• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Building to Pivot

Implications of a seemingly simple rule.

June 23, 2020

“Individuals presenting with symptoms or a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 must not attend in-person instruction and must be provided an alternative option for their work, such as remote instruction.”

The rule above comes from a 25-page document of guidance for colleges restarting, released last week by the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education of New Jersey. It’s a humane and reasonable rule, and I agree with it, but it presents quite a design challenge.

It was a freestanding bullet point, so I don’t think I’m distorting it or pulling it out of context. The meaning seems relatively straightforward.

In short, it means that every on-site class has to be built to pivot on a per-student basis.

That’s a significant change from the ways that student absences have typically been handled. Historically, if one student in a class gets sick and is unable to continue, and can document that, we look at some sort of medical withdrawal. The class continues; the student who can’t continue with it is given merciful ways out. In this case, if one student in a class gets sick, the college is obligated to provide an alternative option to complete the work. In courses with many sections and relatively standard content, that might involve being placed into an online section. (Or it might not; the guidance is silent on that point.) But in courses with few sections and/or content local to each one, the instructor may have to pivot for that student.

(In discussion with faculty Monday night, someone raised the question whether the presence of one infected student would require placing the entire class under quarantine for two weeks. At that point, the “pivot” would cover the entire section. That’s a tough one.)

As it stands, right now we’ve scheduled about 20 percent of our classes for the fall to run on-site, typically in hybrid or blended form. The other 80-ish percent will be held online, whether synchronously or asynchronously. (We’re calling them “remote live” and “online,” respectively.) So the 80 percent or so taught at a distance should be reasonably safe from major disruption, assuming the instructors stay healthy and the internet access holds. As one might expect, the 20 percent that are at least partially on-site include a fair number of classes requiring hands-on instruction in a specialized facility, like automotive tech. A few are more traditional classroom courses, intended for the students who swear up and down that they just can’t learn online. Obviously, those are subject to change, depending on the course of the virus and the state.

I’ve already warned the faculty for those sections that the possibility of a viral resurgence is real, and that they should build their on-site classes with the ability to flip to distance if necessary. But the assumption there was that the entire class would flip, like we did in March. Now, if one student gets sick, the instructor may have to run the course in two formats simultaneously. That’s new.

Social distancing may actually save us here. If it’s impossible to fit the usual 30-ish students into a classroom at one time with each student having a six-foot radius around them, then classes may have to be broken into subgroups, with the subgroups alternating between on-site and online attendance. It’s a version of hybrid or blended instruction. To the extent that on-site classes have to go that route, then accommodating a sick student becomes much easier; that student just sticks with the online group for a while. If it already exists, then having someone switch for a couple of weeks is much less disruptive than suddenly needing to build a new online section.

Even the relatively easy switch in a hybrid class will raise some issues. The best blended course designs let each format do what it does best. If someone is relegated only to the online portion for a while, they might not get a fully parallel experience, since they’d miss out on the parts reserved for on-site delivery. But that’s a smaller issue than building a new shadow section.

In theory, HyFlex delivery would eliminate all of these issues. But doing that right -- running on-site, synchronous online and asynchronous online in parallel for each section -- requires a level of hardware and training that’s simply beyond our current capacity at scale. A few brave souls could try it, but absent a serious infusion of resources, we can’t do that for everything. At this point, we’re actually facing funding cuts, even as we deal with the fallout of a pandemic. Major new infusions of technology and training like that just aren’t in the cards unless and until the funding picture improves dramatically.

The point of this, really, is to give a window into how a simple and humane sentence can raise a complicated series of questions. It’s one thing to run an on-site class. It’s another to run it with multiple possible pivot points, knowing that it could all change at any moment.

It’s a challenge, but the students are worth it.


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