Learning through a pandemic

Empathy and flexibility rise to the forefront of teaching and learning as students and faculty grapple with the new normal

After serving in academic leadership positions for well over a decade, I had developed some confidence that I was well equipped to work through a wide variety of challenges.   

That was before March 2020.

The last 19 months, while challenging, stressful, exhausting, and frustrating, also provided an amazing glimpse at some under-recognized dimensions of leadership that are important in today’s world.

In March of 2020, I was serving as associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education at IUPUI, and at the center of every day was supporting the efforts of faculty and students around student success. In a span of just a few days, that work became more challenging than ever. The way the university operated fundamentally changed over a three-week span, and a host of new challenges emerged. At the beginning, it felt like every day the problems mounted and the solutions we offered were barely sufficient. But we kept listening, and we kept trying.

Knowing IUPUI served a high proportion of low-income students, we immediately sought solutions to bridge the technology divide. We figured out how to do all advising, career services, and tutoring support virtually (tutoring was the hardest). And we listened to students. Where students did not have a reliable device, we found devices previously used for teaching and repurposed them. Where students did not have reliable Internet access, UITS came to the rescue with hot spots and parking lots with strong WiFi signals. Where faculty did not know where to start, we directed them to keepteaching.iu.edu. 

As we headed into the summer of 2020, IUPUI surveyed its students and faculty about their experiences pivoting to remote learning. This revealed other challenges faced by instructors and students and helped IUPUI prepare for what was a mostly remote 2020-21 academic year.

Over time, the importance of empathy and flexibility kept emerging.

Empathy became extremely important during the pandemic as we all experienced new challenges. Listening to what instructors and students were experiencing and the challenges they were facing helped us design solutions. Following the murder of George Floyd, our division created time and space, listening to how each other was processing the tragedy, and we resolved to accelerate our work around diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism.

As we look ahead, empathy will remain important. While we have seen progress in increasing the number of our students that persist and graduate, we still have work to do. And that will require continuing to listen to them and the instructors and staff that work with them. As we work with each other, empathy will also be important. In many conversations across the university over the last few months, I am struck by the fact that people are still tired and still struggling with the myriad stressors created by the pandemic. We really are not post-pandemic yet. And we need to do our best to appreciate that and adjust.

For a while now, I have been intrigued by the underlying principles of human-centered design, or design thinking. It is appealing to me because it is, at its core, understanding the lived experience of someone who has a problem. The process centers on empathizing with the person (or people) experiencing a problem. It is not until you employ active listening skills, ask questions, and do your very best to hear another’s perspective that insights on how to solve a particular problem are revealed. More and more, this process is shaping how solutions are developed.

To be empathetic also requires flexibility. If we listen and hear the challenges facing our students and colleagues, we also need to be flexible in developing ways to genuinely address these challenges. Instructors were extremely flexible during the pandemic, both in modifying course delivery and in responding to challenges students faced.

It is already clear that flexibility will continue to be an important trait. The strategies and tools used by instructors have grown at a rate we have never seen before. Additionally, students have become accustomed to more flexibility in how they learn. In the recently published book, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain FutureArthur Levine gleans insights from the past and present as a means of projecting the future. The book provides a mix of higher education history, stories about the transformation of the film, music, and newspaper industries, and prognostications about higher education (I recommend it!). Toward the end, Levine argues that learners of the future will demand more flexibility, more customization, and more variety in how they experience post-secondary education.

As we face the future, empathy will be needed to understand student interests and motivation, and flexibility will be required to adapt and develop.