Thoughts of a Higher Ed Mom on the Pandemic and Shifts in Learning

At some point I will say, “I remember that week.” On a Wednesday I stood at “meet the team night” at my daughter’s high school while we recognized all of the Spring sports teams. That day I had learned that the college where I am an associate professor made the decision to go to completely online for class learning for a three-week span. I sat in the stands and listened to all of the names of the Spring athletes be called and there was joy, as there always is when you see your child and their friends be recognized.

Yes, there was a joy, but it was shadowed by my healthcare professoriate identity that knew the decisions at the higher education level would very quickly trickle down to impact high school students. Two days later my daughter walked in the door and poignantly said, “I wonder if that is the last day that I will have class at my high school.” It hit me like a brick. I had not taken a picture of her when she walked out of the door in the morning. I could not make myself take a picture now. My heart is heavy with the loss of cherished moments and historically meaningful events, all of which can appear insignificant in the face of a global crisis.

It is 2020 and a global pandemic has reached the United States in the form of COVID-19. A friend and colleague, Naomi Boyer, penned an important commentary on the effect that the pandemic might have on education and challenged us all to think about what learning looks like from our vantage point of parents, faculty, teachers, etc. (Boyer, 2020). I have so many viewpoints. I am a mom. I am a physical therapist and athletic trainer. I am an associate professor at Otterbein University. I am a member of the International Society for Self-Directed Learning. All of these “viewpoints” have challenged me in the last weeks to find the good with the bad and the opportunities with the challenges.

I am a mom. I have a daughter that is a senior in high school and a son that is an eighth grader. As the weeks have come along I have come to understand that my son, too, will miss some milestone events. He had been really looking forward to his Spring AAU season and his class trip to Washington, D.C. They both will miss likely the end-of-year celebrations that mark the end of an academic year and cause us to reflect on their achievements and thank the educators that so aptly guided them there. The prom dress had been purchased and the dresses for the senior academic booster celebration dinner and graduation have been purchased. I wonder which ones she will get to wear? My heart is heavy.

I am a college professor. I am a physical therapist and athletic trainer. I have spent my life in healthcare and I have dedicated the last 10 years of it exclusively to the preparation of many that are now healthcare professionals themselves. They are my children too. I thought about them and them being put in the face of our new enemy. So many of them have young children and new babies themselves. I remember coming home from work when my own kids were young and feeling like I needed to shower and change clothes before getting those hugs and cuddles I had been waiting all day for. I cannot imagine how they are feeling right now. My heart is heavy.

I am a college professor who is enjoying her first ever sabbatical. About two weeks prior to local closures for social and physical distancing, an advising conference I had been looking forward to as a part of my sabbatical was cancelled. I understood. It was an international conference and it seemed like a reasonable precaution. I would re-adjust my plans a bit for the second half of my sabbatical. In that “week” of upheaval I found myself feeling helpless as I was not responsible for the direct instruction of my students during my sabbatical.

I watched my colleagues, who had only limited experience with distance learning, the use of our learning management system, and best practices in online teaching and learning techniques, be faced with the challenge of making the transition, quickly, under mandate, in an almost violent upheaval. The majority of K-12 teachers and college instructors are in the business of education to impact student lives. Instantaneously, many were faced with an absolute paradigm shift as to how to make this happen under tragic conditions and minimal preparation. My heart is heavy.

I am a college instructor who, even though I was enjoying my first sabbatical, empathized with my college seniors who were feeling cheated themselves. They too did not get the chance to take a picture of their “last class.” Their senior athletic seasons were cancelled and their senior performances that they had been preparing for would not occur. Many of these students are preparing to start graduate school in health-related fields as early as May and are uncertain about how those plans will proceed. Many of them are uncertain about what workforce or jobs will be available to them once this is over. They, like the rest of the world, are living in sustained ambiguity. My heart was heavy.

On that Sunday night I planned a Zoom call with those seniors and I think it was a first moment of forward movement. Perhaps, this was my “picture”- a snapshot in time. I felt at home. I realized that my sabbatical needed to take a turn and that I needed to be what I could be for my students and colleagues. I knew that I wanted to be back involved in their daily academic lives through advising and support and that I needed to reach out to my faculty friends to see if my experience with online and blended instruction could help them in any way. My sabbatical had graced me with time that was my own and I had either accomplished or was on target to complete my sabbatical goals. My heart felt useful.

I immediately reached out to colleagues within my professional network and asked for resources to share and that in fact became a great source of comfort and provided needed focus when my center felt a little off. Teaching is often something that occurs a bit in isolation from your colleagues. One of the first things I noticed in stepping forward was that I was not the only one feeling a need for community. Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning, dean, Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning, and professor of literature, University of California, Santa Cruz has noticed it too. She states, “Instructors in higher education settings have been practicing social distancing and self-isolation since universities were founded in the Middle Ages. One of the most remarkable dimensions of this moment is that even as we move en masse to teach remotely, we are also for the first time beginning to move en masse to thinking about teaching collectively.” (Lederman, 2020).

