A message from the Provost to faculty: Preparing for online instruction

Dear RIT faculty,

   I write to you as we embark on one of the largest field experiments in the history of higher education – millions of university students, including those at RIT, are transitioning to online classrooms where we will teach them until the end of the 2020 spring semester.  All of you have my gratitude for the work you have already undertaken and for what you will do in the weeks to come. As we resume instruction Monday, March 23, I want to share a few thoughts about the kind of semester I hope we will all have. 

  Online instruction is a different way to approach learning and teaching but the goals of your courses have not changed. If you have not already done so, I encourage you to think about the learning outcomes for your classes and ensure your online course design will allow your students to attain those outcomes and master the material they need to know. This is the essential goal for all of us this semester. It is understandable that students cannot not have the same kind of course experience they had before spring break but they should still experience a cohesive academic semester. 

While I ask you all to challenge yourselves with regard to achieving  your course learning outcomes, I also encourage you to be forgiving of yourself regarding the level of the technological sophistication you employ. This is especially important if you are new to online instruction. A good class experience can come from relatively straightforward online teaching techniques such as discussion boards or a Zoom discussion section. 

As it was in the first half of the semester, engagement with your students is of utmost importance; it is the “secret sauce” of the transformative educational experiences for which the faculty of RIT have always been known. Although you will not be in the same room with your students, please be sure to communicate regularly with your class and provide ample opportunities for them to engage with you and with one another. The routine of regular class meetings and activities will be grounding for everyone. In this strangest of times, our students are cut-off from their RIT community. You can provide opportunities for them to connect with you and with their fellow students and replace some of the community they have lost.

Asking your students for regular feedback, and acting on it, is another way to build community. A transition like this is bound to have bumps and seeking feedback early will help you improve your course delivery more quickly. It is also one of the most powerful ways you convey to your students that you care about them and their educational experience. And, in the process of reflecting on your course, they get a chance to participate more deeply in their own learning.

Think about your own time management needs and boundaries. Students often expect instant responses, but especially in the early weeks of this transition, it may be difficult to keep up with the stream of student questions, new course delivery modes, new technologies, and the personal stresses we are all experiencing. I encourage you to communicate with your students about the time by which they can expect responses from you and the ways in which you want them to contact you. Being clear about what your students should expect will also help them to adjust to this new learning environment and be respectful of demands on your time. 

Finally, please make provisions to ensure your own instructional continuity. I hope that we all remain healthy but also accept the reality that some of us could fall ill. In these cases, it’s important to have someone who is ready to take over your courses and so please identify one or two other faculty members who could stand in for you in the event you become too ill to manage your course. Every academic manager and leader is doing the same. If you do not have access to someone who can do this for you, please consult with your department chair.

I wish you the very best as we embark on this next chapter. These days, I am often aware of the instability that seems to surround us but I also know that many things have not changed. Chief among these is our dedication to students and to the educational mission of RIT. I thank you all for the work you are about to do. As always, please do not hesitate to let us know how we can help you along this path.