Leading the Charge: The $7 Million Story of BU’s Hybrid Teaching Transition
With speed, spirit, and ingenuity, the University moved to a whole new teaching plan. Will learning ever be the same?
- Learn from Anywhere turned faculty into students, with faculty members teaching each other what they learned
- The implementation of Learn from Anywhere rested on three pillars: technology, faculty coaches, and classroom moderators
- The COVID-19 pandemic forced educators to rethink teaching practices, and even the role of education
Chris Dellarocas was looking forward to March 11, the day he would begin his spring break ski trip. As that day approached, however, Boston University’s associate provost for digital learning and innovation (DL&I) realized that his ski trip was looking increasingly unlikely. COVID-19 was spreading around the world like a fire in dry grass, and the sometimes deadly and extremely contagious virus was changing the way people interacted. Remote teaching, for example, presented a safe alternative to in-person classes.
On March 2, Provost Jean Morrison asked Dellarocas, who had been in charge of BU’s digital learning strategy for the past seven years, to develop a “remote teaching readiness plan,” just in case BU was forced to transition to remote teaching.
One week later, on the first day of spring break, Morrison informed the BU faculty of Dellarocas’ Remote Teaching Readiness Plan, which, among other things, asked each dean to designate a remote teaching coordinator (RTC) who would act as the first line of support for faculty as they made their way to remote teaching. Privately, she told Dellarocas to be ready to move quickly.
The next day, March 10, the Boston Globe reported that there were 92 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts, and 70 were linked to a single biotech conference at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf in February. Dellarocas canceled his ski trip.
On March 11, instead of skiing down the slopes, Dellarocas was in his office reading a letter that was sent to all students, faculty, and staff from BU President Robert A. Brown and Morrison. Effective the following Monday, the letter said, all BU classes would be taught remotely. Students who were off campus for spring break were strongly advised not to return. The remote format would last until April 13.
The race was on. Dellarocas was charged with steering the University through its most profound instructional change in memory. The effort to upgrade technology and help faculty prepare for remote teaching would eventually involve dozens of staff members from DL&I, dozens more from Information Services & Technology (IS&T), 200 faculty and deans, and 500 student workers and would cost more than $7 million—and Dellarocas had five days to get started.
“I was very confident that the faculty could do this. I knew the technology was capable of doing it, and I thought the learning curve was not as steep as people feared.”
“The main issue was scale,” he says. “BU is a huge place. It has more than 4,000 faculty and the resources I had in my office were limited. Still, Dellarocas was optimistic about the ability of BU faculty to master teaching via Zoom and Blackboard. He recalled that he had mastered Zoom in one long, somewhat frantic evening, when a snow emergency closed the campus the day before he was scheduled to teach a large group of business executives. As for Blackboard, half of the faculty was already using it.
“I was very confident that the faculty could do this,” he says. “I knew the technology was capable of doing it, and I thought the learning curve was not as steep as people feared. From the get-go, the remote teaching coordinators were all very capable and very positive. They told me, ‘Yes, it’s challenging, but we will be ready.’ They are really the unsung heroes of the spring semester’s move to remote.”
On March 16, BU’s transition to remote teaching went live, as Dellarocas says, “largely without problems.” Most faculty did learn how to use Zoom fairly quickly. Even though many missed the stimulating energy of in-person teaching, they were teaching, and students were learning.
On April 13, it was clear that there was little hope of returning to campus anytime soon. The number of new COVID-19 cases per day in the commonwealth continued to climb, peaking on April 24, when Massachusetts cases and deaths lagged behind only those of New York and New Jersey. BU, like almost every school in New England, was into remote learning for the long haul.
At every school and college, remote teaching coordinators were smoothing the paths ahead, answering questions about technology and remote teaching strategies.
Karen Jacobs, a remote teaching coordinator for Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences, says RTCs tapped the resources at DL&I’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), shared their knowledge, and passed on what they learned to their own faculties. Jacobs (Sargent’79), a Sargent clinical professor, associate dean for digital learning and innovation, and program director of the online post-professional doctorate in occupational therapy, says she showed faculty how to record a remote class, use breakout features so students could work in small groups, and share documents through the chat feature. “We also encouraged faculty to make sure all of the content that they typically deliver in person was on their Blackboard site,” she says.
In mid-April, Dellarocas was appointed chair of a newly formed Remote and Online Working Group, which was charged, among other things, with envisioning a longer-term plan for remote teaching and learning. The group included Sue Kennedy, senior assistant provost for academic affairs and associate provost ad interim for undergraduate affairs; David Cotter, assistant provost for graduate enrollment; Tanya Zlateva, dean of Metropolitan College; Ernie Perez, director of educational technology; and Linda Jerrett, director of Learning & Event Technology Services (LETS). It was one of five working groups established by the University’s COVID-19 Recovery Plan.
On April 29, the University announced a plan for the fall semester that would move 44 graduate and professional courses to a new hybrid format that would simultaneously offer classes in person for those students who chose classroom sessions, and via various technologies to students who were elsewhere. More courses were quickly added.
