When the coronavirus hit in the spring, Virginia Tech rapidly moved its courses online, which was an unexpected emergency pivot that came together in the course of weeks. Now, as Hokies prepare for the return of students for the fall semester, the university is launching new practices to improve its academic experience amid the uncertainty of the pandemic

These changes represent not just an effort to innovate under challenging conditions, but to create systemic improvements whose effects will long outlast the pandemic that created or accelerated them.

“There will be permanent changes as to what it means to go to college as a result of the challenges we’re experiencing right now,” said Dale Pike, executive director and associate provost for Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS). “The face of work has likely changed permanently in our country as a result of being forced into this extreme version of teleworking. The same is true for education. While things are challenging right now — and we will certainly return to some largely physical experience once it’s safe to do so — we’re also finding ways to do things that will ultimately improve the way we teach and learn over time.”

Virginia Tech faculty are preparing to engage students through various modes of instruction: online, both through independent learning (asynchronous) and scheduled meetings (synchronous); face to face; and a hybrid approach that blends the others.

Of undergraduate courses, 6 percent will be face to face, 32 percent hybrid, 44 percent synchronous online, and 18 percent asynchronous online. Of graduate-level courses, 11 percent will be face to face, 29 percent hybrid, 41 percent synchronous online, and 19 percent asynchronous online.

Developing a plan for fall instruction has been a challenging process complicated by the rapidly shifting dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Students, parents, faculty, and staff are all looking for clarity as to what’s happening in the fall,” said Pike, “and yet, all things being considered, perfect clarity is impossible. What we can do is plan for likely scenarios, and that’s what’s happening. Balancing the need to come together to learn and the need to be safe from public health risks is a constant tension that I think happens and is felt at every level of the organization.”

As a primary point of contact between the university and students, faculty have taken up the challenge to develop a meaningful academic experience during unprecedented circumstances.

The university is supporting faculty with new digital learning tools and a collection of working groups. The Office of the Provost is leading the effort with a teaching and learning operations team that consists of representatives from TLOS, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), the Graduate School, and others.

Since May, 350 faculty members attended one of the monthly course design clinics. The multiday clinics guided faculty through the course design and redesign process using faculty keynotes,  Zoom meetings, discussion groups, customized consultations, and the Canvas site. Kim Filer, associate vice provost for teaching and learning and CETL director, said the center completely overhauled its approach to design clinics in May to make them models of best practices for online teaching.

“What has come out of this whole situation is that we have amazing faculty at Virginia Tech who are truly inspiring to each other,” Filer said. “All we’ve done at the course design clinic is to provide a venue in which faulty see all the amazing things going on, learn from each other, problem solve together, and then design inspired courses. The goal is for them to walk out of the clinic feeling like they have a community of people to reach out and talk to. We want them to feel inspired to try new things and empowered to go into the next wave of teaching.”

During a keynote speech in one clinic, Alma Robinson, the PhysTEC teacher in residence in the physics department, spoke of her mindset as she developed a course for the fall.

“I realized that I had to make a decision when I planned my class,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to plan a class that was borne of my worst fears, but a class that I would be proud to teach. I hope we make sure we come out on the other side of this with that in mind.”

As faculty and staff have prepared for the fall, “communities of practice” also have emerged around different kinds of courses, such as arts, writing-intensive, large lectures, science and engineering labs, and seminar and discussion courses.

For example, the Science and Engineering Lab Community of Practice engaged well over 100 individuals across multiple colleges and offices to develop guidelines and best practices, provide training for faculty, award grants to adapt labs for the fall, and plan for reinstating undergraduate research opportunities.

“There has been an incredible behind-the-scenes effort by the science and engineering lab community over the past three months to ensure that we maximize safety simultaneous with the most engaging in-person and virtual labs possible,” said Jill Sible, biology professor and associate vice provost for undergraduate education.

These communities are driven by faculty from different geographic and disciplinary backgrounds coming together as a team.

“We try to structure moments where faculty are inspired by their colleagues and are learning from each other,” Filer said. “Faculty really like to see each other. Being online allows more interaction between people who don’t often get to see each other. That doesn’t often happen in a face-to-face environment with people who don’t work in the same department or building.  But now, online, they’re interacting with people across departments and in different parts of Virginia.”

The teaching and learning operations team also created three working groups that intersect with all five communities of practice. These groups focus on testing, proctoring, and assessment; accessibility and accommodations; and computer labs and virtual software delivery.

These working groups and communities of practice are preparing for the specific challenges of fall 2020, but they are developing and implementing tools and processes with long-lasting ramifications for the academic experience at Virginia Tech. The changes were implemented as part of Tech’s commitment to its Principles of Community, but they carry the potential to benefit any student who chooses to utilize them, regardless of need.

For example, a new tool called Ally works within the university’s learning management system to make course materials more accessible for all learners.

“Ally gives every student across the university the ability to choose their preferred format for consuming digital information,” said Mark Nichols, senior director for universal design and accessible technologies. “That’s something that’s never been universally available before on campus. Some students might take that 12-page PDF class reading assignment, download the file in audio format, drop it on their phone, and listen to it while exercising or commuting on the BT. ”

Ally is part of a suite of services intended to create accessible course content for students. In the past, students could self-identify through Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to request accessible educational materials. With Ally, many of those materials are made available to every student, regardless of self-identification. The software also rates the accessibility of course materials for faculty and offers them advice on how and why to improve it.

Additionally, faculty now have access to request high-accuracy closed captioning for online lectures, which gives students additional ways to consume course content and increase engagement. TLOS is also offering a grant program for faculty and staff to boost awareness and understanding of accessibility best practices and to improve the accessibility of web content or general material consumed by the university community, Nichols said.

At the conclusion of the spring 2020 semester, the university asked students for examples of faculty who had weathered the transition with resilience, inventiveness, and grace, said Quinn Warnick, deputy executive director for TLOS.

“It was amazing to see how many of those comments centered on the very human aspects of teaching and learning: building community, showing genuine concern for students’ welfare, or being generous in the way they communicated with students,” Warnick said. “Very few students focused on their professors’ amazing PowerPoints or video editing skills. What emerged was, this professor showed they really cared about us as students, and what we were dealing with. As we move into fall, a big concern is how to weave that humanity into our pedagogy, so that we teach from a perspective of compassion, of understanding, of community.”

As it has throughout its history, the Virginia Tech community is leaning into the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

“Our conversations with instructors keep coming back to the same themes: what can I do to serve my students, to serve my class in this challenging situation?” Warnick said.

Classes begin Aug. 24.

— Written by Mason Adams