SVP Dan Reed on our fall semester plan

Dan Reed

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, has led our planning efforts for Fall Semester 2020—no small task. In this episode, he shares the principles that have guided our efforts, explains our mixed format approach to instruction, the reasoning behind our fall schedule and the many precautions the U is taking to promote health. Recorded on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get a chance to meet some of the great people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I'm Ruth Watkins. I'm the president of the University of Utah and my guest today is Dan Reed. Dan is the U’s senior vice president for Academic Affairs. Dan, welcome.

SVP Dan Reed: Thanks. Delighted to be here.

President Watkins: Well, Dan, I know a big part of your job has been, over the summer, preparing us to be ready for fall semester—as ready as we can be in a pandemic. I know you've spent much time, energy and effort on this work, and we're now just days away from returning for fall semester. Tell us a little bit about the principles and the values that you've used to guide our efforts as we've prepared for fall.

SVP Dan Reed: Thank you. Well, the overriding principle is protecting the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students, and that's really guided every decision that we have made. As important as we think it is to have students back on campus for an in-person experience, health and safety is by far the most important thing, as well as those who we interact with and support and teach them. There've been multiple planning groups working really from the spring across the summer to prepare for the fall. Looking at logistics, looking at teaching strategies and approaches, understanding how our students interact with the community and how we think about how all of those things interplay to provide and support student success.

Some of our principals have been that we want to provide for our first-year students a real sense of what it's like to be on the campus at a leading public research university. So, the notion that there will be in-person experiences for those students in classes has been really one of our guiding principles. We want them to experience that sense in a safe and effective way.

The other has been to recognize that there were some things one could do virtually, online, and there are other things that one can really only experience and learn by doing. I sometimes joke that if visiting art museums and listening to music would make me an artist or a musician, I'd be famous for that. But obviously it takes more than watching. You need to actually do. And so experiential education touches so many things of what we do on campus from STEM-based disciplines, where students are in undergraduate research labs and in instructional labs and chemistry and physics and engineering. But also in architecture and design where designing and building things is a part of the experience. In art and music, where performing in small groups and together is a part of the experience. And then for all of the professionals that we train, who need to have real hands-on training.

So whether it be student teachers who need to have student teaching experience, social worker trainees who need prep clinic experience before they're licensed as social workers and then all of our health professionals, our dentists, our nurses, our physicians or pharmacists. They depend on hands-on experience before they become professionals. So, our second goal was really to support that experiential education. And then the third one, really, is to make sure that students graduate. So, ensuring that those courses and offerings that our more advanced students need to complete their degrees are available, but doing all that in a safe and protected way.

President Watkins: I think what you've described really, Dan, is a very hybrid university, where we're trying to use the best of technology to help us continue our important mission. As you say, we want our students to graduate and then using face-to-face for where it's critical. Is there anything else that you'd want people to know about the format of teaching and learning for fall semester?

SVP Dan Reed: We've really chosen multiple formats, recognizing those differences that exist. So, we have traditional in-person instruction and that includes both lectures, but physically distance with safety protocols. And we can talk more about the details of those in a moment. So, there's this, what you might think of traditional instruction both in labs and experiences in lectures. There is synchronous video, which is much like watching a Zoom lecture where you have a class of participants and a lecturer, but it's live and you can interact in those, but it's electronic rather than physical. And then we have some fully asynchronous courses that build on the long history the U.S. has in offering online education. Many of our undergraduate degrees, long before the pandemic, were available to complete via online mechanisms and those draw on a long history of pedagogy about how to deliver effective educational experiences online. And those rely on course materials and other things that don't require you to be at a meeting at a particular time in order to participate.

And then we have some that are a mix of those things, recognizing that for a class that might involve instruction, plus some experiential education, those are hybrid. So, the lecture would typically be online, but the laboratory would be experiential and in person. We've tried to tailor each group to the opportunities, but within the context of the priorities that I mentioned just a moment ago.

President Watkins: I think that's really spectacular innovation and creativity. And I applaud you for that. There's another area where I think some innovation is at work and that is the fall semester calendar. I think there are some modifications there. Tell us a little bit about the rationale for that and about what's happening.

