As we approach the end of an unparalleled summer at BYU, it feels appropriate to reflect on this historic time. While preparing for what will be an unusual fall semester, faculty and staff across the Education Leadership and Foundations department at the BYU McKay School answered questions about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their responses give a surprising look into how the pandemic provides opportunities for positive change.
Engaging in an Online Format
While faculty surely would have preferred a bit more warning before leaping into virtual learning, they’ve embraced the opportunity to test an online format. “The department has been talking about moving to online and blended learning for a couple of years,” said Pamela Hallam, PhD, EdLF chair. “Then, without warning, COVID-19 happened and, within days, we were all teaching online through Zoom.”
Faculty quickly adapted, working to ensure students continued to receive a worthwhile experience and complete curriculum. “I have been amazed at how willing and adept our faculty have been at delivering courses that did not deviate from the rich content and engaging instruction,” said Hallam. “In reality this has taken a lot of extra time and effort, but what had been talked about for years essentially happened overnight.”
In the future, Hallam can see the value in adding an online cohort in addition to EdLF’s normal face-to-face cohort. “Our department curriculum committee is even proposing that we teach whole cohorts using the online and blended format, which would bless the lives of people all over the world who would like a BYU degree but cannot move their family to Utah for this experience.”
Supporting Students’ Emotional and Spiritual Needs
Overall, the department rallied together for a smooth transition to an online format, yet professors were still aware of how the sudden shift negatively impacted some students. “One thing that I made a point to do in my class was to check in with my students,” said associate professor Spencer Weiler. He plans to continue this approach during the fall because he wants his students to know “that the person is more important than the curriculum.”
Weiler feels blessed that students could still find peace in Christ during this challenging semester. “The thing that is so unique to BYU is the fact that we can bring gospel-centered [topics into the classroom].” During his check-ins, Weiler asked students what they were doing to stay close to God; students shared stories and swapped ideas on how to remain spiritually strengthened.
Studying COVID-19 in the Classroom
COVID-19 hasn’t only affected the classroom format, but also the material being taught. EdLF professors are in a unique situation, preparing future education leaders to guide teachers in a post-pandemic world. “I suspect we will see more research aimed at policies and practices that adapt well to the challenges and opportunities of online learning,” said associate professor Michael Owens. “As a department, we have begun to rethink our whole instructional delivery strategy, and we can expect to see the same throughout the field.”
When studying COVID-19 in the classroom, the department is determined to view the pandemic from all sides and highlight how it has disproportionately affected minority groups. “In our Education of Diverse Populations course, we will look into how the COVID-19 outbreak has brought into sharp relief the digital divide between relatively high-socioeconomic status (SES), mostly white, and low-SES, mostly diverse families present in our local classrooms and its implications for school leaders and policy makers,” said Owens.
Many researchers are interested in the opportunities the COVID-19 pandemic provides to examine and restructure educational traditions to create more equitable and efficient school systems. “There’s the adage ‘never let a good crisis go to waste,’” said Weiler. “There are systemic, traditional practices that have seemed insurmountable or that we've been unable to address. Post-pandemic recovery could be an incredible opportunity to change some of these traditions.”
Preparing for Next Semester
Looking towards the future, EdLF is creating a fall schedule to accommodate all students and faculty with help from Michele Price, secretary for the department. “As support personnel, we have been closely following what the university is recommending for the ‘new normal,’” said Price. “We will be rescheduling our classes to offer more flexibility and blended options in order to accommodate smaller class sizes for those faculty who come to campus and online options for those who decide to stay away.”
Professors are doing everything in their power to create a worthwhile learning experience, yet so much depends on how each student approaches online learning. Many professors encouraged students to embrace positive changes and try to find the benefits of the current situation. “The bottom line is that change is hard,” said Hallam, “but sometimes it opens up new possibilities that make us even better.”
Want to read how COVID-19 is affecting education? Discover how one California superintendent sees COVID-19 as an opportunity for schools to restructure learning systems and to help disadvantaged students.
Writer: Emma Smith
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922