics into some finer detail.  A question asked which topics people were most interested in, and gave them quite a range:

(If you can’t make out the choices, they were: Campus budget issues; Grading; Teaching online; Technology issues; Faculty evaluations; Planning for the next year; International students; Mental health; Adjunct faculty; Research; Equity in student access to online education; The role of libraries; Faculty role; Teaching hands-on topics (labs, etc) online; Communications; Graduations during pandemic; International study; Other)

Planning for the next year led responses, followed by equity.  Our guests and topics will follow accordingly.

“Other” responses were very interesting:

  • Addressing lack of participation by students online
  • How to Crowdsource the Future
  • Basic needs and other non-academic support, particularly for (already) vulnerable populations
  • The challenge of unlearning some of the less optimal strategies re: online learning
  • Course materials.
  • Centers for Teaching and Learning etc or support staff for faculty
  • Leapfrog opportunities / redefining systems
  • I think there are some forced privacy issues that are coming into play now that everyone needs to keep a distance from each other and do all learning remotely. For instance, some students are in a situation where they are required to use an online proctoring service because there is no-where else to go to take a proctored exam. There is now a lot more data that is being collected in LMSs than ever before and institutions are scrambling to report on the data. Do students know what we know about them and do faculty and staff know how to interpret the data to benefit learning online?
  • Student engagement with online student support
  • National programs to accelerate OERs, OA, and national core database collections. We need to move from competition for these resources to collaboration and cooperation, without killing off all the vendors. But clearly more could be done.
  • Learning Engineering
  • Enrollment — how are schools thinking about summer and fall enrollment with such changes in delivery methods (online, remote, etc.). Also, how are schools thinking about tackling ground-based courses, such as biology labs, when their campuses may remain shut down and courses are still remote?
  • Hybrid learning…where people can do some / most of their learning online, but still have a real-time personal interaction with faculty / TAs/GAs and/others (while exercising safe distance OR a phone call)…
  • I selected a lot of topics (8), but ALL of them are important to us at this time. Our college was NOT prepared for this, at all.
  • What will the NEW “normal” look like in AY 2020-21?
  • How are we going to handle a 25-50% cut in the student body next year? How do you recruit students when you don’t know what you will/can offer next year. Also, I’m in Texas, and $19/barrel oil will play a part in this, too. Yuck.

Another survey question concerned Forum formats.  In the past they’ve usually focused on a single brilliant guest, offered no presentations, but consisted of free-flowing conversation.  COVID-19 sessions hosted several guests each time.  So both of those were options, along with a tutorial model and whatever else people suggested.

The responses:

Forum coronavirus poll_format

Panel of guests led.  Tutorials came in second, so we have to create those.  Under “other” were interesting ideas for facilitation, including a pre-session poll, pre-published questions, and having a session where we all think and co-vision together.

Speaking of format, we also explored where people would like to carry on conversations after sessions.  The results were fairly spread out:

Forum coronavirus poll_discussion tools

Twitter does have a lead.  It’s also much more active in terms of user participation than the LinkedIn and Facebook groups, so that might become the Forum’s home away from home.

Summing up:

The Future Trends Forum has rapidly thrown itself into the extraordinary crisis hitting higher education.  Our conversations have been rich and thoughtful, addressing the situation from a wide range of perspectives and breaking the whole problem down in multiple ways.  In the short term I hope these conversations can help people in and adjacent to higher education better cope with the crisis.  In the long term this account might be useful to students looking back at how academia grappled with the great crisis of 2020.

It’s one example of how a virtual community can pivot and engage.  As the Forum’s creator, host, videographer, producer, and host I’m perhaps too biased to assess this objectively, but I can try identifying some key aspects.  Our focus on audience questions and comments (as opposed to solely on guests’, or my own) yielded a rich approach to the topic.  Offering a venue was a useful act for those who participated; it was also able to build on nearly five years of community building and practice.

We’ll keep doing this, changing up format a bit, and then working in some non-COVID-19-related higher education topics.

My deepest thanks to our guests and to the splendid Forum community for making it all work.

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6 Responses to A video-based community responds to the coronavirus

  1. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Thanks for all the hard work!
    I thought this line of thought was promising — any follow-up?
    “I see 4 types of challenges & am curious how we navigate them going into the fall: 1) instructional challenges; 2) institutional/structural challenges; 3) societal structural challenges; 4) regulatory”

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Yes, forthcoming programs are aimed in that general direction, depending on which speakers I can wrangle.

    • Agree that this is amazing work! One thing that I think is missing from the four framing questions (though parts of it pops up in the specific questions) is faculty work and career. Part of this focus is the noted increase (and potential temporary decrease?) of adjunctification. But there are other aspects, such as how full-term faculty re-balance research/scholarship/disciplinary work, considering the increased demand on teaching and institution’s decision that non-teaching activities are financial extras in the current situation. How will faculty careers look like in 5-10 years, and how can they be shaped in a way that is socially and educationally desirable?

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Thank you, Andreas – and a very good thought.
        Could we do this alongside other academic professions?

        • For context, I was writing from my own perspective, which is a faculty perspective (and a faculty developer’s perspective). I think that similar questions are important for other academic professions, keeping in mind that the faculty concept in the US doesn’t have clear boundaries to, e.g., administrators, who often come from full-time faculty and retain elements of faculty work to varying degrees. So, yes, I think we can ask these questions about teaching, research, and administrative faculty, to use US lingo here.

          Probably different questions needed for, say, groundskeepers, cafeteria workers, administrative assistance, various maintenance staff and other blue- and white-collar workers. These groups form in some cases important connections to local communities, which means there may be unexpected changes afoot as well.

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