Now that our COVID acadeemic year seems to be behind us, or at least it seems that the institution feels it’s behind us, I think it’s important to reflect and re-orient. Here’s what stands out to me from my work, my Ph.D. journey, and what I’m looking forward to now!
2020 as an ID in Higher Education
The last 18 months were a real whirlwind. Due to some personal health needs, I actually ended up taking a few significant breaks from work during the pandemic. While I felt immensely guilty about the timing, it was a good reminder that my body needs care and feeding in addition to my career. If you’re not healthy, you’re not going to do good work nor will you really be in a position physically to be able to take a promotion, move to a different role, etc.
Once my personal health was managed well enough, I was able to contribute to the team’s pandemic pivot. One of the biggest takeaways I have from this time is that I was able to connect with so many people at my institution who would have never reached out to me otherwise. My role is fairly limited to those teaching online only. During the spring of 2020, I heard from so many residential-only instructors about really specific teaching challenges. Being situated in the arts college at Penn State, it was interesting to hear how these pedagogical choices tied experiences together and I enjoyed the creative challenge of helping instructors think of ways to emulate what they really needed in an online space. Traditional arts learning is really hands-on, but I consulted with a great many instructors who specialized in things like ceramics, performing arts, music, etc.
Another reflection I have from that time period is the genuine thanks and kindness that everyone showed during the initial weeks of the switch. In spite of some very justified frustration, every instructor I consulted with treated me with respect and kindness and I was really appreciative of that. It was incredibly stressful for our team and those appreciative words carried me personally through the chaos.
We did some live training sessions for instructors who had to make the modality switch in between March and April, and one thing that surprised me was the attendance at these events. I honestly thought these would be more popular, but this was definitely not the best use of our time. We did record each video and shared the links, so perhaps folks were watching on their own time, but we would’ve been better off making ourselves available for one on one consulting during those times. I haven’t seen any recording stats to know whether those resources were utilized after the initial switch.
A huge miss on our part was not being able to get a blueprint Canvas course out there. At a previous job, my team developed three templates for our instructors to use in the LMS to reflect each of the modalities we offered there. The idea was to encourage good design and make it easier for our instructors by providing this map that they could then edit with their own content. The pandemic was a perfect opportunity to utilize that strategy in order to get people up and running quickly. I spent quite a bit of time putting together a blueprint and even copied it manually into some instructors’ Canvas shells, but it would’ve been great to be able to give everyone a template for their course that they could download/import on their own. Unfortunately, our institution did not have a way of quickly getting that kind of thing up and running. It took until after the spring semester was over for me to get a response from our IT team about this and by that point it was far too late.
In terms of my PhD progress, I was kind of worried that I’d have to take a leave of absence from the program while we shifted gears due to the volume of work. While I did need some flexibility at the end of the spring semester in 2020 due to injuries and the immediate fires that needed tending, I was actually able to continue with my degree throughout the pandemic. Much of this was due to the classes being online! I saved so much time and energy being able to zoom in for class. No driving, paying to park, worrying about what I needed to wear, did I need an umbrella or my snow boots that day, do I have the right kind of leftovers to take for lunch or dinner, etc. I didn’t have to leave work early – I just clicked a link and hopped from one meeting and into the class Zoom room with no commute time at all! The best part was a night class I had initially signed up for thinking it would be 3 hours, 6-9 PM, and I’d have to pack “dinners” for myself since 9:30 PM is basically my bedtime and far too late for me to eat.
We ended up shifting to a 1.5 hour Zoom session once a week and doing asynchronous group work the rest of the time. It was perfect. In spring 2021, I had two great classes that were during the workday, but since I was working at home, making up the hours was 1) not a big deal, because I wasn’t commuting to work in the morning or at night, so I used that time to get work hours in, and 2) I didn’t have to cut any of my work activities around class short because I was just clicking a link to join a meeting. It was so time efficient and I loved having my multi-monitor setup so I could listen to the instructor and highlight/take my notes digitally. Everything about taking classes remotely was perfect. I found myself really able to focus on readings because there was nothing else going on with COVID shutdowns and trying to socially distance. It was the most productive semester I’ve had to date in terms of PhD progress. In fact, I have two potential publications and third in progress submission!
What I’m looking forward to
Once the shock of the situation wore off and everyone started getting into the groove of teaching and working remotely, I found myself with more time during work, especially after the spring 2021 semester got off the ground. Usually this time would’ve been filled with design work, but all our new course development was paused until “after the pandemic.” I actually ended up having a chance to go back and review sessions from those virtual conferences I’d signed up for! And not only that, but this brief period of time also got me thinking about how my first few years in this role had been. In 2018 I changed jobs, going from instructional design in the business school to the art school. I’m on a much smaller team now, even though our portfolio is bigger than the business school’s, and it was truly a lot of “go go go!” for the first 18+ months. I launched 5 new courses, did heavy redesigns on at least three others, and still did the typical maintenance on the rest of my portfolio. It was a ton of work, and then we went right into the pandemic!
Having this period where there was no new course development, aka, no explicit deliverables, challenged me to think about how I might use my time to improve my practice. As I mentioned already, I spent some time going back through virtual conferences and watching sessions I missed out on. I also “picked up” an eBook based on a course reading from spring semester and got a book group together around it. We started reading Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock in May and we will wrap our discussion group in July! It has been a great way to not only hold myself accountable but also really synthesize what I’m reading with other people. We also decided to try out Hypothesis and annotate the eBook, which was a nice way to authentically test the possibilities of new tech which isn’t always possible in my role.
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing I’ve added to my workdays is listening to podcasts. A few months ago, I saw a thread on higher ed twitter about podcasts, which lead me to a document that compiled a bunch of them. I’ve started working my way through some episodes that feel relevant or interesting while taking a walk outside. The podcasts are typically 30 minutes, and so for those 30 minutes of the day I’m at least outdoors, getting some exercise, and letting my eyes focus on something farther away than the two feet from my face to my screen! So far, I’ve enjoyed TOPCast from UCF the most, but I am excited to branch out and find voices that don’t typically dominate my feeds.
To wrap it up, I think there were definitely some lows the past 18 months but there were also some highs that showed me a lot about my practice and my work life balance, and what I want to prioritize in my life and how I can live my priorities through my work. I’m looking forward to letting these discoveries carry me through the changes to come and hopefully inspire better designs that remove barriers to education for others who might feel the same as me.