Four weeks later, a similar hybrid plan, this time for fall undergraduate courses, was announced. BU called the undergraduate format Learn from Anywhere, or LfA, and promised it would offer arriving freshmen and returning students a choice of taking classes in person or remotely. Similar hybrid formats have since been adopted by more than 400 of the 2,958 colleges and universities tracked by Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i) dashboard.
The next challenge
Both hybrid plans were shaped largely by the Remote and Online Working Group, which was racing to address the myriad contingencies that would confront students and faculty in the fall. The group knew that for the faculty, LfA would be a game changer. Teaching to a class that had some students in a classroom and others attending remotely would be more complicated than teaching to students who were all remote. Remote teaching coordinators had provided invaluable support for the initial hurried pivot in March, but to master the new format, faculty would need additional support.
The working group decided that the implementation of Learn from Anywhere would rest on three pillars: technology upgrades and installations; faculty coaches, who would help faculty adapt their courses to LfA; and classroom moderators, who would help faculty communicate with remote students and offer limited technological advice. At the same time, remote teaching coordinators would continue their valuable work.
Tech to the rescue
When researchers from DL&I searched for the gold standard of classroom technology, they didn’t have to look far. Harvard Business School had excellent technology in some of their classrooms, but it was expensive. The more extravagantly outfitted rooms came with a price tag of $250,000. And the working group was looking at roughly 1,000 classrooms and other spaces that could be used for classes that needed upgrades. “We opted for more moderate interventions,” Dellarocas says.
In most cases, those interventions consisted of cameras, ceiling microphones or external microphones, and wall ports that allow faculty to plug in their own laptops and avoid sharing equipment that has been used by others. In some rooms, existing built-in computers work fine with Zoom. The cost was about $6,000 per general purpose classroom for technology, integration, and labor for the first phase of rooms receiving upgrades.
In normal times, says Linda Jerrett, whose team was responsible for corralling, installing, and testing the equipment, LETS would handle the design, installation, and support of technology in the 240 classrooms listed in the Office of the University Registrar inventory—but these were not normal times, and there were more than 200 rooms added to that list. Jerrett counted 460 classrooms and other spaces to be used for classes that needed additional equipment to support LfA. The number of classrooms receiving a technology upgrade over the summer is usually closer to 15.
Jerrett figured that faculty had enough changes to deal with without the stress of learning a lot of new technology. Physical distancing had moved every seat in every room at least six feet from any other seat. In one room (CAS 522), she says, capacity was reduced from 208 to 32. And then there were spaces that were never intended to be used as classrooms. There was Marsh Chapel and the George Sherman Union Ballroom, for instance, as well as basketball courts and lounges.
Other rooms, like STEM labs and teaching spaces for the College of Fine Arts, required special attention. At CFA, for example, iPads are being placed on pole carts so they can be maneuvered around to display in-class student artwork or show a movement class to the remote students.
“We are not going back to the way we were. At least not all the way back… I’m always thinking, let’s do something in this space that will be useful after we leave, within the scope of the project.”
Jerrett estimated that primary and backup solutions would require 650 webcams, 400 mobile cart solutions, and 200 USB microphones—which didn’t seem outrageous, but she had to have them in-house, deployed, installed, and tested in 10 to 14 weeks. In the best of times, that would have been difficult. In the midst of a pandemic, it was too much to hope for. “Orders for healthcare are understandably always first in line,” Jerrett says. “I am losing sleep because of supply chain issues.”
Making the most of the equipment they did have, LETS set up “prototype rooms,” where faculty could get acquainted with the technology they would use in the fall. Of course, because of the pandemic, there were restrictions on when faculty could visit the spaces. Once permission was received, LETS scheduled two weeks of visits, Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 4 pm. Within the first 24 hours of registration, over 100 faculty signed up.
Throughout July, LETS staff did what they could, applying short-term solutions and limited resources to long-term problems. “We have a lot of rooms that are quote-unquote done,” says Jerrett. “But when our integrator goes in, they put the camera in one room, test it, and then take the camera to the next room.”
Jerrett believes that this summer’s efforts, including the faculty’s familiarization with technology and the pedagogical lessons learned, will impact University education long after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. “We are not going back to the way we were,” she says. “At least not all the way back. That’s why my team and I have been discerning and cautiously spending the money like it’s our own. I’m always thinking, let’s do something in this space that will be useful after we leave, within the scope of the project.”
You are not alone
In the first week of March, Ernie Perez was en route to Seattle for the annual meeting of ELI, the Educause Learning Initiative. He was about to board a plane when an email from Morrison came in. Could he quickly develop some web pages that could help faculty better understand what was involved in remote teaching?
Perez, DL&I director of educational technology, made some calls and sent some emails to his staff. Two hours later, he learned that his conference had been canceled, and he booked a flight home. While in the air, he and others from DL&I and IS&T worked on the web pages. By the time he landed in Boston, the new web pages were ready.
