Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs
As provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, Wendy Hensel guided Georgia State’s rapid transition this spring to an entirely online teaching and learning format as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded. Now she’s turning her attention to how Georgia State will deliver high quality instruction this fall.
Everyone at Georgia State is passionate about and motivated by our students. They come from diverse backgrounds and often from challenging circumstances. No matter the obstacles they face, they continue to succeed. When it became clear that we had to transform all courses to a distance format within two short weeks, we were highly motivated to deliver. Our students were counting on us, and we were not going to let them down.
At the time COVID-19 entered the picture, I was only in my eighth month on the job. Being relatively new might have been helpful because there is no playbook for something like this. Fortunately, I have a tremendously talented team and excellent leadership from President Becker.
We began talking about the coronavirus when it emerged in China, and President Becker appointed a taskforce when it started ramping up in Italy. As the provost, the academic operation of the university is my responsibility, and I knew we had to plan for a quick transition to an online format.
To say this has been a challenge of unprecedented magnitude would be an understatement. Higher education is not an industry that moves quickly. Fortunately, at Georgia State we are always looking to the future. We had been working for months on a plan to become more sophisticated in how we deliver online instruction. But nothing could have prepared us for how quickly we moved in that direction.
I started by asking faculty to verify that they had the equipment needed to teach online and to begin thinking about what it might look like to take their courses online. Some thought we were overreacting at the time, but we knew this was going to be a massive disruption. Within a week and a half of that request, we made the announcement that we were moving to an entirely online format.
Online teaching is difficult. It requires sophisticated training in order to do it effectively. Getting people who have never tried it before to an acceptable skill level was really challenging, and the resources we needed to deploy immediately were on a scale we had never seen. We could not have done it without the widespread teamwork of our incredibly talented faculty. I am in awe of their commitment to our students and willingness to do the heavy lifting required to deliver their classes uninterrupted.
The truth is that no one becomes an expert or a master online teacher in such a short time. However, being able to deliver educational services under those circumstances was a huge victory for the university. It showed an incredible esprit de corps — everyone stepped up across the board. What drove every single one of us was ensuring our students could succeed amid this emergency.
The scale at which we operate at Georgia State, with more than 53,000 students, is highly complex in the best of circumstances. As we look to next steps in the summer and fall semesters, it is challenging to plan without knowing the conditions in which we’ll be operating.
All summer courses are online. In many respects, this semester is even more challenging for faculty than the spring because the expectations of excellence are higher. I have been working hand-in-hand with our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to scale up their support services and provide guidance to the university on how to be an effective online teacher. Every summer instructor received training on how to master online teaching, or they had already demonstrated a high level of proficiency in online teaching. We all understand that we must deliver online courses that meet the highest standards of Georgia State for our students and for our faculty.
For the fall, we’re operating under numerous contingency plans because we just don’t know what’s going to happen. There are so are many questions. If we’re able to have in-person classes, how big can those classes be? How do we safely conduct operations and socially distance? How should we plan for the possibility another wave of COVID-19 illnesses will occur mid-semester? We also worry about our ability to meet people’s needs in a time when their emotional concerns are so high. We really care about that. That’s who we are. We know we have many students in vulnerable situations, and we have to be sensitive to their unique concerns.
And we’re also facing conditions where many of our instructors are challenged, too. They’ve got kids at home, they may be at a higher risk for infection and they also have concerns about family members and illness.
Again, there is no playbook.
We are planning for a resumption of face-to-face interaction on our campuses this fall, and safety is our top priority. We will offer some online classes as well to ensure we meet the needs of students and faculty who are not comfortable returning to the classroom.
Right now, we are taking an inventory of all classroom space to identify how many students can be in that classroom at a safe social distance. We are considering how to modify our large lecture courses by developing a platform for small section discussion combined with online teaching. Another method we are investigating is simulcasting large lectures.
It is an exercise of imagination as to how to meet this challenge with the resources we have, and we know there will be more.
Before this pandemic struck, we were working to hire our first associate provost for online strategies, and in late April we hired Kim Siegenthaler, former director of Mizzou Online, the University of Missouri’s online degree program. She will be a great help as we move forward into uncharted waters.
There is no question we are in a paradigm-shifting moment. Life won’t be what it was before. Because we have shown it’s possible to deliver most classes in an online format, students very likely will demand more options. Going forward, students will not take classes exclusively online or just face to face. Instead, they will demand a mix of services that best meets their needs.
Although this trend was occurring before COVID-19 arrived, the pandemic certainly accelerated it. All universities should anticipate these trends and leverage decisions made now to ensure a more sustainable position in the future.
The economic fallout from this pandemic is predicted to be worse than the 2008 recession, and it took 10 years to get back from that point. It will be a challenge to manage our resources at a time when tuition increases are simply not on the table.
Certainly, there will be universities that do not survive. Georgia State will. We’ve always been innovative in how we respond to challenges. We will come out of this, and I believe we will come out of this even stronger. If we can create an entirely online experience for 53,000 students within a two-week period, we can do anything.
Photo by Meg Buscema