Why It's a Great Time for New Tech in Higher Ed

May 28, 2020 Kris Babe

When an abrupt and profound change creates a difficult “asterisk semester,” it’s easy to focus on what didn’t go well. But in coping with COVID-related disruption, institutions have found opportunities to make positive changes, including adopting new or underutilized technologies to support teaching and learning. Our recent panel discussion on COVID’s effect on assessment at institutions included a look at the silver lining of change amid challenge.

Thanks to panelists:

  • Bliss Adkinson, Associate Director for Academic Affairs and SACSCOC Liaison, University of Northern Alabama
  • Tracey Floto, Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation, Trine University
  • Susan Brooks, Assistant Professor of Teaching in Education and Team Leader for the Intervention Specialist Program, University of Findlay
  • Moderator: Natasha Jankowski, Executive Director of the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA)

Developing a solution-oriented mindset

One great advantage of working in higher education during a crisis is that you’re already part of a powerful brain trust. Academics at the panelists’ institutions immediately understood the scope of the challenge inherent in transitioning lives from on-campus to at-home and shifting courses from classrooms to virtual instruction — and adopted a solution-oriented mindset.

At University of Findlay, faculty with online teaching experience stepped up to support their peers. “We didn’t want to fragment or become isolated. We have to quarantine or stay in place, but we still have the ability to reach out and be helpful,” Brooks said, noting that experienced online instructors prepared short video tutorials for their peers, and offered weekend office hours for colleagues looking for help.

Knowing that there were resources available to support them was enough, Brooks noted. “As long as there’s any answer somewhere, you can do almost anything,” she said. “Faculty have found that amazing things have happened [because] of the innovations they’ve had to make in such a short period of time.”

At the University of Northern Alabama, faculty rallied to support each other and students by working together to improve the problems that arose. “Here’s the issue, what’s the best way to solve this as quickly as possible in order to support the student and how the student is learning? Also, we had a quick switch in environments, so how can technology support our faculty?” Adkinson said. “When everything’s kind of at a halt for a moment, at the same time, we are improving because we are entering into territory that we don’t know or we haven’t been through, and that’s given us that opportunity to pause, think, and reflect on what’s working and what’s not.”

In higher ed, “someday” is today

Findlay’s English department faculty assign a portfolio to English 106 students, which multiple readers evaluate at the end of a semester. When their campus closed, paper portfolios were no longer feasible and the evaluators weren’t all in the same place. “It begged the question, how could we make sure that the process continued so that we could do right by our students?” Brooks said.

By embracing technology, they were able to move the process forward. “We’ve learned a lot, in a very short time, about how technology can assist us,” Brooks said. The English 104 faculty had been planning to transition the portfolio project online at some point, but in light of the success of technology in helping to create and evaluate the English 106 portfolio, “someday” will now be summer 2020. “Now it's like, ‘Oh, you know what? We can do this.’ We don't have to wait for ‘someday,’” Brooks said.

We’re all in this together

Adkinson saw a spirit of collaboration arise among faculty challenged with learning the tools to support remote learning. Faculty created short video tutorials on things like how to upload a syllabus into the LMS, how to create a quiz, and how to use Zoom. “People came out of the woodwork to really help each other,” Adkinson said.

The University of North Alabama happened to be moving away from a homegrown assessment system as they implement Watermark Planning & Self-Study, so Adkinson has had many conversations with faculty about switching to a system that’s easier and more user-friendly. “As you walk them through it and have those conversations about technology and you show, ‘Hey, this can help free up your time and give you value added time to your day,’ having them have those a-ha moments has been worth it,” Adkinson said. “Technology has helped us be more communicative, more clear, and also develop a more collaborative environment.”

Technology makes a meaningful difference

Smart use of technology made difficult times easier for students and faculty at panelists’ institutions. Through course evaluations, Floto’s team discovered “Some of the teachers who had the biggest impact after the move to online were the teachers that already had fully developed LMS pages or courses in the system.” Their students knew where to go to find the information that they needed when they couldn't walk up to the instructor at the end of the class and ask a question.

Using technology to facilitate assessment helped everyone involved in the process at Trine and also allowed them to rapidly communicate results. “Being able to quickly download information from a survey that was sent out through Course Evaluations & Surveys (formerly EvaluationKIT) and get that information quickly out to our faculty and our administrators so that they could make decisions has been important through all of this,” Floto said.

Our panelists and participants had a wide-ranging discussion about assessment at their institutions in the wake of COVID. You can read about the decisions they made to keep calm and collect on, hear why they think assessment is more relevant than ever during disruption, or watch the on-demand recording.

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