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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss anecdotal information on how the Fall 2020 term is going for students in particular. In a word, disappointing. We need to hear what they are saying and focus on the reality of current courses.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly



Phil: Welcome to COVID Transitions, where we discuss higher education as we adapt to the COVID pandemic and what it actually means to colleges and universities today. I’m here again with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wiseman.

We’re going to be looking at now that we’re into the fall term, a couple of weeks for the semester-based schools and about to start for most of the quarter-based schools, were already getting firsthand reports back from the field, if you will.

This is a little bit different. We created a page on the MindWires site to capture student surveys because we think it’s important to get student input on what’s happening here. Instead of taking a survey approach, it seems more appropriate to hear some more firsthand stories and attempt to get some empathy for what people are going through. Students, faculty, and also support staff.

There’s a series [00:01:00] of resources that have been valuable, certainly to us, that we’d like to discuss. The EdSurge, they have a podcast series that is doing student diaries. They call it Pandemic Campus Diaries, where they’re talking to faculty and students, and they’re giving audio diaries of what’s actually happening in the classroom. Kevin has a colleague who started the Scholarly Teacher and that has some student essays that we’d like to discuss. From the support staff side, the TopCast podcast that comes out of the University of Central Florida with Kelvin Thompson and Tom Cavanagh, that had a fascinating episode recently looking at messaging and what they’re having to go through to communicate to internal and external stakeholders.

What we wanted to talk about today is what are we actually hearing from people on what classes [00:02:00] and life is like this fall during the pandemic. Welcome, Kevin and Jeanette. It’s great to have you guys, as always. Kevin, to get started. I hope you’re enjoying the blue skies that we’re finally having in California.

Kevin: I won’t sing the song, but I am enjoying this.

Phil: After weeks of smoke from the fires, it’s actually nice to have normal type of weather. Jeanette, how are things in New Mexico for you?

Jeanette: They’re fantastic. I just picked up my bushel of freshly roasted green chiles from Lemitar, which is an even better place to go than Hatch. My entire house smells wonderful. Looking forward to chile peeling later today.

Kevin: I am green with envy.

Jeanette: Yes, it’s the house smells amazing right now, so really excited for that.

Phil: Yeah. The fall is the best time. When I used to live in Albuquerque, my favorite time there was [00:03:00] the fall. Unfortunately, you guys won’t to have the balloon fiesta and some of the normal activities, but still it’s a great time of year.

Jeanette: There’s nothing like fall in New Mexico, that’s for sure.

Kevin: Just as a side note, we had turkey burgers last night that I made with Anaheim Chiles from our garden. Now you’ve got me really jealous that you have a house filled with the chile smell.

Jeanette: Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. This chile that we have from Lemitar has a much higher sugar content that it makes everything sticky, which I know people don’t think of that with chiles. It’s amazing. 

Kevin: It sounds like you should be making alcohol from them. 

Jeanette: The people do. It’s kind of gross. There’s definitely a few brewpubs here just for the out of towners, I think make green chili beer. I don’t know who is drinking that, that’s like heartburn city. We avoid that stuff.

Phil: Turning to the topic of the day, but it’s really going to be [00:04:00] the topic of the next few months, what’s actually happening in colleges and universities. You guys have been doing some of the research on the resources that we mentioned, and by the way, we’ll list those in the show notes on the podcast so people can link to them and hopefully subscribe to the podcast EdSurge and TopCast as well. What are your initial impressions based on what you guys have been seeing over the past week, listening to students, faculty and staff?

Kevin: Disappointment.

If I can, I’d like to add another. The South Phoenix Oral History Project from South Mountain Community College is another series of podcasts, and they’ve been going since mid-March, documenting student perspectives, faculty perspectives and staff perspectives around what it’s like to be going through the educational experience during a COVID era. Shout out to South Phoenix Oral History Project.

I definitely was disappointed [00:05:00]. The very first person they spoke with on the latest EdSurge episode was from San Francisco State University, where I teach, and she said her teachers were not really understanding the life that she has with two kids, both of whom need attention while she’s trying to do her studies. With a campus that’s as dedicated to social justice and equity as San Francisco State, to have instructors who haven’t gotten prepared for the emotional and social sides of the academic experience over distance. It just means we have work left to do.

Phil: Just on that one, that was Marjorie at San Francisco State. It struck me part of what she was describing, not just not being tolerant of her, but I also heard a lot of isolation. She didn’t have good [00:06:00] ways to connect and get support and encouragement from peers due to this.

Kevin: Right.

