With ongoing uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and how it will impact learning at higher education institutions this fall, one thing is clear: flexibility will be key. But how do you plan for the unexpected?
This fall, the Curry School is introducing a new learning model called FLHO, or Flexible Learning Hybrid Online. In addition to measures taken by both the University of Virginia and the Curry School for students to return safely to Grounds, FLHO was created for students to succeed this fall. It accounts for the unexpected by allowing students to choose how they want to participate – in-person, online, or a combination of the two – with the option to switch should circumstances change.
Currently, large classes will be all online. For smaller classes that can be held in-person with appropriate social distancing, there will be a remote option for students who are not on Grounds. With the FLHO model, faculty are preparing to deliver their courses online as well as in person, so they can pivot their instruction as necessary.
“In the event that Curry School courses have to once again transition to fully online, we will be prepared,” said Jenny Provo-Quarles, Director of Online Initiatives. “Alternatively, if most students are able to physically attend class and social distancing becomes less critical, it will be easy to increase the number of students physically attending class as they feel safe to do so, without detracting from the experience of any students who need to continue to participate online.”
Throughout the summer, Curry School faculty and staff have been working to prepare for the fall. Faculty have participated in a three-part training session, where they worked one-on-one with the online team to re-design courses to fit the FLHO model. Here, we break down five core elements that went into creating FLHO and share how the Curry School plans to deliver a high quality, flexible learning experience this fall.
1. Strong foundation in distance learning
There is no substitute for experience, and the Curry School has been delivering quality distance learning long before the pandemic hit. The Curry School began offering individual online courses in the early 2000s, which then expanded into course series and certificate programs. In 2015, the Curry School added its first online degrees to what has now become a full suite of courses, degrees, and other programs.
After reflecting on lessons from the emergency switch to online learning across higher education, the need for a flexible, hybrid program became clear. Provo-Quarles said that a strong foundation in online education allowed her team to quickly expand existing programs into a school-wide model. Instead of scrambling to create something from scratch, they were able to build FLHO with tried and tested techniques, while leveraging existing tools like Canvas, the Curry School’s learning management system.
2. Established excellence
Critically, from those first online courses, the Curry School’s online offerings have always put quality first. All online courses offer the same rigorous curriculum and high-quality instruction as in-person courses, and in 2020, the Curry School’s online graduate programs were ranked No. 3 in the country by the U.S. News & World Report.
That same commitment to quality was central to the development of the FLHO model. “In developing FLHO, we wanted to ensure that all students had an equitable experience – regardless of how they choose to participate in class,” said Provo-Quarles. “Our faculty have been working tirelessly honing their skills blending in-person and web-conferenced hosted instruction, but also crafting engaging and interactive online content specifically for students who do not feel comfortable entering a classroom.”
3. Robust online community
Online or in-person, community is key for effective learning. Again, fostering community from a distance is nothing new for the Curry School’s online team. All Curry School students are automatically enrolled in the Curry Community – a virtual student union that houses videos, discussions, virtual events, and other resources designed to facilitate connection. Preparing for the fall was about expanding existing infrastructure, not rushing to build something new from the ground up.
Academically, the online team has been working one-on-one with faculty to proactively build space in their syllabi for coaching and one-on-one interactions with students. A priority in all courses is time for faculty to engage deeply with students on their work.
Assistant Professor Katrina Debnam, who will be teaching a course on mixed methods research design this fall, said the dedicated time to connect with other faculty and discuss techniques helped her plan creative ways to engage students virtually. “As we all have discovered, simply posting your slides online does not necessarily translate into student engagement or learning,” she said. “I’m hoping to use the synchronous time to facilitate my connection to students and the asynchronous activities to extend their learning and increase their engagement with the material. For example, I’m planning to use some of the synchronous time as a flipped classroom where students present readings and guide discussion with the class.”
4. Focus on flexibility
When it became clear that Provo-Quarles and her team would need to design a new learning model for the fall, they knew it had to allow for multiple possible scenarios, ranging from mostly in-person courses to fully online.
First and foremost, Provo-Quarles said her team considered student responses to the sudden shift to online in the spring. “We wanted to be responsive to what students said worked best for them,” she said. After reviewing feedback from student surveys and course evaluations, they saw a clear preference for blended courses with multiple options for engaging with coursework.
With that in mind, the FLHO model was designed with maximum flexibility for students. “We’ve talked a lot with faculty about being intentional in their instructional choices,” said Provo-Quarles. “When faculty ask students to meet in real time this coming semester, it isn’t just to hear a lecture, but to allow for meaningful interaction and collaboration. Similarly, we’ve asked faculty to be transparent in their decisions about what content to host fully online. When students can clearly see the reasoning behind learning decisions, they can more deeply engage in the learning process.
5. Supportive online team
Ultimately, the heart of effective distance learning is not the technology – it’s the people. Throughout the spring and summer, the Curry School online team has been continually hosting webinars and training sessions to help prepare both faculty and students for a new reality. They have also expanded office hours in an effort to provide more one-on-one support to the Curry School community.
Christian Steinmetz, assistant professor and higher education program coordinator, worked with the online team throughout the spring and summer to completely redesign a series of online summer courses.
“I really can't say enough about the support I received from the online team,” she said. “They helped me think critically about how to structure my courses in ways that would maximize student time and encourage student engagement, both online and with each other. We spent hours working through each module coming up with ways to present and reinforce the material both asynchronously and in our synchronous class meetings.”
Provo-Quarles and her team are also re-imagining student support and engagement. Upcoming virtual events and discussions are likely to center topics like self-care and mental health, Zoom fatigue, and keeping your identity safe.
As the pandemic continues to evolve, much is still unknown about how the upcoming academic year will unfold. Regardless, students can count on having access to individual support – no matter where they are.