SVP Dan Reed: Well, as we started the planning, we looked at the lessons one can learn from public health. And one of them that was readily apparent from history is that cold and flu season happens later in the fall and that there are risks with that. In addition, we know that the normal Thanksgiving break, when students would scatter to visit their families and come back, was a potential health risk because people scattered and then they come back together. So, our initial plan was that we would end in-person instruction at Thanksgiving and complete this semester online, given that health risk. We had another interesting wrinkle that affected our planning and that is the University of Utah is privileged to host the vice presidential debate. And that is the first week of October. And so recognizing that the security for the vice presidential debate was going to disrupt part of our in-person instruction, we decided early on that that week would be online.

And then as we continued to talk with our public health experts, one of the things that they began to do was to build public health models about the spread of COVID and the ways that the frequencies of interactions could affect that. And what quickly became clear, if you think about the incubation period for the virus, is that if you could separate people for enough period of time, the group interaction dissipates and potential infections can dissipate. So, we decided based on that to add an additional week of online instruction—the week before the vice presidential debate.

With all that backdrop, here's the summary. We start on August 24 with the mix of modalities I mentioned, we switch to all online for two weeks, starting September 28. We return after that to the mix of modalities I mentioned until Thanksgiving break and then students do not return to campus and we continue and finish the semester in all online mode.

President Watkins: Thank you for that summary and for the willingness to adapt as needed, based on the pandemic. You mentioned earlier we are doing many things to promote health and safety that go a little bit beyond the things we've talked about with class formats. Can you give a little overview of some of those additional actions that we believe are going to be helpful in reducing infection and supporting health and safety?

SVP Dan Reed: Well, I will, but I want to begin by echoing and amplifying something you just said. All of this planning has been an intensive campus-wide team effort. It has involved multiple planning groups of faculty, staff and student engagement, academic leaders, our health experts at U health, looking at pretty much every aspect of this and continuing to adapt and trade ideas and experiences.

In addition, we're drawing insights from participation in state activities, but also from our academic peers around the country, both our membership in the AAU and our Pac-12 colleagues. So, drawing ideas from across groups.

But with that background, here are some really concrete things. Facilities and our environmental health and safety groups have walked through and measured every classroom on campus, looking at how many students could occupy that space, subject to the physical distancing rules, and then removing chairs from those spaces. And then that input was used with university scheduling, or the registrar, to map socially distanced classes to physical classrooms.

We also examined the airflow in the classrooms and adjusted that, installed new filters to protect and filter out materials in the air. And then we've invested a lot of effort in technology upgrades, both to support students and in the classrooms. We outfitted over 100 classrooms with new audio/video technology to allow those instructors to be able to record lectures and discussions and post them online for students who might not be able to attend or who might need to be isolated because of potential infection. Delivering instruction to them in those circumstances is really important. Hand sanitizer stations available across campus and in classrooms, syllabus guidance about face coverings for students, faculty and staff and processes associated with that.

And then recognizing that, one of the lessons we learned from the spring as we surveyed our students from the abrupt transition that all of higher education experienced in March, what were the pain points experienced? And one of them was a realization that some of our students suffer from limitations for broadband access at home. And so we've upgraded broadband access across parking lots and public spaces on campus so that students can socially distance while being on campus. And if they don't have broadband at home, they will have access to it without necessarily needing to go into buildings. And then finally, the other thing that surfaced in the spring was a recognition that not all of our students had laptops and access. And so we had started a large scale loaner program of laptops. We are dramatically expanding that for the fall. We've added an additional 1,000 laptops and hotspots that can be loaned to students who might not otherwise have technology for access to these online and remote courses. So, all of these things are really about, what I like to call it, defense and depth. We're attempting to protect our faculty, staff and students in every way we can, but ensuring that they have access to the means needed to access the education we're committed to delivering to them.

One of the things I would offer for those of you who are listening is we post regular updates about the status of the university, about instruction, access and services on a publicly accessible website. And it's easy to remember— Watch that space for updates on a regular basis.

