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Tufts Plans for Online Education During COVID-19

A conversation with Paul Bergen, educational technology and learning spaces director.

April 19, 2020
 
 

Q: Paul Bergen, thanks for agreeing to chat. You are the educational technology and learning spaces director at Tufts University. I imagine that the last few weeks for you have been crazy. How has COVID-19 changed what Tufts is doing with online education?

A: In the months prior to the current public health crisis, I had been planning the Educational Technology Day of our two-day annual teaching conference. With some apprehension, I was planning to focus the entire day on a consideration of online education.

Within the past two years, Tufts has signed contracts with three OPMs to develop eight online graduate degree programs. A number of Tufts schools had been considering options for adding to that program portfolio. It seemed timely to convene earnest discussions around the lingering perception that online courses were “not as good as the real thing.”

In addition to prompting discussions around perceptions of educational efficacy, I wanted to find a way to probe our faculty’s sense of what the institutional turn toward online learning means to their identity as educators and to their sense of Tufts as an educational institution. I intended to be careful not to proselytize, but to facilitate balanced consideration.

In the end, I figured that a balanced discussion might, perhaps, convince a few skeptics that teaching online is a real thing that our turn toward online programming does not force us to sacrifice our values as educators or as an institution.

I had been cautioned by a number of school and provostial academic executives to be cautious about my approach to the topic. It remained a sensitive topic. And I should avoid implying that there is a decided-upon, coordinated institutional strategy to grow online learning. There are faculty that remain quite resistant to such a thing.

At this point, of course, we have been compelled to cancel the teaching conference, and every teaching faculty member at the university has been compelled to continue their courses online. And it’s clear that this experience -- from philosophy to physics; from the performing arts to the health sciences -- will be a game-changer. The rushed forced march to online has opened eyes to new possibilities and reconciled what seemed too many to be two existentially competing modalities.

As we emerge from the crisis, the “new normal” will undoubtedly include more online programs and online teaching at Tufts. Not at the expense of a rich residential educational experience, but aligned and in harmony with the values that make the Tufts experience distinctive. I would argue, in fact, that the experience of teaching online may even strengthen our understanding of the characteristics and practices that make a Tufts education distinct and uniquely valuable. The rapid and complete change in modality will amplify and clarify the signature elements of the Tufts educational experience. And we’ve learned quite clearly, by the way, that one of those elements happens to be how committed our faculty are to their role as educators.

Finally, I believe many faculty will emerge from this crisis with new ideas about approaching their classroom teaching. In my experience, faculty find the process of redesigning their courses for the online modality inspires them to reimagine the building blocks of their courses. The online modality is built around a symbiotic relationship between synchronous class sessions and purposefully designed uses of asynchronous course materials. Redesigning a course around these building blocks prompts educators to reconsider their approach to key teaching challenges in their residential courses. When students finally return to campus, I suspect my team will be excited to work with faculty in rethinking their uses of class time and the design of their course activities.

One risk worth mentioning is that what most faculty have done online to conclude the spring term is not that same as mindfully designed online instruction. Delivering lectures online in Zoom has been satisfying in the face of the crisis. And the faculty have been amazing and resourceful. But we are preparing to offer faculty additional guidance about online course design (student engagement, active learning, balancing synchronous and asynchronous time on task, etc.) that will be critical if Tufts is online this fall.

Q: Is Tufts working with any companies in these online education initiatives?

A: A diverse approach to working with partners has been incredibly helpful to us in developing a deep understanding of vendor-supported online programs. We have partnerships with both Noodle and 2U, as well as Evidence in Motion (EIM).

Our partnerships are structured around revenue shares as well as fee-for-service models. 2U offers tightly bundled end-to-end services, while the other two partners have more flexible approaches. I also have an extraordinary team for internal program and course development. So we have the opportunity to develop a consistent institutional strategy around what sorts of new programming opportunities are best suited to which program development and business model.