Jeanette: I think that disappointment is a good word. I think that across the board, we’re realizing now, compared to the spring, that this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. I think that some of the disappointment and just sadness of missing out, especially missing out fall. Is there anything better than being on campus in the fall?

I don’t know. I think that’s amazing, no matter where you are. That’s not happening. The excitement of starting classes up, the new learning, that’s all sort of been tapered down. At least there’s a lot of students feeling like this is what we have to do and getting through it. Just having to really acknowledge from the student side, from the instructor side, and then I think depending on your age, the parent [00:07:00] side, that these experiences that you were hoping to have in higher education or even the K-12 experiences, you’re not having them. It’s disappointing.

Kevin: Also in that EdSurge episode, they had students who were going back to campus and expressed surprise that their instructors weren’t joining them in the classroom. They’re watching a Zoom lecture while being present, physically distanced apart from one another. One of the students they talked to did a kind of an informal poll with some of their friends. Three out of four were saying, if I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come back to campus. To your very point, Jeanette, that the students have been telling us in these surveys over the last six months that they’re craving connection with their classmates, with instructors, and what do we give them? We give them come to a room and it’ll be a little bit like a movie theater, but not with any popcorn. [00:08:00]

Phil: Ironically, we just saw some friends late yesterday afternoon and their daughter, they just sent her off to go to New York City, to a university. Several weeks in, she’s had enough. This is not what she was looking for.

Jeanette: Was she a freshman?

Phil: Yes. Freshman. She’s looking to either transfer or just change what she’s going to do. It sort of echoes what you guys are describing. It’s just this disappointment. I knew that we would have the pandemic and I knew some of the risks that were involved, but I wasn’t expecting such isolation. I wasn’t expecting to sit here and only know my two or three roommates. Also the disappointment of how the school are supporting kids from a lifestyle, from the food that’s being delivered to dorms, from how they handle quarantine, et cetera. You add to [00:09:00] that the case that you mentioned, Kevin, at Purdue where you walked in and it was just a TA who had set up a Zoom watching session in there. The student even said there was more interactivity for the students who chose to do this online because they could do chat and breakout groups, whereas the students who were in the classroom, they even had it worse off than the students who were online. It just seemed like a lot of disappointment or reality is hitting in so many different ways.

Kevin: We should send that instructor the notes on HyFlex course design so they can create an equivalent experience for every student.

Phil: Yes. The first thing that hit me besides the isolation the students are feeling and the demotivation because of it, and that gets to student life well beyond just the classroom, but to focus on teaching and learning, which is more of our sweet spot of what we cover. The reality [00:10:00] is, and it’s anecdotal, this is not a survey or quantitative study, but everybody is talking about Zoom being the predominant medium that people are working through. The reality in so many cases, despite everyone’s intentions, is that what class means is Zoom or something similar to Zoom.

There was even Elena, from the EdSurge podcast, they were talking about how her teachers specifically were trying to replicate the in-person experience in Zoom. She was saying even down to the point of instead of using a white board application to write things down, they were doing it by hand and using a camera specifically so that we can try to duplicate the in-person experience. That, to me, is just such a problem that the dominant [00:11:00] mode is trying to duplicate in-person through synchronous Zoom usage. No matter how much we’ve talked about that being a very poor strategy, I think we have to admit that’s what’s happening.

Kevin: If you heard the University of Central Florida TopCast episode, they were talking about trying to help parents distinguish between remote emergency teaching and learning and online teaching and learning, when the parents and the students just think this is an online experience. I go on the Web and there’s something happening there.

The fact that they’re still trying to make that distinction speaks to the concept that you brought up, that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Something we all recognized in previous podcast episodes that you can’t make the leap from a fully face to face instructor to a fully online instructor with an emergency situation and six months of preparation. Faculty members devoted more [00:12:00] time than ever to professional development over the summer and tried really hard to get it ready. It’s not like they have years of experience doing this. That said, the fact that there aren’t more asynchronous activities, there aren’t more things to engage students, no matter where the students are located, that’s where some of that disappointment I felt at the beginning of this episode comes from, the fact that we haven’t done a much better job than we did in the spring.

Phil: One thing I want to add, if you go to the Scholarly Teacher website and there’s a post by a student at a community college talking about features of online teaching that support my learning. And this is again, it’s just an anecdote, but it should give us empathy to hear them. It’s right. It’s describing asynchronous activities and saying what helps me hands down the most helpful tools, a hosted help forum. You have weekly recap videos, you can post things. And then the second thing is [00:13:00] flexibility, accessing course content. And the quote is “the flexibility of choosing where and when I access content and complete coursework allows me greater control over the environment around me.” So this isn’t rocket science. We already know it, but we need to hear it as a community. That that’s that’s my concern is, I agree that there’s a marathon and we can’t expect faculty to change overnight and a course designed to completely change. But what I’m seeing missing is the empathy to look at what students in particular are going through and saying this is the reality. We need to hear what students are going through. And if it’s a marathon, we talk too much about the possibility of the quality of integrated design, online learning being so much better than emergency remote. And I 100 percent agree with that. But we need to face the reality of what students and parents [00:14:00] and teachers are going through.

