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Personal Reflections on Education During the Pandemic

I have a number of jobs at Columbia University: I teach professionally-oriented graduate students; I direct two master’s programs and one concentration in environmental sustainability policy and management and for the past two years I’ve served as senior vice dean of Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. While I’ve taken time out for government service and consulting, for the past four decades I’ve mainly been an educator, teaching while managing programs, schools and even a research institute. In all that time, I’ve never seen anything like the months since March 2020. It has been challenging, difficult, sad and at times, oddly rewarding.

Teaching in cyber-space and in what we call hyflex has been a technical and pedagogical challenge. In hyflex, we teach from a classroom with a skilled student video-aid operating a TV camera. The students include socially distant, masked students in the classroom along with students Zooming in from home. All sessions are taped and preserved on the course website. The new format created real challenges to teaching: How do I communicate to people in two dimensions who look like contestants on a game show? How do I combine classroom with distant instruction and dialogue? I teach case-based courses that require two-way communication. In fact, when we teach face-to-face, we prefer case classrooms where the seating is in a semi-circle so students can see each other. How do I encourage participation and ensure that students remain engaged? Student presentations and Zoom breakout rooms provided some opportunities for student involvement. For students in different time zones, I set up half-hour discussion sections where I addressed questions and tried to connect to those students who typically viewed the class via videotape. My class in Sustainability Management had about 80 students and encouraging dialogue can often be difficult, but this year it often felt like we were in uncharted waters. We all did our best, but it was definitely a challenge for everyone.

In the environmental management simulation workshop I teach, the class is much smaller, and my engagement with the group was easier since everyone could see each other on a single Zoom screen. Just as I miss social engagement with friends, colleagues and family, I missed that in this class, but the sense of mission and generosity of spirit I felt from my students made the experience particularly profound. Compliments in the chat box after student presentations and smiles and visible manifestations of teamwork were common. In the fall, when we shifted from all virtual to hyflex, a few students came into the classroom most weeks and it was great to see them walk out together connecting (masked) in real-time and space.

One of the most interesting aspects of my courses this past summer and fall were that students performed as well or better than students in past semesters. I know that students in K-12 education had less positive learning outcomes, but graduate professional education has a different dynamic. I think students were grateful for the sense of structure and purpose they found in continuing their education, and the classes were in some way a method of breaking up the monotony of pandemic life. Without the distraction of New York City’s night life and dynamism, they seemed to spend more time on coursework. Some, of course, seemed and likely were depressed, but the sense of mutual support and caring practically jumped off the screen with regular frequency. Students went the extra mile to be mutually supportive and that was wonderful beyond words.

This is not to say that I prefer this form of teaching and learning. I don’t. But I know that it is demonstrating our resilience and creativity and I believe that learning how to use this technology will have a long-term, positive impact on teaching and learning. I give enormous credit to the technical assistance staff at Columbia, who supported my teaching and to the people who developed Zoom, an application so simple even I could figure it out. Assuming I remain healthy, I will look back on this time as a type of battle that we waged to continue staying positive despite the pain and suffering that enveloped us constantly. I suppose new terms like: “I’ll share my screen” and “you’re muted” are now permanent additions to our language.

My experience as a teacher influenced the way I’ve tried to provide leadership as an educational administrator. In a time of incredible abnormality, I thought it vital to provide a sense of normalcy and purpose. At Columbia, the School of Professional Studies manages the summer session, and when we moved to online education last March, we quickly decided to move the summer session online as well. Amy Hungerford, our new dean and vice president for Arts and Sciences convened a working group of senior administrators from her office and from most of the undergraduate and graduate schools in the Arts and Sciences to plan a high quality and exciting online summer session. Her leadership resulted in a team effort unlike any I had ever experienced before at Columbia. Working together, we created a summer session that had more enrollments than any summer session had before. Our high school program enrolled over 1,000 more students than the summer before, and both graduate and undergraduate enrollments increased over previous summers. We had originally projected significant drops in enrollment, but we were proven wrong. In retrospect, I realized that many normal summer activities like travel, camp and field-based internships, were impossible and so, a high-quality educational experience seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Unfortunately, the picture changed as we entered the fall semester. Our biggest problem was that international students could not get visas to travel to New York because embassies stopped issuing them. In addition, there were travel restrictions related to health concerns. At the School of Professional Studies, nearly 1,800 students had sent deposits committing them to begin in one of our 17 master’s programs in the fall, but over 600 of them (mainly international) asked to defer admission until January or September 2021. But there were bright spots despite that setback. We were able to launch an online weekend high school program this fall that enrolled about 700 students, and commitments for graduate study in January are now higher than they were last year at this time. Interestingly, over 200 of the 300 students who had deferred until January have recommitted and plan to begin next semester.

My analysis of all of this is that education provides people with a sense of normalcy and forward progress even during the horrific time we are now enduring. The socialization aspects of higher education are very important, and its absence is very real and a huge cost of the pandemic. We have learned that for young children, the need for face-to-face education is far greater than for older students. It is not trivial for graduate students, but for a few semesters, we can operate this way. For my three-year-old granddaughter, it is a different story and her parents have resumed her attendance in pre-school. But as the disease spikes again in New York, and with indoor dining closing again here in the city, we need to be prepared for a second lockdown like the one we had last spring.

I now know we can teach and learn in this environment, but I worry that everyone is getting a little screen weary. Time is less distinct than it once was. Weekends do not revolve around social engagements and are mainly recognizable by the absence of Zoom meetings. My friends who teach younger students are concerned about the ability of their students to learn in this environment. I understand that, but for graduate students, the formal part of their education is succeeding. The work I am seeing is spectacular. But I am certain the informal part of education is suffering. I always say that in graduate school I learned more from my classmates in bars and cafes than I ever learned in classrooms. In some way, the classes were just the excuse for the transformational educational experience I was enjoying. And so, I am happy for what we have accomplished, but I long for what we’ve lost. Like everyone else, I am eager for the vaccine to be distributed and for the infection rate to go down so we can all exhale and return to the real world. A world I know I will never again take for granted.

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Brandon
3 years ago

I manage a few different websites and forums related to education and parenting, and I can tell you that people are hurting – badly. I totally agree that another lockdown is coming, but I very much hope this vaccine can work wonders.