The revenue share model works when the mission is to scale. The beauty of the 2U model is that they have as much skin in the game as we do. They ante up with a substantial down payment in launching the program. And that helps assure us that they have as much at stake in the success in the program as we do.

However, where the scale required for both the OPM and the institution to profit under the rev share model is either not possible or not desirable, then the additional flexibility offered by unbundled fee-for-service models has been quite valuable. In addition, our faculty (and my team) have appreciated using our own Canvas learning stack to deliver our Noodle courses. This has provided more continuity for the faculty and made it easier for them to repurpose both the materials and the practices they employ for their online course in their traditional classroom teaching.

Q: What advice would you give the rest of us for working with a company on online programs, and how has COVID-19 impacted your thinking about these sorts of partnerships?

A: I would point to a couple of strategic considerations in addition to fundamental financial arrangements. In developing cost/value propositions for these partnerships, it's important for institutions to know what strategic value they place on developing internal core competencies around the various pieces of online program design and delivery -- from program identification to marketing, recruitment, design, delivery, etc.

There may be strategic advantages for many institutions in handing over the entire venture to an external partner. On the other hand, for other institutions, developing core competencies in one or more of those areas may represent a strategic opportunity of its own. Many institutions have strengths in several pieces of the program development chain but deficits in others. Finally, a more subtle consideration involves leveraging the symbiotic relationship I mentioned above between the educational quality of online and residential programs. In this respect, it has been an advantage to have faculty using the Tufts learning stack for both modalities.

The value of our diverse approach to working with external partners has been apparent during the COVID-19 crisis. It has been reassuring that both 2U and Noodle have had no shortage of ideas for how they may be of assistance in these extenuating circumstances. In my opinion, we have found that the more flexible the OPM can be in aligning with and complementing our core competencies, the more valuable they can be to an institution like ours that has skilled internal capacity. The prospect of launching a parallel support track, particularly if it involves a second learning stack with a distinct solution set, is of great concern. During the height of our response to the crisis, I needed an à la carte menu of services that could fit neatly and without friction into the support streams we’d already launched.

The challenge during the crisis period was less about having options for our response than about assuring clarity and simplicity for our faculty. I found that our partners were approaching our schools directly with offers of support. Yet I was delivering reassurance and simple, clear directions. Faculty had 10 days. We told them that all of the tools they need to continue their courses online could be found in Canvas, and that documentation and training sessions can be found off of the IT homepage. Period. That’s all they needed to remember. Consequently, our provost agreed to ask both 2U and Noodle to route through me as a central coordinator. This was enormously helpful in controlling the message during the height of the turbulence.

In the end, we were able to leverage the assistance of both Noodle and 2U without obfuscating the clarity we sought to provide in the face of such disruptive circumstances. But the help provided by Noodle warrants particular recognition and a brief story.

I discovered late one night after a string of 15-hour days that they had been working directly with a school without coordinating with my office. And, well, I sort of blew a gasket. And I wound making a mistake we all should know to avoid when we’re tired and stressed: I sent them a pithy late-night email -- one of those emails we all know we should put down and not send until after coffee the next morning. But I sent mine and I yelled at them for what was really a well-intentioned effort to help with faculty training.

Our Noodle team responded immediately, and we were able to coordinate with me and to deliver a key piece of our crisis response. They stepped up on a Friday and did two things: first, they forgave me for my pithiness and listened to what we needed, and, second, they offered 10 days of Zoom workshops for all faculty at the university. They had a daily schedule in place by the following Monday. We reviewed the agenda with my team on Tuesday, and starting that Wednesday, they launched a week of valuable Zoom workshops each with over 100 to 200 faculty. Our faculty really appreciated those workshops. Noodle did a great job.

I’m sure the value of our partnerships with both 2U and Noodle will continue to evolve as we dive into more planning for the uncertain future. And the experience we’ve gained working with both of them will help us as we plot a course forward.

What do you want to ask Paul?

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