Kevin: And it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Right. So if you’re familiar with I forget the name of his book, Tom Tobin wrote a book about Universal Design for Learning. And they had this plus one mentality where just pick one thing and try that for this next semester. So pick one way that you’re going to provide materials and an asynchronous fashion or pick one type of activity that’s going to help students feel more engaged.

Maybe it’s with Zoom. I just heard that over the weekend that Zoom is going to add in a new feature where students can join breakout rooms on their side instead of having to be assigned them from the host. So, you know, they’re hopefully there will be some ways where we can weave this together and have a gradual transition to play off the name of our podcast instead of this abrupt transition of like, OK, in a year’s time, we’ll get it right and by then we’ll be back in the classroom.

Phil: I would definitely agree with that. So [00:15:00] as people look at this, part of the reason I wanted to highlight these other podcast is for the empathy’s thing up standpoint. Listen to what people are actually going through. Let’s try to understand where their pain points are, but also see where there are these little wins. And we need to make changes soon. I mean, and not, you know, not going from zero to one.

But as you were saying, Kevin, we need to have within the courses and even outside of courses some changes happening this fall. And it’s going to have a big impact on student retention, in my opinion.

And the thing I guess that’s frustrating to me is just how many of these lessons we already know about, but we’re just not seeing them widely adopted or at least not getting adopted more widely as I would have hoped for this fall.

So Jeanette, to put you on the spot -are [00:16:00] you disappointed are you surprised in the things that you’re hearing from the students or from other sources? I know you have a lot of good contacts.

Jeanette: You know what, I don’t think surprise is the right word. You know why is because I think that, like we were talking about, there just wasn’t the planning. Everybody was sort of playing the game of chicken, I think, over the summer, rather than going like, you know what, let’s just plan for it instead. And if we can’t go back to the classroom, that’s going to be our default. But right now, starting in April, start planning for fall, that you’re going to be your courses are going to be online.

And here are the concepts that you need to understand and you just have to do it. That didn’t happen. So that’s again, disappointing. Hindsight is 20/20, right? So that that we can go back and say people should have been doing this. I think everybody there was like some wishful hopeful thinking that everything was going to be better for the fall, even though I think we all knew probably it wasn’t going to be. [00:17:00]

I know we were hoping it would be. That’s where it’s just again, it’s disappointing because we didn’t see that.

I will say that, you know, again, to prop up New Mexico a little bit, I think that there were really science backed decisions that were being made by the state. And in fact, the state was just featured in Scientific American because of how it was not political. It wasn’t economics, it was just science. And the scientists were leading the decisions being made in the state. And because of that our COVID numbers stayed really low. And both in the K-12 or just the Department of Ed here at the state pretty much made those decisions fairly early on that there likely weren’t going to allow people to go back. And I do think that that’s been reflected in the things that I’ve seen here personally, just with my students in public schools and my friends that are professors at the university. The enrollment has been [00:18:00] up then compared to, I don’t know that officially from the UNM data, but I do know from my friends that are teaching all of their classes, their intro classes have more students than them now than they did last fall as Zoom classes. So I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job. You hear the disappointment for the lack of tradition – not being on class, but you don’t necessarily hear the disappointment from the lack of learning. So I do think that things were handled a little bit better here. So those are my experiences just directly. I just feel like now things have got to be better planned out, and our instructors and the administration helping to have that happen across the country and globally. And I don’t I don’t know if that’s what’s happening. I think it’s still become it’s pretty fragmented on how people are working.

Phil: I would certainly agree about the planning and about how too few schools or states [00:19:00] or what have you seriously started doing this planning back in April when they should have been. And that’s a major factor. I think there’s another factor, which is higher education’s resistance to have minimum standards, if you will. And I know that’s a dangerous concept, but I’ll give you a personal one. My youngest daughter, she’s a senior at a Jesuit university. And it turns out that one that Kevin Kelly has some firsthand experience working with faculty development with them. Actually to tell the story without using the school’s name, Kevin, describe, could you just sort of describe the development and the categorization of courses that you were saying that? I wanted to describe what we’re seeing it from a student perspective.

