“We all had to become stronger together”: Faculty experiences of disruption and innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic

Concurrent Session 6
Streamed Session Leadership

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Brief Abstract

With a framework of disruption innovation, this session addresses a study of the COVID-19 remote teaching experience of faculty at a mid-sized, private university. With over a 25% response rate, these faculty members’ stories of struggle, vulnerability, and innovation invite discussions of how to best support faculty in the future.


Aimee L. Whiteside is an associate professor at the University of Tampa. Her research interests include social presence, blended and online learning, technology-enhanced learning, experiential learning, academic-community partnerships, and academic and professional writing. She co-authored and co-edited the book, Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research with Drs. Amy Garrett Dikkers and Karen Swan. Her work has been featured in several peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Interactive Online Learning (JIOL), Online Learning Journal (OLJ), International Journal of E-Learning and Distance Education (IJEDE), and EDUCAUSE Review. Additionally, she has written chapters in several books, such as Emotions, Technology, and Learning and Computer-Mediated Communication across Cultures: International Interactions in Online Environments as well as special volumes in the Advances in Research on Teaching and the New Directions in Teaching and Learning series.
Suzanne Ensmann is an Assistant Professor and Advisor for the Instructional Design and Technology MS program at The University of Tampa focusing her research on incorporating students’ hyper-communication and ubiquitous computing skills (like gaming) to improve learning. Ensmann’s research also focuses on incorporating emergent technologies like wearables into her curricula to personalize data collection for students while having them get-fit-to-persist.

Extended Abstract

This interactive, 45-minute session begins by polling the online and in-person audiences about their COVID-19 remote learning experiences. It, then, moves to a discussion of remote teaching and learning, driven by a quote from one of our faculty members (from our faculty survey) : “I think we all had to become stronger together…[We] were willing to be vulnerable and make more mistakes than before which really facilitated a better learning experience.”

As the global impact of COVID-19 reached a critical mass in March 2020 and schools began to turn to remote teaching alternatives, a seismic shift occurred in higher education. Online learning experts and resistors alike were simultaneously thrust—without adequate time or support—into a feast-or-famine frenzied, Zoom revolution of synchronous-driven distributed learning.  For many of us, this time in March 2020 is a blur of round-the-clock preparation, worry, and unrest. As surreal as Salvador Dali’s painted watches, time and space dimensions seemed to fade and melt away, as parents traveled cross-country to help their college kids return home, and professors embarked upon a new commingling of their home and work lives.

However disruptive and difficult, though, this experience has left many instructors perpetually transformed, enmeshed in stories of disruption, struggle, vulnerability, and innovation.

Theoretical Framework
Though disruption carries with it a negative connotation, Clayton Christensen, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year in 2020, pioneered the term disruptive innovation, and created the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Based on a business model, Christensen and his contemporaries extended the model to higher education.

Katrina Meyer (2010) finds that higher education experts have “touted the Internet, wikis, blogs, social media, mobile devices, open source tools,” and a vast variety of tools “as disruptive innovations in education” (p. 2). Yet, it is not only technology tools that are disruptive, but also the COVID-19 remote teaching situation itself that unleashed disorder that disrupted and transformed the landscape of higher education teaching and learning.

About the Study
This study explores the experience of faculty at a medium-sized, private university with just under 10,000 students, offering over 200 undergraduate and graduate programs. As an urban oasis known for quality face-to-face teaching, this educational institution has been slow to move to blended and online learning with only few online programs and courses. The research questions for this study are as follows:

1.      How did faculty manage the transition to remote teaching?

2.      How did faculty cope with stress and anxiety during remote teaching?

3.      How did faculty use technology to teach and engage students remotely?

4.      What challenges were identified by faculty while teaching remotely?

5.      What innovative or best practices did faculty identify as successful?

This study employs a single-case, exploratory design approach (Yin, 2009) to discover faculty experiences, perspectives, and challenges faced during COVID-19 remote teaching. Since the literature points to survey methods as the best approach for mid- to large-sized populations (Babbie, 1973), we designed a survey with a mix of demographic, Likert-scale, and open-ended questions using Qualtrics. The survey was administered to all faculty (full- and part-time) at a private, mid-sized university located in the southeast of the United States. Each of the four college deans emailed the survey to faculty during the week of May 11 and, to date, 284 faculty participated and completed the survey. Sample is statistically significant. The survey instrument included inquiries about health and wellness, professional development and leadership, and technology use. Open-ended responses will be coded in Summer 2020 using standard interrater reliability measures, and interviews and focus groups via Zoom as well. 

At this point in the presentation, we will add interactivity by asking the conference participants a few sample questions from the survey before we unveil our preliminary results.

Preliminary Results
The preliminary results of the study revealed a number of findings about faculty members’ transition, mental health, technology use, and challenges. Table 1 offers a breakdown of the demographics of the survey participants.

