How John Jay students, faculty, and staff successfully transitioned to a distance-learning model.
By Mary Anderson
THIS IS NOT A DRILL. You have four working days from this overcast Wednesday in mid-March to convert thousands of students and faculty members to an online learning model which is being architected in real time as you mobilize heads of departments across academic disciplines, IT, and myriad support services. And by the way, you’re short a couple thousand laptops.
With the veritable flip of a switch on March 11, the City University of New York (CUNY), and much of New York City, leaned into the race to contain the novel coronavirus which, at that moment, was accelerating statewide by hundreds of cases per day. When John Jay’s campus closed that afternoon, students were almost a third of the way into a 15-week semester. Now what?
UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION
There’s just no playbook for a pandemic, but Thursday, March 19 was showtime, when 5,000 undergraduate courses were set to resume and failure was not an option. The situation required everyone’s full attention, including that of Dara Byrne, Ph.D., Associate Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, who was one of the people at the center of John Jay’s virtual-transition effort. “Those four days were four days of people working round the clock, not because anybody asked,” says Byrne, “but rather that’s just what happened as a result of people wanting to do the most that they could to make that deadline.”
The job was further complicated by having to solve the “digital divide.” In a Hispanic-Serving and Minority-Serving Institution, where many of our students are first-generation college students, easy access to computers and connectivity was a question mark rather than a checklist item. As Wynne Ferdinand, the Director of Educational Partnerships and General Education, created an online survey to get the full scope of the students’ technology needs, locating available devices became an all-hands-on-deck mission. Faculty and staff started working together to quickly purchase laptops, borrow computers, or tap their personal networks for technology donations or suggestions—even during a time when shipments from China had been severely disrupted by the coronavirus crisis. Hundreds of devices were made available, and the Department of Information and Technology (DoIT) started tackling the gargantuan task of putting them into circulation.
As results started coming in through Ferdinand’s survey, the rush to get students properly wired was on. “Students were facing a number of challenges in this uncertain time, but of particular concern to us was that nearly 40 percent of students reported that they shared the device they use to complete school work with one or more members of their household,” says Ferdinand. Although the survey was anonymous, she became the conduit for faculty to make referrals for students in need of hardware. She downloaded those referrals and sent them to DoIT for dispatch.
SUPPORTING FACULTY THROUGH THE TRANSITION
Meanwhile, Judith Cahn, Ed.D., Director of the Department of Online Education and Support (DOES), was spearheading the other critical piece of this overnight conversion to a distance-learning model: giving the faculty a crash course on virtual teaching. Before the pandemic even became news, Cahn’s office had expanded its focus as the support center for the fully online graduate courses that John Jay offers, to also serving the entire college. “We had worked with many professors, mostly in the graduate studies to develop online courses,” says Cahn, but there weren’t many of those who also taught undergraduates. As the coronavirus news grew more ominous, Cahn’s team started on March 5 to run webinars for faculty about online teaching and put together a best-practices guide.
Every faculty member would need to shift from a lecture style to offering different learning experiences via tools like Blackboard, Zoom, and online discussion forums. “I consider this transition to be a major paradigm shift,” says Cahn. “Not so much a technology change but in the methodology of teaching and learning.”
Cahn’s department already offered regular office hours for faculty to meet with instructional advisors, but after the pandemic hit New York, those sessions became virtual meetings. One such online course advisor, Holly Davenport, the Associate Director of Instructional Design, served as a “hotline” resource for faculty members seeking distance-learning advice—while she herself was multitasking work responsibilities with homeschooling her five-year-old twins. “When I’d talk to a faculty member, we’d take a hard look at what they built in to their original courses for the semester. Then we decided what could go and what needed to stay. Afterwards, we’d get to work adapting the remaining objectives and information into a distance-learning model,” explains Davenport.
To encourage faculty throughout the semester, Gina Rae Foster, Ph.D., Director of the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC), re-envisioned the role of the TLC. “On March 11, we began writing a series of emails to faculty to validate and support their transition to remote teaching and learning,” says Foster. “The emails covered the initial redesign and movement to a remote learning landscape, reentry and support in the new environment, and a recalibration period.”
