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Going back to school – insights from the University of Michigan

Fl390 Back To School Insights Blog

It is September 2020 in a year no one anticipated. We’re facing a back-to-school season unlike any that has come before. University of Michigan instructors, like many at institutions across the world, have been faced with transitioning hundreds of classes into a hybrid or online modality.

While the university has established a robust portfolio of more than 200 open online learning experiences, most for-credit instruction occurs face-to-face. Before March 2020, we often defined “synchronous” versus “asynchronous” in support sessions for instructors new to teaching online. Now, they are familiar terms that permeate daily conversations. The challenge of transitioning instruction online was certainly not unique to our institution, although the scale was immense. With more than 7,000 faculty, we needed to find creative ways to identify and deliver scalable support opportunities to our instructors.

Our guiding philosophy

Informed by the research on technology adoption, adult learning theory, and educational psychology, our back to school strategy implemented simple guiding principles that shaped our professional development and documentation:

Apply trauma-informed pedagogies to faculty development

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests if the most basic of needs are not met, students will struggle to learn. Neuroscience research informs us how stress can interfere with learning new concepts. The COVID-19 pandemic created a situation involving threats to personal safety as well as a time of great stress.

Many of our faculty expressed concern for their students’ physical and mental welfare. While we advocate for faculty to include trauma-informed pedagogies in their teaching, we applied the same trauma-informed lens to our faculty development. Faculty are learners, too, coping with the same challenge of balancing learning new skills while weathering the pandemic.
We needed to create spaces where we could connect faculty to peers as well as to support resources. An on-demand course in the campus learning management system allowed faculty to meet with colleagues across campus. MOOCs became a place to connect with peers in the same situation around the world. While it was important to offer workshops and documentation, sometimes the most important thing was listening to faculty, who needed space to express any emotions they were feeling during the transition. Change is hard, and emotions are high. After acknowledging those emotions, everyone was more able to look forward to possible solutions.

Create stackable, human-centered, resources with space to grow

In our ideal world, we would create space for thoughtful reflection on teaching philosophies to create transformative online learning environments. In the midst of the pandemic, many educators had neither the time nor the mental or physical energy for this approach. We concentrated on making materials as educator-friendly as possible.

Technology adoption models emphasize the importance of perceived ease of use and usefulness  to a successful implementation. We used these same principles to guide our education materials. To make our documentation easy to use, we designed each short, focused piece of documentation on our Online Teaching website ( would take 15 minutes or less to read. We called this our “stackable” model. Instructors could easily make decisions about their threshold for new information without investing too much time. Each piece of documentation has a “Next Steps” section for those faculty that are ready to move forward. Our model created “off-ramps” for teachers while also providing progressive levels of documentation for faculty who were more advanced.

To ensure usefulness, our Behavioral Science team examined documents to keep technical language and jargon to a minimum and instead focused on practical information in plain language. >Our strategy increased readability, clarity, and prevented our audience from being overwhelmed by information.Some faculty were eager to iterate after teaching remotely this spring. We were able to refer faculty to further learning opportunities for more exploration like an asynchronous course offered to the U-M community and the MOOCs offered at FutureLearn.

Keep resources simple and curated

In line with our philosophy of trauma-informed teaching, we embrace simplicity. It’s tempting to give faculty all the resources available so they can choose which resource is best. However, that can lead to cognitive overload as they try to weed through materials. These materials often overlap or, even worse, contradict each other. Instead of building long lists of resources, we embraced the tension between curation and comprehensiveness. We prioritized the former in the near term while looking for ways to support a wider range of faculty development needs in the longer term.

We also simplified the formatting of our documents and videos using the same tools faculty would use. High production value videos and materials can be intimidating to those who are still struggling to learn how to use a learning management system. We focused on the skills faculty needed to learn. We created resources that were simple to use and modeled what the faculty could easily do on their own.

Development strategy

Once we had our core philosophy articulated, we could begin building a suite of learning experiences.

Agile development

Research on increasing technology adoption frequently focuses on the importance of institutional support, changing attitudes about technology, and demonstrating the usefulness of a tool. However, adoption research has never studied a massive, time-constrained technology-adoption event that the COVID-19 pandemic presented.

Over the spring and summer, faculty were learning and changing as fast as we could put out resources. It was hard to keep up with the demand for information. We developed an agile strategy for building documentation, workshops, and resources. We strove for an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) as quickly as possible. This meant erring on the side of getting something out quickly to the best of our ability, even if it wasn’t the most polished. Iteration was more important than initial perfection if it meant we could help faculty immediately. For this approach to work, we needed to build trust with our community and establish clear expectations for iteration.

Multiple modalities to model the possibilities

Many of our faculty had not participated in or taken an online course before March 2020. Some had previously never even been on a videoconference session. We used our stackable materials to support learning experiences in various formats, from asynchronous self-paced tutorials to synchronous workshops. We needed faculty to get a taste of what it would be like to be an online student.

Leverage expertise creatively

In a time of crisis, it is unrealistic to think that a single group can do it all, especially in a short amount of time. One of the most positive outcomes for our team was the coming together of many different (and disparate) departments with a common purpose—how do we help faculty in transitioning their courses online? Many of our workshops would include two or three individuals with different skill sets. This guaranteed that faculty could have all their questions answered. Internally, we thought about how to leverage those who might not normally consider their primary skill set “online teaching.” Our faculty outreach and engagement area created resources on how to effectively communicate complicated topics, while our behavioral science team created resources for students on how to make actionable changes for studying online.

To help other areas and institutions leverage our expertise as well, we applied a creative commons license to as much of our material as possible so everyone can benefit from our resources and adapt them as needed for their own institutions.

The word “unprecedented” feels overused, yet it is still the best descriptor of what fall 2020 looks like for many education institutions. Back-to-school looks different for many of us, but supporting educators in their efforts to navigate this new situation is critical to success.  By remembering that faculty are struggling through this pandemic too, with limits on their time and attention, we can create the kinds of resources and collaboration opportunities that can help those educators and their students be successful in an unfamiliar online learning environment.

Author credit: Evan Ogg Straub, Online and Hybrid Faculty Development Program Manager, University of Michigan

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