Table 1

55% Female
39% Male
2% Non-binary 
2% Prefer not to answer

27% Tenure
27% Part-time
22% Tenure Track
20% Fulltime, Non-tenure-track

Online Experience
53% None/Less than One Year
20% 1-3 Years
11% 4-5 Years
15% 6-7 Years 

Remote Teaching Progress/Help
25% Trial and Error
24% Online Resources (Non-University)
19% Colleagues Help
10% Others: Previous training/experience

36% Engaging Students
27% Balancing Work/Home
27% Learning How to Teach Remotely
11% Others: Getting sleep, student technology issues

Largest Time Commitments
55% Prepping/Adjusting Teaching Materials
19% Communicating with Students
11% Grading and Feedback
9% Learning new software

Over 73% of faculty members surveyed had either no experience or less than four years of experience with online teaching. Faculty largely figured out how to teach remotely by trial and error, colleagues’ help, and online resources--many turned to Facebook groups, such as Pandemic Pedagogy or Teaching During Covid-19. 

In response to what the university could have done differently, several faculty participants noted that they needed more time and support. One stated, “The University should have given faculty a few days to switch to remote learning.” Another participant suggested they needed “[a]n additional week after Spring Break to give us time to prepare and plan, allow for more tutorials and meetings. Felt like we were thrown to the wolves.”

Preliminary Lessons Learned
The proposal word limit necessitate brevity, but here are seven preliminary lessons learned: 

1. Disruption did Spur Innovation, Change, and Improvement
Faculty repeatedly noted that the abrupt move to remote teaching did encourage and push them to innovate. One faculty member indicated, “It was difficult, but, in the end, I liked aspects of it. I would be willing to do more of it.” Another said, “Once I got the hang of it, I really liked it.” Another indicated, “I miss face-to-face interaction, but I truly believe my students performed better than in person class and were more engaged with the material.”

2.  Connections Matter
As Thomas Arnett (2020) from the Christensen Institute noted, “With COVID-19 upending our communities, this saying rings true now more than ever: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” One noted, “As crazy as it sounds, the physical distance made us all (students and teachers) socially closer. We were all in our natural surroundings which made the students feel more comfortable talking, which increased social engagement.”  

3.  Mental Health Needs Careful Consideration for Students and Faculty
Even after the remote teaching semester ended, 34% of faculty categorized themselves as worried, struggling, or in a really dark place. One commented, "[T]here are not enough hours in the day to engage in coping strategies" Another noted, “I have less than zero time for any...activities!" 

4.  It is Not about Tools, but Rather How to Use them Quickly for Learning Contexts
One faculty member said, “My struggle was that there were so many options available... and I didn't have time to learn to use them and then to teach the students how to use them.” Another faculty member commented on the need to keep things simple for struggling students: “I prefer to stick with a few tools that I find most helpful and useful for online teaching. This helps keep it simple and less confusing for both me and my students.”

5.  Parents and Part-time Faculty Need Support and Consideration
The transition to remote teaching was particularly difficult for academic parents and part-time faculty. One faculty member noted, “It was very difficult to balance caring for and facilitating the education of three kids while being expected to work around the clock, seven days a week as a faculty member.” Another wrote, “I am a single parent with 2 elementary school kids whom I have with me 24/7 and who I had to navigate through their distance learning simultaneously. That meant communicating with hundreds of work related people all day, while working with my kids constantly, and then creating content and videos and grading all night long.” Some part-time faculty members felt undersupport. One noted, “From a part-time perspective, I put in far more hours than ever before and did not feel as if the same resources were available to us.” 

6.  Assessment, and its Tools, Needs Revisiting
Many faculty members rated assessment tools as “not effective” and too complex to use on-the-fly. Additionally, this experience changed some faculty members’ approaches to assessment. One faculty member explained, “This experience really had me reflecting on how I assess student learning. I adopted an approach of increased flexibility and provided more opportunities for feedback and revisions... I think this reflects true student learning.”

7.  Faculty Research Expectations Should Soften in the Short Term
About 43% of the faculty members surveyed found they had less time for scholarship. Although this statistic is not surprising, it is an important consideration for deans and Tenure and Promotion committees. 

This session will end with a Q&A and a discussion of lessons learned, recorded with Padlet or tool. Presenters will provide slides and materials. 



Arnett, Thomas. (2020, May 6). The online edtech that helps educators make distance learning less distant. Retrieved from https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/the-online-edtech-that-helps-educators-make-distance-learning-less-distant/?post_types=post&sf_paged=2

Babbie, E. (1973). Survey research methods. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

“Disruptive innovation.” Christensen Institute. Retrieved from https://www.christenseninstitute.org/disruptive-innovations/

 Meyer, Katrina. (2010). “The role of disruptive technology in the future of higher education.” Educause Review. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2010/3/the-role-of-disruptive-technology-in-the-future-of-higher-education

Yin, R. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods. 4th ed., London: Sage.