President Watkins: So, Dan, really, that's just remarkable work. And thank you for all those efforts. I have to say, I'm thrilled about the efforts and investments that you and your team have made to close the digital divide, that access to technology, resources, tools, internet. It's just a critical part of being a successful citizen today. And we owe it to our students and our communities to provide that. You and your team have led the way. I’m so grateful for that good work. I'd also like to give a shout out of appreciation to our remarkable faculty. What we have asked of our faculty is unprecedented rapid-pace change, new ways of teaching and ways to support learning. I'm sure that you and your colleagues have worked on providing assistance and support to faculty as they made that transition. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SVP Dan Reed: Absolutely. And there are multiple aspects to that. There's both the social and the technical and competency aspect. When we talk about each of those in turm, if you think about what it means to teach online, it is a very different set of skills than teaching in a group. And if you doubt that as an individual, try talking to a wall for an hour as opposed to talking to an audience, and if nothing else, you'll gain a great deal of appreciation for newscasters who do this every day. We rely deeply on social feedback when we interact with people, the mechanisms and processes to deliver high-quality education via electronic means are different. And our center for teaching and learning technology and teaching technologies, our faculty really stepped up and worked with them for a lot of training to draw on pedagogical insights about how best to interact with our students.

So, a huge shout out to both the staff who have really invested huge time in that training activity, but equally importantly to our faculty who rose to the challenge and were willing to, if you will, go back to school to learn how to teach. It really has been remarkable to see that activity play out over the summer. But in addition to that, if you think about the world in which we live, our faculty and staff, as do our colleagues listening, face a wide variety of personal challenges, everything from physical health issues that might put them at risk, to childcare or student education issues as school have moved online. Life has a way of making things complicated. And so how we think about supporting our faculty and staff via temporary work adjustments that would allow them to work at home if they have health issues, or if they have childcare or home educational issues has been a big part of that.

And a lot of that has been coupled with our shift to largely online, allowing our faculty and our staff to do their jobs remotely. And so all of those work adjustments and processes support that, support for some individuals who might've chosen to retire and to do that in a thoughtful and supportive way, are all part of how we support one another. I'd like to say that the U is family and family takes care of its own. Part of our responsibility is to help one another. And that means looking at each individual’s circumstances and balancing those with their job responsibilities and in a fair and thoughtful and respectful way.

President Watkins: Dan you have done a remarkable job of taking care of the U family and I'm so grateful to you for that. And I know you joined me in a little shout out to the University of Utah's faculty and staff who have done so many creative things to help us get through this difficult period and help us prepare for fall 2020. I'd like to ask you about any insights that you have gained through this period, innovations that you think may stay with us in how we do business as we look forward, particularly in the academic world, the pace of change and the types of changes that might actually strengthen higher education going forward.

SVP Dan Reed: Well, one of the things I think that's important in any domain is to periodically step back and ask which things are we doing for good reasons and which things are we doing because, well, we've just always done them that way. And COVID has certainly forced all of us to look at the things we do in some different ways. So, some concrete examples of that. It has really driven home the fact that virtual meetings can be really efficient, both in terms of an individual's time, but also in the cost of travel. I think we'll see a lot more academic meetings take place virtually even after we have effective treatments and a vaccine for COVID. I think there were insights to be drawn from our educational experiences as well, how we deliver content and how we do it in a way that responds to societal needs.

There is this continuum of education of the long-term values, but also the just-in-time skills refresh. And so that's another place where we really try to draw on that insight and work to provide upskilling to Utahns in a time of economic uncertainty. And then there are a whole range of other issues around access to services. I was talking to our university librarian this morning about the fact that the library has been open—and I would hasten to say, the university has always been open, we have never closed, we've changed our modality at work—but the librarian and I were talking about the fact that the library continues to support educational and research needs, even though access was entirely virtual and electronic. And so there are lessons to be drawn there as well. All of this is about saying, how can we be nimble and efficient and learn from insights that will make us better in the future? And we're still learning that, there's still things to expose.

And then that, as I said, what a research university does, respond to the public needs in a thoughtful and nimble way while preserving the things that have made education a transformative societal force throughout all of our history.

President Watkins: My guest today—Senior Vice President Dan Reed. Dan, you have been a remarkable leader through this challenging time. We are all grateful to you. Thank you so much.

SVP Dan Reed: My pleasure. As I said, it's a team effort. Thanks to so many people.

President Watkins: And listeners thank you for being with us today. And I hope you'll join us again for the next episode of the U Rising podcast.