Perez now oversees the budgeting of the classroom moderators, the student workers who will be in the classroom and help faculty deal with glitches and awkward moments of remote teaching. Classroom moderators will keep an eye out for questions and comments coming in from students who will be attending class remotely, and also help faculty solve some common technological problems.
The responsibility for hiring and training classroom moderators fell to Jill Beckman, executive director of client services and support (CS&S) in IS&T; Stacy Gianoulis, assistant vice president for CS&S; and Katie DeMore, an IS&T problem manager. It was decided that classroom moderators would be placed in classes with more than 20 students, although there was room for compromise if faculty requested it. Perez estimated that somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of classes would end up with moderators. He figured that more than 500 students would be needed. By the first week in August, IS&T had received 725 résumés and hired 426 students. Most, says Beckman, were eager to return to campus and happy to work for the standard student rate.
To prepare moderators, DeMore and Beckman asked their most experienced desktop support people which queries they got most often, then they put together a cheat sheet. DeMore says anticipated problems include how to get rid of echoes in Zoom, how to connect to Zoom, how to connect to a projector, how to make sure that students mute their microphone if the room they are in has background noise. In cases where the moderator is unable to solve a technological problem, Beckman says, they will act as a liaison between the instructor and IS&T so the instructor can focus on teaching rather than technical issues.
Teaching the teachers
The fall will present new challenges. “The training needed for the fall is more substantial than what was needed for the spring,” Dellarocas says. “Faculty need to be thinking more about how to adapt their classes to LfA. If you do a straight lecture, it’s not a problem, but many classes are more challenging to do in a hybrid modality.”
To help with that training, the Remote and Online Working Group proposed faculty coaches. These are faculty members who mentor their peers, offering guidance on issues from technology to pedagogy. “We invited every school and college to nominate coaches, and we gave them a rule of thumb of one coach for every 35 faculty,” says Dellarocas. “We ended up with 134 coaches.”
Deborah Breen, director of CTL, was put in charge of training the coaches, who were recruited by deans and associate deans of each school and college.
“The coaches were chosen because they were people who are curious and adaptable and flexible and willing to problem-solve,” says Breen. “They were not necessarily people who knew the answers, because none of us knew the answers. They were people who were willing to create processes to find the answers.”
Across the University, the number of faculty assigned to a coach varies from school to school, but it generally is somewhere between 10 and 30. Every school and college was encouraged to develop approaches that suited their faculty.
“In Sargent, they chose coaches to represent each department,” says Breen. “In CAS, coaches are getting together every two weeks to figure out how to support each other. In Engineering, they assisted with a virtual faculty retreat to talk about LfA.”
“What’s really interesting is people have had to think about their normal practice of teaching and to rethink the role of education and how education can be of the greatest benefit to students.”
In training sessions, CTL emphasized peer-to-peer learning. Exercises at coaching workshops and resources on the Blackboard site helped the coaches break down the activities so they were better positioned to help faculty within their colleges and schools. Sarah Hokanson (CAS’05), assistant provost for professional development and postdoctoral affairs, facilitated workshops on how to give feedback.
Breen also oversaw a series of lightning talks, produced with help from Maureen McCarthy, DL&I communications manager, where five faculty each spoke for 5 minutes before a 30-minute question period.
Faculty coaches wrestled with issues like how best to encourage a lively class discussion on Zoom, how to look at papers together, how language instructors might teach if their mouths were obscured by masks, and what to do when a class had remote students in time zones that make attendance difficult.
Greg Stoller, a Questrom School of Business faculty coach and a senior lecturer in strategy and innovation, says Breen’s guidance has made him a better faculty coach. “Working with faculty is different from working with students,” he says. “Deb helped us understand how different. She divided us into cohorts that were a mixture of people from across the University. We did simulations and interacted with people from outside our schools and outside our comfort zones.”
Personally, says Stoller, a 2019 Metcalf Award winner, getting ready for the fall has been like “riding the wake of an innovation tsunami.” He has reengineered nearly all of his content, as well as the teaching approach for his classes. In Questrom, he says, many faculty pitched in and helped each other. One faculty member made a Questrom tools website, and others made PowerPoint presentations. Still others, he says, went their own way.
“I think there are two types of faculty members,” he says. “There are faculty members who are doing their thing, and we don’t hear from them. And there are faculty members who have taken the bull by the horns, and they are contacting us on a regular basis. They are trying to reengineer the process to reduce the amount of surprise they might run into in September.
“We are all in uncharted territory,” Stoller adds. “And we are all in this together. The faculty doesn’t know what to expect fully. The administration doesn’t know what to expect fully, and the students don’t know what to expect fully.”
Breen agrees, and she appreciates what she sees as a lasting upside. “This is going to be experiential learning for teachers, as well as students,” she says. “This has opened up pedagogical opportunities for us to think through teaching and how learning happens. What’s really interesting is people have had to think about their normal practice of teaching and to rethink the role of education and how education can be of the greatest benefit to students. What COVID has done is expose a lot of fault lines in education and opened up a lot of opportunities that we probably would not have imagined without being pushed.”