Interestingly enough, my sabbatical focus has been on self-directed learning (SDL). I have analyzed metrics captured from several student cohorts using a survey designed to measure self-direction in learning. I recently attended a conference, in which the International Society for Self-Directed learning worked to define the construct of self-directed learning. At the conclusion of that conference and through careful consideration of the discussion at the symposium, the Board of Directors, which I serve on, adopted this definition of SDL: “Self-directed learning is an intentional learning process that is created and evaluated by the learner” (Ponton, Boyer, & Mc Carthy, 2020).

I think much will be gained from instructors and learners in this time period of COVID-19. I am hopeful that teachers will ask themselves reflective questions about what they can learn during these unprecedented times and how that knowledge might guide future instructional practice. Did they learn that their students felt free to engage in an online environment when the pressures of in-class time and in the physical presence of their peers was reduced? Were teachers able to shift to any sort of model that felt more collaborative and student-led in its initiatives? What did learners come to know about themselves as learners?

Teachers and learners are an important group in that they have power to be a voice of how learning should look. They must work together to understand what is meant to be gained from this time of upheaval in our traditional education model. I continue to hear administrators and fellow teachers talk about having some flexibility. I also hear great stories of adaptation in the face of these challenges and in that space is often where ingenuity occurs (Mortenson, 2020).

In my own house my son has been practicing his hand with new video and picture editing software and he has learned how to use a chainsaw. Time can often be a gift and allow learners to gravitate to new learning opportunities. This may be a time when learners begin to embrace that often personalized, active learning opportunities are where they find deep satisfaction (Horn, 2020). Self-directed learning, again, as an “intentional learning process that is created and evaluated by the learner” may find a new group of followers (Ponton, Boyer, McCarthy, 2020). I’m hoping my mom heart and spirit can handle ones that involve power tools. My heart was hopeful.

Much will be written about this unique and challenging time in this world. Already we are starting to hear voices and reflections. Julie Heng is a senior at Huron High School in Ann Arbor. In 2019, she was a Detroit Free Press High School Apprentice. She articulated in an opinion column (Heng, 2020, Detroit Free Press) some of the moments that will be missed by some of those high school seniors like my daughter. She also articulated that the senior class of 2020 will likely be defined by resilience and empathy. Interestingly, those are “skills” often sought after by industry (Lee, 2014) (Ross, 2018).

On a bright side, we remain healthy as a family unit and extended family. My college students have remained healthy as well. I continue to focus on the future and am mindful of the shifts that might occur in our world due to this. However, this morning I sit and enjoy the quiet that has become the norm with teens shifting to their preferred sleeping rhythms. I sit and enjoy my cup of coffee with my thoughts.

Sundays are always a moment for us to enjoy family. Sometimes those Sundays are quiet, but lots of Sundays have been spent on a softball field or at a basketball tournament. In fact, we should have had my son’s first spring basketball tourney this weekend. But, today we will just enjoy being together and I will cherish these moments together. I’ve learned the importance of those pictures – snapshots of moments and memories that cannot be recaptured or recreated.

Maybe today I will take another step forward and get back to some of the typical things you should be thinking about in preparing your high school senior for their next step… I wonder if she can make eggs (Borison, 2019)? My heart sang (Guglielmino, 2020).

References:

Boyer, N. (2020, 31 March). Capitalizing on requisite seismic shifts in education: Cultivating the empowerment of the learner. Retrieved from https://www.sdlglobal.com/single-post/2020/03/25/Capitalizing-on-requisite-seismic-shifts-in-education-Cultivating-the-empowerment-of-the-learner

Heng, J. (2020, 29 March). During coronavirus pandemic, the Class of 2020 matures. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2020/03/29/coronavirus-high-school-seniors-mature/2924251001/

Borison, S. (2019). Got a Senior in High School? Some Wisdom from our Experts. Retrieved from https://yourteenmag.com/teenager-school/teens-high-school/parenting-your-17-year-old

Lee, D. (2014, 7 July). Why You Need a Resilient Workforce in Today’s Economy. Retrieved from https://www.tlnt.com/why-you-need-a-resilient-workforce-in-todays-economy/

Ross, M. (2018, 22 November) 4 Reasons Why Empathy Is Good for Business. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/322302

Mortenson, M. (2020, 25 March). Students, teachers adjust to online during pandemic. The Laconia Daily Sun. Retrieved from https://www.laconiadailysun.com/news/local/students-teachers-adjust-to-learning-online-during-pandemic/article_fcfb9e30-6ec4-11ea-ab12-7bcf0bb12dec.html

Lederman, D. (2020, 18 March). Will Shift to Remote Teaching Be Boon or Bane for Online Learning? Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/18/most-teaching-going-remote-will-help-or-hurt-online-learning?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=ed98b6317d-DNU_2019_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-ed98b6317d-199137489&mc_cid=ed98b6317d&mc_eid=d36e5d3efc

Horn, M. (2020, 28 March). The Impact of a Pandemic: What to Do as a Parent and What Will Happen In Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://michaelbhorn.com/2020/03/the-impact-of-a-pandemic-what-to-do-as-a-parent-and-what-will-happen-in-higher-ed/

Ponton, M., Boyer, N., McCarthy, K. (2020, 16 February). ISSDL Adopts A Definition of SDL. Retrieved from https://www.sdlglobal.com/single-post/2020/02/16/ISSDL-adopts-a-definition-of-SDL

(Guglielmino, L. 2020, March 31. (Blogpost) https://www.facebook.com/sdlglobal/

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