Campus News

‘We Have Found a Will and Sense of Purpose to Meet These Moments in the Spirit of Our Mission’ — CELT Reflects on 1 Year of Teaching During the Pandemic

Man working from home.
Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 6, 2021) — Last month marked one year of the university’s transition to remote instruction. On March 20 of 2020, President Eli Capilouto announced the suspension of in-person classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

It was an unprecedented transition — creating a “new normal” for an entire campus community was a daunting task. But together, faculty, staff and students rose to the challenge. 

One year of COVID-19 has taught us many things and has given us the opportunity to truly discover what the university can accomplish in the face of adversity.

But where do we go from here? Will things ever be the same? UKNow spoke with Trey Conatser, associate director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), and Jill Abney, assistant director of Presentation U and faculty instructional consultant in CELT, to get perspective on how COVID has shaped teaching and learning over the past year at the university and how it will continue to mold the structure of higher education moving forward.

UKNow: Last year, when the university transitioned to remote learning, what percent of students were already fully online? Would you say the university was equipped for this campuswide transition?

CELT: Right before the university switched to remote learning, 1720 students — both undergraduate and graduate — had fully online schedules. That’s about 6% of UK’s total enrollment at the time. While the shift to remote instruction and later to a combination of remote, hybrid and modified in-person instruction was unprecedented, we discovered how equipped we were to meet this challenge through the innovation and ingenuity of our faculty, the persistence and heart of our students, and the unwavering efforts of our staff. 

This has certainly been one of the most difficult years, if not the most difficult year, for all of us. The effects of the pandemic mirrored deep inequities in our society, and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black citizens led to collective trauma, mourning, and action in the face of the violence and racism of our past and present. On top of all of that, a divisive election year saw an increasingly unstable civic discourse that ultimately found expression in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building. Tragedies persist with the rise in anti-Asian and Asian American racism that culminated in murders just last month in Atlanta. It’s difficult to say that anyone can be equipped for all of this, but we have found a will and sense of purpose to meet these moments in the spirit of our mission as a university. 

With respect to course delivery, we were particularly rich in expertise, mentorship and generosity among our faculty and instructional staff. So many of our instructors helped their colleagues learn more about teaching in digital environments, while instructional support offices in the colleges and in Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation hosted a range of support and programming opportunities and quickly propped up resources to aid in the switch to remote, hybrid and modified in-person instruction. Other areas of the university, too, responded in kind, expanding access and removing barriers to critical student support services, digital and physical infrastructures, IT resources, and so on.

UKNow: What resources did the university establish for students and faculty to help them succeed during remote learning and teaching?

CELT: One of the first things we did in Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation was to work with UK PR and Marketing to set up a new website, Teach Anywhere, as a central location for all resources related to teaching during the pandemic. Since the website’s launch we continue to update it with new and timely material, and over 14,000 users have accessed it. 

Additionally, our area moved all instructional support services online and expanded access through all-day virtual office hours on Zoom for drop-in questions. We saw over 1,250 office hours visits in 2020. We also expanded the reach and scale of our programming like never before, hosting events such as the April and July Week of Teaching Symposia to prepare instructors for teaching during the 2020-21 academic year. Over 850 people registered for these two events alone, with individual sessions that almost always saw more than a hundred in attendance. 

We continued to offer events and resources throughout the fall semester to a total head count of approximately 3,500 for the calendar year. Requests for CELT’s mid-semester feedback service, which involves collecting and analyzing student feedback for instructional improvement, increased more than three-fold during the fall semester. Support offices in the colleges have made similar efforts to move services online and expand the opportunities for instructors to get help. All of this tells a story about a teaching community that is eager to meet the moment. Many have discovered a facility for new teaching methods and technologies that at first they didn’t think they had.

Of course, we can’t talk about instructional support without addressing the technological infrastructure. Almost overnight, Zoom went from being a somewhat niche platform to propping up the entirety of our institutional operations along with Canvas, Yuja, and other enterprise technologies. UK ITS oversaw the installation of new hardware in almost all classrooms to aid in the broadcast of in-person classes to remote audiences. All of this takes a good deal of time, effort, expertise and funding to implement effectively.

Academic student support services have done an excellent job transitioning to virtual and modified in-person service modalities while addressing a wide range of challenges that students have experienced during the pandemic. Presentation U, for example, hosted several campuswide training sessions for virtual tutoring in the wake of the shift to remote instruction last year. We also developed an openly accessible Canvas page that directs students to the appropriate academic support area based on their needs. We encourage all instructors to include this link in their syllabi and Canvas shells.

UKNow: What would you say was one of the university’s “wins” last year when it comes to online instruction?

CELT: One of our wins is the flexible and innovative course offerings that have kept students on track toward their degrees while also remaining safe. Before the pandemic, only 7% of course sections were fully online. Instructors drastically rethought and reworked their courses in a very short amount of time to provide more flexibility and opportunities for student engagement and attendance. By Fall 2020, fully online course sections had increased to 35% of our total offerings. Those reimagined courses, and the immense amount of labor they required, provided students with the opportunity to choose course options that worked for them in the midst of a deadly pandemic that disrupted all normal classroom activities.

A related “win” that encompasses online, hybrid, and in-person instruction is the degree to which the pandemic has spurred an intentional conversation around teaching like we’ve never had before. As a community we are actively exploring critical questions such as how we can best engage and support all of our students, how we can design courses that facilitate connection, motivation, and learning, and how we can teach for a world that is more equitable and just. CELT will be engaging these questions as part of a month-long program called “Envisioning the Futures of Teaching and Learning” beginning the week of April 12.

Overall, though, to quote Whitman, our win contains multitudes. It’s every time a student is able to make a connection with their peers or their instructors. It’s every time a faculty member finds a way to see their teaching and their discipline with fresh eyes. It’s whenever we find understanding and kindness in a support office. We’ve gotten to where we are with thousands and thousands of these wins, and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.

UKNow: Do you think this past year has set a precedent for online teaching at UK moving forward? Additionally, do you think students and faculty will continue to utilize the resources created as we transition back to a pre-COVID campus?

CELT: In many ways, there’s no going back when it comes to how we think about our teaching and students’ learning, especially as the pandemic continues to affect our lives. There will be more of an awareness of the tools, platforms, and strategies for virtual teaching and learning, but beyond those, there will be more of a critical perspective that we bring to bear on our instructional efforts. Among other things, this perspective considers how we can include and invite all students into our learning environments, how we can lighten burdens and remove barriers, and how we can foster authentic connection and interaction regardless of course format.

Given that the pandemic has opened the door to a larger and more public conversation about teaching and learning, we anticipate that faculty and students will continue to seek out resources, strategies and new perspectives as we look to the next academic year and beyond. For our part in Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation, we will be exploring how to adapt our services and resources to an increased on-campus presence and in-person instructional profile while continuing to leverage virtual platforms to reach as many people as possible and model the principles for which we advocate. For many instructors and students, one of the lessons of the pandemic year was just how much support is available; looking ahead, they will continue to seek out that support.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.