An Unprecedented Challenge

The beauty of higher education.

March 25, 2020
 

This week has been one for the records.

Words like "unprecedented," "fluid" and "challenging" are said in the same sentence as words like "compassion," "transparency" and "flexibility."

We are all trying to figure this out and doing our best to manage with compassion and flexibility in this unprecedented, fluid situation.

At Georgetown, we moved over 3,600 courses online (over 6,000 if you count all the sections) with a few days' notice. We were able to do so in part because of the incredible effort of people from across campus, including my amazing colleagues in CNDLS and our wonderful partners in our IT department, our libraries and our deans and faculty leaders. And we were able to do so because of the grace and collective engagement of 2,700 faculty members and graduate student instructors across campus. Everyone came together with patience and a care for each other that is at once humbling and inspiring.

At Dartmouth, we’re just getting started on the undergraduate side, as our spring quarter begins next week. Our three professional schools have already made the transition to remote learning, with our students learning from their professors in virtual rather than physical spaces.

The approach we are all taking varies, from how our institutions are organizing (delegating or centralizing) decision making, communication and outreach. The teaching and learning landscape is only one piece of the puzzle, as every aspect of a small community shifts from being together to being together remotely.

At Georgetown, we did this by focusing on three principles:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
  3. Be honest, open and, above all, compassionate with each other

We asked faculty to narrow their approach to delivering content, to engaging with students and assessing their learning. There were few requirements (keep teaching, if you’re able, and connect with your students being the big ones). We quickly moved to adopt pass/fail options, to give students and faculty as much flexibility as possible.

Business was not as usual. But we encouraged our community to try to give each other an opportunity to connect and to give each other as much stability and normalcy as possible in an otherwise untenable happening.

It’s been amazing to watch the community come together, to share in successes and to work to overcome the challenges. If "compassion" and "unprecedented" are now part of everyone’s vocabulary, a common refrain is “if there is a silver lining to any of this …” and that silver lining would be seeing so much goodwill, energy and care being expressed by everyone in the community in support of each other. We’re all anxious, we are all managing the adrenaline and moving quickly, but we’ve all been working together to make this happen.

At Georgetown, this is in part what it means to live the value of cura personalis, a Jesuit principle of caring for the whole person. If these past couple weeks have shown us anything, it’s that this is a value our entire community embraces and lives daily.

At Dartmouth, among our priorities in the rapid move to remote learning, we are emphasizing:

  • Prioritizing care, compassion and kindness
  • Keeping it simple
  • Practicing pedagogical flexibility
  • Supporting our entire student community

These next few weeks will bring new challenges. The little things that go wrong will become magnified the more we deal with them. The technical problems we were able to manage our way through will feel a bit more frustrating. Our communities may start to feel farther apart as we all work remotely.

The most important thing in the next couple weeks is to stay in touch with our students. To keep the momentum of this past week going. To make sure that we are intentional about everything we do, from reaching out to our students to find out how they are doing to continuing to adapt and adjust our courses while they are underway.

This is an unprecedented, fluid challenge, but if there is a silver lining, it’s that it has shone a bright light on what is so special about higher education and the people that make up our schools.

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