As most colleges and universities in the United States begin to tackle contingency planning for this coming fall and spring given the uncertainty around COVID-19, campus leaders are looking for solutions that can quickly steady the ship.
Ed-tech companies are generously offering free trials and promises of frictionless conversion tools to help faculty members who are new to online teaching make a rapid leap to an unfamiliar modality. But these tech-based solutions often ignore the pedagogies that many of our colleges and universities center in our mission statements and admissions pitches.
As we scramble to outfit more classrooms with Zoom capabilities, teach more faculty how to upload video lectures to the learning management system, and adopt anticheating browser lockdown software for faculty to use as they deliver their traditional assessments, we are choosing stopgap measures that are unlikely to align with the kinds of language we use when we advertise our academic programs to prospective students: “our institution offers real-world experiences,” “we offer hands-on approaches,” “applied and project-based curriculum,” “student-centered learning at its best.”
As we wind down a semester of remote teaching during a time of crisis, institutions are now looking ahead to determine how we might better align the online experience we may need to offer with the kinds of engaged teaching and learning approaches and experiences that particularly our residential and face-to-face colleges and universities are known for.
What is missing from most of the remote teaching contingency planning is a framework for helping the people inside institutions understand and make decisions about pedagogy from inside the pandemic’s evolving reality. Pedagogy is not an ancillary or optional part of conversations about remote teaching. Pedagogy is the category that describes how we teach. For that reason, whether we foreground it or not, pedagogy is a key part of how our learners understand and assess their experience at our institutions during this crisis.
At the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, we have developed the ACE framework — adaptability, connection and equity — to guide our decision making and professional development planning.
The idea behind ACE is that we elevate three characteristics that are clear, context sensitive, values driven and mission aligned, and we use them to plan assignment-, course- and institution-level responses to COVID-19 in the areas of our university that are connected to teaching and learning. ACE is a framework that fits Plymouth State; as a public, residentially oriented university, our pedagogical approach promises engaged and project-based experiences for students that connect them to real-world issues and problems and nurture their connections to each other and to their communities as they learn.
This pedagogical approach is popular with our comparator institutions, but other institutions that serve markedly different demographics or who take different approaches to teaching and learning may need to revise ACE or start fresh with a framework of their own. But contingency planning without a guiding framework is likely to bring most colleges and universities further from their core missions by the time this pandemic is over.
To understand ACE in action, we need to think about the practices that can be encouraged and integrated by such a framework.
The practices that populate this chart can be swapped for other examples, but the idea is that at all levels of the university (and this can be extended to other levels such as program level or system level), we can use the framework to guide our priorities as we navigate challenges to our communities. We can walk through these sets of practices to get a sense of how they work.
Adaptability: At the assignment level, instructors can create more flexible deadlines for all learners as we expect them to face trauma or uncertainty, and we can involve learners in assignment design or allow them to choose from multiple assignment options to make sure the parameters fit their schedules and circumstances. At the course level, we can create courses that allow learners to trade off more often between online and face-to-face participation as it suits their circumstances, and chunk curriculum into smaller noncumulative modules that can be deployed in different modalities depending on regional scenarios with social distancing.
And at the institutional level, we can adopt technologies and build infrastructure based on the needs of our teachers and learners and look toward university policies (such as optional pass/no pass grading or generous transfer policies) that help learners persist despite difficult circumstances.
Connection: At the assignment level, instructors can design nondisposable assignments, giving students the opportunity to contribute their work to communities where it would be helpful or appreciated, and conceive of the internet not just as a channel for submission between student and teacher, but as a portal that connects learners with the world.
At the course level, we can link appropriate content to the reality of living during a crisis, asking students to consider connections between their fields and the challenges that crisis presents to culture and livelihood, and we can use open platforms that allow the public to benefit from the course’s work. At the institution level, we can invest in instructional designers to support faculty as they integrate connected learning approaches into their courses and create channels and dedicate staff to building partnerships with community partners who would like to engage with the college during a time of common community need.
Equity: At the assignment level, instructors can learn basic principles and tools from universal design for learning in order to maximize the accessibility of the approaches they take, and they can offer multiple engagement channels so that students can participate regardless of how they interface with technology, and how often. At the course level, we can transition rapidly to open educational resources to assure availability of course texts and to lower the cost of learning materials, and we can build basic needs resource information and attention into our syllabi, helping students see that we consider basic needs an academic issue.
At the institutional level, we can assume that all increases in technology use need to be accompanied by direct action to prevent widening of the digital divide. And we can partner with community agencies and other public service providers to strengthen an integrated safety net so that our students will know that their college or university understands the full breadth of challenges — from food and housing insecurity to childcare pressure to the need for transportation — that they face as they try to persist in college.
What we’ve been doing for the last eight weeks is coping. What we are starting to do now feels more like planning. In 2019, global ed-tech investments reached a staggering $18.66 billion, and as the novel coronavirus spread across the United States, ed-tech companies were right behind offering ideas, deals, gifts and promises. While many of these technologies are likely to be healthy parts of a balanced response plan, we need to be guided by a framework that is free from undue industry influence, and instead stems from what we claim is most important to our learning communities.
The ACE framework is openly licensed and easily adaptable; you can swap out the priority practices you focus on or even swap out the core values in the rubric. What matters most is that we focus teaching and learning on, well, teaching and learning, and that during a time of crisis, instead of abandoning our missions to a superficial set of patchwork technologies, we dig deeper to stay true to our commitment to our core values in higher education.
I am grateful to the CoLab’s learning developer, Martha Burtis, for her partnership in designing the ACE framework.