Editorial: We’re Going Remote!?!

A University's Tale of Two Cities

Robert Wagner, Ph.D.

In 1859 Charles Dickens published his masterful drama set within the backdrop of London and revolutionary France. According to Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The insightful and dichotomous statement has been applied countless times since Dickens penned the famous opening. By Fall 2021, there was little doubt such an apt description could apply to higher education during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Since March 2020, I can think of numerous ways it describes the conditions brought on by the pandemic and Utah State University’s responses.

It was the best of times—at Utah State University and more broadly across higher education. First, faculty demonstrated their mettle and fortitude in adapting quickly to changing teaching and learning environments. To transition from over eighty percent of courses being taught in-person to one hundred percent of courses being taught online (remote) in a matter of days could not have occurred without dedicated faculty who were committed to ensuring the continuity of instruction. Those same faculty set record attendance at faculty development workshops in the Summer of 2020 as they prepared for continued remote and hybrid teaching in the Fall. Credit also goes to the faculty support professionals who developed new and enhanced (via remote delivery) workshops in online pedagogy, effective use of video technology, instructional design, and more diverse benefits using data to make informed decisions from our learning management system—including seating charts and COVID-19 case containment protocols.

Indeed, the pandemic seemed to offer a “best time” to demonstrate the efficacy of what Utah State University and other institutions have been working on for over twenty-five years—how to provide greater access to education through remote course delivery. And, for the most part, the instructional technology worked. For Utah State University, our use of video course delivery technology along with lecture capture, content management systems, course quality rubrics, and accessibility protocols proved consequential to our COVID-19 response.

At the same time, students demonstrated their resilience in a “best of times” scenario. Already gravitating towards online courses over the last decade, students responded to the university’s new “USU-Ready” resources by adapting their learning to an online (remote) environment. USU-Ready resources included academic study tips, mental and emotional well-being support resources, technology tutorials, and additional financial aid. Although student retention and completion were impacted over the pandemic semesters, most students persisted and successfully completed their courses.

As Dicken’s implied in his famous opening, however, not everything fit in the “best of times” category. COVID-19 also shined an uncomfortable light on common blind spots. The question of higher education’s cost to students surfaced as their expectations for rich educational and active student life were dramatically altered. The value of teaching and learning in an online (remote) environment was challenged and some wondered if remote learning was worth the same price as an in-person experience. If universities were not using their facilities during the pandemic, should students be charged the same as if they were? Across the country, and at Utah State University, some students bemoaned their remote experiences and lack of in-person engagement with their instructors and fellow classmates. We found ourselves proving our worth and value by expanding the digital portfolio of instructional learning tools, developing more training for faculty and students to successfully replace in-person academic experiences, and increasing our overall capacity to serve in a remote environment.

It was also the worst of times for an already growing plague of mental and emotional distress among students. Student health and well-being were impacted profoundly by the isolation, stress, and fear brought on by the global pandemic. As students lingered in their dorms or basement apartments, cut off from many of the in-person services universities had developed over the last several years to combat the debilitating plague, Utah State University and its peers re-engineered student services, along with highlighting the important role faculty play, in reaching individuals in need. COVID-19’s impact demonstrated that universities still have much work to do in supporting and caring for their most precious assets—their students.

At the end of Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, his character Carton concludes: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” Universities are still looking for a “rest” after eighteen months of mitigating the effects of COVID-19. At Utah State University, we have determined it is a far, far better strategy to look ahead towards a post-COVID higher education landscape and ask ourselves: what did we do well? What could we have done better? How can we take these lessons and implement significant improvements to our mission and core services? We cannot go back to a pre-COVID world and, despite a lack of respite, our faculty, students and staff are energetically learning how to do many things differently—and, in some ways, even more effectively. We will continue to focus on empowering teaching excellence with a laser-like dedication to faculty development, instructional support, and learning engagement with the goal of improving student success and greater positive outcomes for all.

Indeed, our tale at Utah State University and for all higher education, in a post-COVID world has yet to be written.


Journal on Empowering Teaching Excellence, Spring 2022 Special Issue Copyright © 2022 by Robert Wagner, Ph.D.. All Rights Reserved.

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