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ND Learning Supports the Move to Remote Instruction Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

December 11, 2020
KC Frye

As the coronavirus pandemic continued to unfurl overseas in mid-February and began its crawl throughout the United States, University of Notre Dame leadership, along with Notre Dame Learning (ND Learning), focused on various contingency scenarios to ensure the health and safety of its community. First, they began the process of quickly returning students who were studying abroad in countries such as China and Italy. All international programs were brought to a halt as a result of the outbreak.

“We began working with some of the Global Gateway programs to help them make the shift to remote education so those students could continue their education once they came back to the U.S.,” says Kevin Barry, senior director of ND Learning and director of Kaneb. 

This series of events was a precursor to the big moves the university had to make in early March, notes Barry. After in-person courses were suspended, leadership began planning for the continuity of the current-term academic coursework for students.

“We were closely monitoring the situation as well as monitoring the environment in higher education generally in the U.S.,” says Elliott Visconsi, Associate Provost & Chief Academic Digital Officer. “Our first phase of planning revolved around a possible small scale disruption in case any of our faculty members or students got sick.”

During spring break week, the university began its pivot from traditional face-to-face instruction to remote learning for the rest of the spring semester. A Faculty Task Force on Instructional Continuity was assembled to prepare the institution for online education. 

“Once Father John announced the decision to move the entire course catalog to remote learning and teaching, we were able to scale up from anticipated disruptions to absolute disruption,” says Visconsi. “It was a big sprint. Together, the faculty task force, Notre Dame Learning, and the OIT team worked around the clock, nights and weekends, to ensure we coach the faculty, provide them with the technology resources they need, offer advice, and develop effective pedagogical strategies.”

In addition, ND Learning developed a Learning Continuity website that offered support and guidance resources for students. The Instructional Continuity website was redesigned for ease of use and contained additional resources, samples, and guidance to assist instructors.

“We developed the Learning Continuity site so that our students would have a set of resources to refer to,” explains Barry. “We were thinking about how they could be the best learners in this new environment, which has different characteristics from what they were accustomed to—more face-to-face in a campus environment.”

Susan Ohmer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Modern Communication in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre, found the websites to be incredibly helpful as she prepared to transition her course, Harry Potter, Medievalism and Transmedia Narratives, to remote learning. Along with Ph.D. student Jake Coen, Dr. Ohmer co-taught the course which focuses on the Harry Potter books and the subsequent film adaptations. 

“I looked at the Chronicle of Higher Education and other universities but I was really struck by ND Learning’s website and the integrated resources they offered,” she says. “For example, there was a teaching toolkit; articles about moving your courses online; as well as things to think about as you transition.”

She pointed out that the online materials encouraged instructors to think broadly from the beginning. 

“Before you got into the nitty gritty between that tool and this tool, they stressed purpose, function, and strategy,” she says. “They asked you think about broad conceptual questions such as ‘what are your learning goals,’ and ‘what’s the most important thing to you as you move online,’ which I found to be valuable.”

The Task Force encouraged instructors to continue with asynchronous learning as much as possible in their teaching plans, as a way to support students who may have difficulty connecting or with challenging personal circumstances. This included pre-recorded mini-lectures (screencasts), worked examples, podcasts, small-group exercises, discussion threads, and other active-learning work posted in Sakai that students can do outside of the regular class times.

“We worked in collaboration with OIT and specifically within the ND Studios and the Teaching and Learning Technologies (T&LT) group that’s within the studios,” says Barry. “We have to make sure we were not only helping people think about this from the pedagogy perspective but also began to think about the technology that they would use to successfully make this pivot and lead to the successful completion of the semester.”

Between March 13 and April 1, ND Learning offered nearly 40 workshops on a variety of topics in remote learning to help instructors as they transitioned their courses online. Workshops regularly included collaborators from OIT T&LT so that instructors would be able to get answers to technical as well as pedagogical questions. Workshops topics included:

  • Tips for Your First Week of Remote Teaching
  • Key Attitudes for Teaching in Disruption
  • Synchronous Teaching Basics
  • Asynchronous Teaching Basics
  • Optimizing Sakai for Online Learning

“In addition to the workshops, one of our normal mechanisms of operation is to conduct individual consultations,” says Barry. “We continued to encourage instructors to contact us directly if they needed to have one of those individual consultations with us. We also instituted a regular schedule of Open Office Hours so that instructors could drop in on Zoom sessions to get their questions answered.” 

Richard Williams, a professor in the Department of Sociology, was amazed by how quickly ND Learning prepared the workshops and developed the websites. 

“I was impressed with the speed in how they moved—it was as though they had been planning this for years. They had the faculty ready to spring into action,” says Dr. Williams, who taught Population Dynamics to undergraduates and Categorical Data Analysis to graduate students. “During the break where we ramped up to remote learning, I took three workshops related to instructional technology and even met with Kevin virtually one Sunday morning. Everyone from ND Learning did a great job answering the different questions I had.”

Both Dr. Ohmer and Dr. Williams plan to continue to use the online resources and tools, such as Sakai, into the fall semester and even beyond. 

“I have been using Sakai for several years but there were several features that I hadn’t used before such as the chatroom,” says Dr. Ohmer. “My students enjoyed the chatroom because they felt that everyone can get a turn during discussions. Through the chat feature, they were able to take some time to formulate their ideas. As a result, we had really thoughtful and robust conversations. I learned about the chatroom and other features because the experts from ND Learning walked me through it and I felt less daunted trying out these new features.”

Dr. Williams had never used Sakai until the spring semester. He was concerned that class discussion would be too difficult with Zoom and that he would have to record lectures all the time. 

“ND Learning encouraged me to continue to teach live and showed me how we could still hold discussion groups through Zoom,” he says. “The students were complimentary as to how seamlessly we switched to online. Through our student surveys, they found the discussion groups were still as effective.”

Although the university elected to not schedule classes the week after spring break to allow more time for instructors to prepare, the semester will end on May 8. The Commencement Ceremony on May 17 will be held online with an on-campus celebration for the class of 2020 scheduled for the spring of 2021.

While the university looked to benchmark best practices among how similarly positioned and structured institutions responded, they also understood that there was a unique Notre Dame context to consider, according to Visconsi.  

“We had talent, resources, skills, and original solutions to some really challenging learning and teaching problems,” he says. “We felt it was important to trust our faculty and learning professionals to find original solutions inside, as well as to be influenced by some of those other peers. I think we did a great job in helping the faculty make this abrupt and emergency transition.”

In the end, Visconsi adds that ND Learning helped to create an effective structure that worked to foster collaborations and strategies. 

“Notre Dame Learning has been kind of like the glue at the center of a really compelling, collaborative campus-wide enterprise,” he says. “The OIT and instructors on campus were central to that as well. It was pretty inspiring to see everybody come together without any rivalry, turf battles, or hostility simply to get this problem under control.”