Educational Modality & Equity

Dear faculty colleagues,

I know that the fall planning announcement shared with the campus yesterday has evoked  many questions, both old and new. I will spend the next several days collecting feedback from the campus and will address those questions as quickly as possible. I recognize the stress on you and the real need for clear, specific and timely guidance on many fronts. We will continue to communicate and respond as quickly as possible. I encourage you to review and share the Protect Texas Together website with your colleagues and students.

I’m sure many of you, like me, are closely following the news of the increasing spread of the virus in Austin and around the state. While it makes our work harder, we have approached planning for the fall semester in a way that enables the campus to adjust to the evolving environment. As health and safety conditions change, we have a range of options depending on the direction it takes, including moving additional in-person and hybrid classes to online formats. Faculty members, however, should prepare for the mode of teaching that is currently indicated in the course schedule and be prepared to adapt should the need arise.

The safety of all our communities is essential and at the forefront of each and every discussion we have. We are asking instructors, and all employees who are at high risk to notify us so we can make accommodations. For those who do not wish to teach in person because they have members of their household who are at high risk, they should request a flexible teaching arrangement.  

Educational Quality & Modality
Currently, about one-third of our fall classes will be completely online. In addition, the multiple forms of hybrid classes represent a large fraction of our current offerings. Many of us, however, are novices in these formats. Although the spring semester gave us a crash course in adapting to “remote learning,” it was not a full transition to teaching online supported with resources and best practices that, when done well, can often approach or meet the quality level of in-person teaching. While, through your hard work and through the good will of our student body, we managed to serve most of our educational aims during the spring, our students felt disconnected from you, their instructors, and their fellow students. We need to work together to change this and to provide a world-class educational experience regardless of the modality. I will make every effort to make sure you are supported to do so.

Online and Blended Teaching Resources
Art Markman and Jen Moon discuss preparations for online learning:

The Online Education Task Force has been doing a great deal of work to prepare resources and toolkits for faculty members, including:

  • A Canvas course that provides faculty the basics to plan for and deliver an effective and productive online educational experience.
  • Guidance on rigorous online assessment, including the tools available to help.
  • Communication materials for helping to set student expectations.
  • Suggestions for helping students feel connected to you, their classmates, and to the campus community.

I strongly recommend all faculty members take advantage of this work. If you need help, the Faculty Innovation Center is an excellent resource to contact to get started. You can expect more information in the coming weeks with resources and guidance. Also, on July 21 and 22 faculty are invited to observe current online classes and meet with faculty peers remotely afterward to ask questions and discuss their strategies. The classes you can attend will vary in size, discipline and approach. 

Equity in Teaching
Something I and others are concerned about is the various and uneven ways the fall semester will impact our students. I am particularly concerned about our incoming first-year cohort. This cohort will likely be one of, if not the most diverse in terms of backgrounds that we have ever had at this university. Many will be first-generation students who have no experience or context for the college experience, and many come from low-income and under-resourced backgrounds. It is true that the environment we face will impact all students, but the challenges these students face will be far greater than those of their peers. I strongly recommend considering ways we can carve out time to reach out to and support these students. If classes are small enough, you could reach out directly to your first-year students. For larger classes, perhaps that means setting aside office hours specifically for them. To support your efforts, I have asked Rachelle Hernandez in my office to lead a task force focused on supporting our first-year cohort this fall. We will share more details about this work and how they can support you in the coming weeks.

Students in the spring semester expressed frustration around expectations set by faculty members in online classes, with many students sharing that their instructors increased their workload because they felt students had more time free from extracurricular activities. The reality is students, like us, are navigating this pandemic and are struggling. I ask faculty members to be mindful about the expectations we place on students. We should challenge them academically, but we also need to be aware that the adversities they face vary greatly and have very real implications in their lives. To help students who are having difficulty with workload perceptions and who may be afraid to talk to their professor directly, Student Affairs is creating a process for students to share feedback anonymously and have it relayed directly to the department chairs. This process is intended to be a constructive feedback tool for instructors and in no way will be punitive. I want to make clear that submissions will not be added into any formal record. This is a service to help us “right-size” our expectations during this unprecedented time.

Next Steps
To those of you who are concerned about the how the fall semester will work, I hear you. To those of you who are worried about the welfare of your families and friends over the coming weeks and months, we are with you. We cannot predict how the pandemic will evolve, but we can prepare how we respond to it. Issues will arise that we have not anticipated, and we will learn a great deal before the fall semester begins. We are very focused on supporting you and responding to your concerns as quickly as possible.

If you’re unsure about what to do, reach out to your colleagues, department chairs or our Faculty Affairs team. We have such a strong community of connection and support amongst our faculty, and I feel a great sense of pride in contemplating all you have done and the amazing things we will accomplish this year.

Warm regards,

Daniel Jaffe