TRYING NEW STRATEGIES
Everyone at John Jay was acutely aware of the pressure students were under, and they wanted to use existing resources to promote student persistence. A team of faculty and staff met students where they were—primarily on their phones—and initiated a texting campaign to make sure students stayed on track throughout the semester. They sent out messages to over 12,000 students. Eight messages were sent out to the entire student population, and three messages were sent out to small cohorts. Counselors responded to 2,371 messages—answering questions about the new credit/no credit policy, directing students to advisors, offering resources, and clearing up any confusion about the new distance-learning model. “Our texting campaign is a great example of John Jay pivoting to create a solution to help students during a particularly challenging time,” says Laura Ginns, Vice President of Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives. “It demonstrates our resilience and ability to adapt to a new environment.”
FOSTERING STUDENT SUCCESS
As the administration and faculty mobilized behind the scenes, junior Musarrat Lamia’s ’21 cell phone kept pinging with emails and texts. Classmates were turning to her for answers as the Student Council President as changes were unfolding. Lamia’s first move was to text Byrne, who continuously updated her on the administration’s response. “Dean Byrne kept humanizing the situation,” says Lamia. An Honors student with a four-course load, Lamia herself was trying to navigate the situation and found herself sending Byrne a late-night text that she was amazed to get immediately returned. Byrne followed up with a phone call. “We ended up having one of those human moments where you take stock of what’s happening in your community,” recalls Byrne. “It just unfolded into a beautiful conversation about what it is she and the Student Council are trying to do with students.” Lamia took Byrne’s big-picture message to heart: “She said the goal is to get through this.” That’s the word that she and the Student Council put out to their classmates. They set up Zoom question-and-answer sessions and simultaneously hosted Instagram Lives in case students hadn’t joined the Zoom meeting. “We made a flyer along the lines of ‘Hey, we’re here for you. Ask us your Covid-19 related questions or other John Jay related questions,’” says Lamia. “We did three Instagram Lives in one week at different times. For each one, there were hundreds of students on; they were putting questions in the comment section and then we were answering them.”
Sure enough, when students logged in to their virtual John Jay classrooms that Thursday, the faculty was ready and Zooming. Some professors scheduled check-ins before video lectures to keep tabs on students. Others made certain writing assignments or quizzes optional. All of them encouraged their students to be in contact so that accommodations could be made for the evolving challenges that households were facing.
For her part, Lamia says it was the professors’ flexibility and understanding that was the key to her success—such as when one professor granted her an extension on a writing assignment. “As students, we needed to tell our professors if we were going through something difficult so that our grades weren’t penalized because of an unavoidable challenge,” says Lamia. As for getting on board with online learning, she picked up some tips from students who were already “virtual-learning experts”—including fellow Honors student DeCarlos Hines ’22, who shared his insights in an online article to help acclimate his fellow students.
A Forensic Psychology major, Hines transferred to John Jay and has since taken at least one online course per semester. As all his courses shifted online, Hines compartmentalized the assignments into smaller tasks as he’s done in the past with virtual courses. He likened Blackboard to a higher-level social media site, and explained to classmates, “The discussion forum is like your comments section and you’re among friends in that forum. You give your feedback; you like their posts.” The switch to a distance-learning model may have felt like a fire drill at first for many students, but when they fully immersed themselves into the approach, they, like Hines, learned that a virtual-learning environment wasn’t as unfamiliar as they preconceived it to be.
In spite of the substantial challenges that John Jay students, faculty, and staff faced during the spring semester, the 2020 graduating class was the largest in the school’s history, with 3,897 graduates. It’s still too soon to know what this campus-wide initiation into a distance-learning will fully mean for how courses look like going forward, but for Byrne’s part, she is ultimately proud of how the John Jay community rose to the occasion of going digital in four days’ time. “I get a little emotional thinking about what it is our faculty and staff accomplished for our students,” she says. “Through sheer will, commitment, work ethic and raw talents, these folks in tiny little offices—some people that have staff of just themselves—pulled this off.”