Kevin: Sure. If you mean preparing faculty to teach online, over the summer, we did some workshops for faculty to help them teach summer courses. So it was a pretty fast turn.

Around in [00:20:00] late spring and the differentiation was if faculty were to complete this training related to how they could conduct asynchronous activities online, then their course would have a designation that would allow students to know that there were asynchronous elements compared to the type of class that Jeanette has been describing, where it’s primarily a synchronous reproduction or facsimile of a classroom experience. And so they would have a different designation and the and the course catalog so that students would know what their experience would be and could make decisions based on if they’re an essential worker and can’t be at a specific time and place on Zoom, then, you know, they might aim for those asynchronous courses.

Phil: So looking at it, and my understanding from talking to you, was the fact that, all right, for your course to be designated this way, which implies [00:21:00] a set of training and quality standards, not not formal quality, but there is sort of you’ve gone through the training aspect. 

Kevin: And they also had their course reviewed with an instructional designer or a better said, a peer instructor who had been doing it for years and years. So it wasn’t just, hey, I’ve participated in this training, but I’ve also redesigned my course respectively.

Phil: So knowing that that’s happened, you know, my reaction just hearing that would be that’s really good effort to push things along to try to enforce some level of minimum quality. The course review process from a student perspective, what my daughter saw is through the rostering system, you do see if it’s fully synchronous or not. But there’s no communication to students that what this means for certain categories is that teachers [00:22:00] have gone through training and that there has been peer or instructional review of the course. So the implied quality.

She has a course, at least one course this term that’s fully synchronous. All she knew about it was the synchronous aspect, not the not the quality aspects. But so that means that she’s got one course where it is up to the faculty, they chose to do it fully synchronous. Every session, just like face to face. Well, this is a school that has students in Asia who are now from home being having to log in at 2 a.m. to watch. Of course, she’s got a friend who’s down in L.A. who lives in a small house with siblings that share share a computer. And they have no choice but to work within the synchronous environment. And to me, I guess it’s as a parent is I, I get the [00:23:00] frustration, because you look at it and you can talk all you want about faculty development. What we’re living in reality includes experiences like this where it comes across like I’m just not willing to deal with changes to my course or changes to what the educational experience is. And it’s very frustrating. And I think that we miss that frustration a lot because our natural tendency is to say, well, it doesn’t have to be that way. But the fact is it is that way in way too many cases.

Kevin: Yeah. And I don’t know if we can identify all the reasons behind the decisions. Some of them might be just pure I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing and some of it may be technological hesitations or just lack of readiness on the part of the instructor. So I don’t want to take away from the fact that other factors may play a role in those decisions. I do want to point out that that same university [00:24:00] that you’re talking about, I also got to work with them on one of the few student facing preparedness efforts where they created a course to help students get ready for a virtual experience in the fall and leveraged a number of student voices.

Over 20 students were involved in creating this course. And so I felt that along the lines of the podcasts and the essays that we’ve been describing as part of this episode, we’re producing the fact that they made an effort to have near peer coaching where students talked about what their fall, their spring experience was like, gave advice about how to prepare for the fall directly to their classmates and colleagues. That that was exciting.

Phil: I’m not trying to assign blame. I guess I’m trying to call out the viewpoint that we need to have, we need to be careful about talking too much about, hey, we’re doing these things, we’re not quite sure what happened, [00:25:00] and there were good intentions. And we need to do a little bit more of saying, let’s look at it through student eyes, and it gives us a harsher view a lot of times. And that’s what I like about the EdSurge podcast. It’s unvarnished. We’re saying this is what I’m experiencing. So I’m not trying to blame any one person or any one group, but I think it’s so important that we actually start, particularly this fall, seeing what are students experiencing in reality and how can we have that Plus one mentality that you mentioned? What are the things that we should be fixing, not even waiting until the end of the term? Let’s start addressing these pain points now. Make as many improvements as we can.

Jeanette: You know, and to follow up on that, I think that people, again, very patient and understanding in the spring. I think probably less so now. But still, there were things that we didn’t know as spring rolls around spring 2021 And some of these things haven’t been [00:26:00] figured out, and things aren’t moving more smoothly and things are still primarily online. There’s no more excuses at some level. You know, people really need to be on the ball. And I think that’s not so much not necessarily administration or staff and faculty, but the administration needs to really step up at this point and start requiring things and training. And I know that there’s so much being put on them in terms of budget and just a lot of pressure. But if it doesn’t happen, I just I don’t see students staying with a lot of these universities. The return on investment is just too low. And you start looking at those schools that really have been able to move online effectively and looking at their pricing and is if you’re going to be online anyway, where are you going to go to that’s going to give you the best education for that medium?

