2020 Reflective: Breathe Deep and Stay Agile

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Dec 22, 2020

Some days, exhaling feels really good. As a certified yoga instructor, I know firsthand the benefits of breathing exercises and in my professional life as President of O’Donnell Learn, this has served as a good reminder to literally – and symbolically – exhale throughout the day. As we near the close of 2020, it seems a collective exhale is in order as we all acknowledge we made it. 

Breathe in. Breathe out. 

In my own world, I’m able to see just how much higher education has risen to the enormous hurdles of 2020. It’s been incredibly gratifying to see how diligently institutions have worked to support faculty and students, and equally so, how much more faculty were equipped to embrace online learning during the fall semester. 

While end-of-year survey results are still to come for how enrolled students are evaluating their 2020 college experience, I queried two of our staff, both students, about their overall experience and considered how these compared to what I was seeing with O’Donnell Learn clients. Kellie, our graphic design intern, just completed her Associates Degree in Graphic design. Prior to 2020, all of her courses met on campus. Cathryn, a Learning Design Associate is currently enrolled in an online Master of Education program in eLearning and Instructional Design. As this program was conceived as online delivery, it serves as a benchmark to compare against courses that were forced by COVID to switch delivery modes.

Answering the call for empathy. 

Early in the process of courses moving online, students were very vocal about a need for faculty empathy and humanizing the learning experience; understanding how much their college experience had been disrupted and the uncertainty that created. From attendees in our webinars, participants in our Jumpstart training modules and faculty we worked with directly, we saw first hand the desire to meet students’ needs. 

“I hated spring and the initial online switch…it just felt like a huge mess and no one really addressed anything to us. We rarely got to just speak about how crazy life was and there were little to no zoom meetings. I missed seeing everyone. But fall has been a lot better. Teachers now ask about our personal lives and work to make sure they can help accommodate where it's needed.” Kellie

“So far, all my professors have given extensive and thoughtful feedback with a genuine desire to see me succeed. They’re definitely passionate about what they do and I truly appreciate their dedication.” Cathryn

Though the programs Kellie and Cathryn were enrolled in are vastly different – emergency remote vs. regularly delivered online, Associate vs. Masters – both expressed an appreciation for feedback and interaction with faculty, signaling a student need regardless of learning delivery.

Internally, we took a deeper look at our faculty development training programs. Our Purposeful Learning Framework, which serves as a course development guide for faculty, now includes a separate equity and inclusion element to ensure these critical needs are surfaced and considered during the design process.  Equity and inclusion have also been added to our training programs, under the direction of Dr. Brett Christie,  a faculty development and Universal Design for Learning specialist who joined O’Donnell Learn in July.

Owning the need to do better.

Here is where I saw the spirit of higher education really shine. In response to student, faculty and their own frustrations with emergency remote learning in the spring, clients embraced new technologies, new formats, completely reworked courses and made every effort to close the gaps created by the sudden shift to online learning. Yes, there is still work to be done, but I’m proud to have witnessed higher education’s journey to move beyond the new normal and embrace the “now” normal.

“I didn’t feel like I learned at all once school switched to online. I spent my days rushing to get all of my assignments done without retaining anything. I was so burnt out by the summer and was hoping the fall would be better. Thankfully it has been. I can tell my teachers tried hard over the summer to come up with an online class that would work best for everyone.” Kellie

I’m particularly grateful O’Donnell Learn was privileged to come alongside clients and have a stake in reimagining how we all advance learning in higher education. In 2020, we helped convert hundreds of on-ground classes to online, produced over 50,000 video minutes and 20,000 interactive learning objects, as well as  introduced hundreds of faculty to purposeful learning design, a framework that anchors course design in the context of the people it will serve.  Higher education set significant and in many cases, uncharted goals. It was amazing watching you go after them with everything you have.

Learning better together.

A key challenge with online learning is how to create valuable peer-to-peer learning experiences. Normally executed with ease on-ground and in-person, peer-to-peer learning became critical with so many students struggling to learn in isolation. 

For Cathryn, the online master’s program she’s enrolled in places an emphasis on working with classmates and giving feedback. For Kellie, the pivot her instructors took made all the difference in re-creating the critique process so critical to on-ground art classes.

“Peer evaluations have been built into most of my classes and I’ve loved that aspect. Not only am I shown another way of looking at my work but I’m also given the opportunity to learn about my peer’s interests and research findings.” Cathryn

“I was really impressed with how my art teachers were able to make the class virtual without feeling like we’re completely missing out by not being in the school. We had structure to the course with a consistent project schedule with weekly critiques and class discussions.” Kellie

O’Donnell’s own version of learning better together is our new Jumpstart product, professional development for faculty, where  we interweave learning with doing — providing instructors with a framework for creating effective course experiences, time-saving tools as well as one-on-one support from an expert instructional designer. In this learn-by-doing  collaborative  environment, faculty quickly learn how to redesign courses and continuously improve their students’ learning. Feedback for our first Jumpstart bootcamp with St. Francis College was 100% client satisfaction.

Though 2020 will likely weigh in as one of the most challenging years of our professional careers, we’d be remiss to not pause and take stock of the  increased agility we see  in higher education as a result. I find myself hopeful for the future of higher education, faculty and especially, the students. The way learning experiences have changed this year in record time speaks volumes to what we can and must accomplish going forward.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  And know that you made a difference. 

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