Kevin: Well, and if you saw the Educause quick poll that was released yesterday or today, the campuses, the stuff on campuses that made their decision [00:27:00] as early as May had a much higher feeling that their campus was prepared for fall then. And it’s a linear path. If you look at May, June, July and August and every month, the level of preparedness goes down. And so, to your point, Jeanette, we already know the Cal State University system, the L.A. County Community College District, both have decided to be virtual in the spring. And so, you know, they’re going to have that extra amount of time to be preparing now, even though they’re both already virtual now, they can hopefully get instructors to the point where students are telling EdSurge, my instructor was really giving me grief that I hadn’t done X, Y or Z. Hopefully those students will be saying, I’m so glad that my instructors understand my life experience and what I’m going through.

Phil: Yeah, hopefully we’ll have more like [00:28:00] the story saying, hey, these are the things that are helping me the most in my course from them, from the Scholarly Teacher. I don’t know how they and how your colleague picked the student for that essay, but I hope that we see a lot more of those types of stories. Hey, here’s the plus one activity that really changed things and they added it in October. And boy, I wish I’d done it from the beginning, but this helped me out. So I agree. I hope we see a lot more of that.

Jeanette: I don’t know how much this has been discussed. I don’t think we’ve discussed it. But I there’s another piece of this that I wonder is from the student perspective and also from the instructor perspective, say things go back to normal, whatever that’s going to look like, how much education was lost, do you think, in  what could maybe three semesters, where the students really take those classes. They got a grade and they’re moving on. [00:29:00] But do you think we’re going to see ripple effects both from the K-12 space, just say seniors that are moving into the college situation, when we’re setting or maybe they didn’t get their writing in classes because of how it was set up and people, instructors and teachers were being really compassionate.

What I’m wondering what the ripple effects are going to look like for just the level of knowledge that’s being transferred at this point. Is that a bigger question?

Kevin: It is. And it speaks to what I encourage online instructors to do, which is to address the bell curve of readiness for your particular course, never mind readiness for online learning. And so that you have these sets of resources, let’s say a science instructor has links to Khan Academy videos that might supplement or provide a different way to learn a fundamental topic that you’re going to need in order to build in the following course or on the other end of the spectrum, you have a folder if you want to learn more. Here’s some interesting articles [00:30:00] that are things that you can use to get a deeper dive, but you’re you’re talking about something that’s critical. And I know K-12 parents have been talking about it over the summer, that they don’t know that their students, their children are going to be prepared for the level of work that they’re going to have in this fall because they missed so much school. And if the parents weren’t able to, because of work circumstances or anything else, help those students kind of catch up or do whatever activities they could to stay at grade level, then you’re going to have a lot of extra work to do to accommodate the needs of students who just aren’t ready for the level of work they’re going to be asked to do.

Jeanette: Yeah, I agree. Yeah, we see that. I think in the K-12 space, I have a daughter who’s taking Spanish and pretty much the Spanish instruction has amounted to Duolingo. So that’s it. Pretty much. And a very non compassionate teacher. So that’s like the one maybe downside that [00:31:00] we’ve seen. But what we have the resources to do it. So now we’re going to be hiring a Spanish teacher so that she makes sure that she doesn’t get behind when she does have to take that eventually in college. But we have the resources to do that. And I just feel like there’s other parents. And in the K-12 space, certainly what their students going into college, they’re not going to have that. And I feel like those students are going to really struggle.

Phil: We’ll find a lot more examples like this where we can make improvements and actually advance the field overall. But in the meantime, is really trying to emphasize how important it is to hear students in particular and what their experiences are. And so I’m thinking we should create a page just like we did with the student surveys over the summer. We should create a persistent page on the MindWires site that captures so many of these firsthand diaries and essays and stories and just make them more easily accessible for people who do want to hear what’s [00:32:00] happening.

Kevin: And we can redirect people back to some of the blog posts that I put together around those surveys were recommending that we talk to students, not talk about students diving into the social, listening with the campus sonar and other tools like that.

But yeah, I would say let’s either expand the existing page or create another one to capture that qualitative data as well as the quantitative data.

Phil: Well, I don’t know if I was able to duplicate Jeanette’s passion from the MindWires Musings episode earlier this week, but certainly it was fascinating listening to these stories. But as you guys said, very disappointing. And we really need to face reality. It’s time for the higher ed community to to take the next step and really listen to what’s happening and deal with it. But it’s great talking to you, too. And we will keep looking at these examples and create some resources that hopefully will help as people are doing the same thing. [00:33:00]

Kevin: See ya.

Jeanette: Thanks.