A year ago, institutions of higher learning across the U.S. faced the single largest disruptor of education that we’ve ever experienced. The novel coronavirus emerged and spread throughout the globe, upending the daily operations of colleges and universities that had long been only incrementally evolving. At the start of March 2020, there were only 215 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and their ability to multiply exponentially had not yet penetrated the public’s consciousness.
I remember I was busy preparing for a March 12-13 meeting in Chicago with my operational team and wondering what would await me when I arrived. By the time my plane landed on the 11th, the World Health Organization had declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Life as we knew it was starting to change. Of course, we all hoped the disruptions would be short lived, but my experience told me I had to prepare for whatever might lie ahead.
In many cases, higher education operations simply stalled — a reasonable reaction for institutions that have always revolved around the tradition of gathering in close quarters. But it was clear early on that we would have to evolve our practices in order to ensure educational continuity.
In this time of a pandemic, I discovered that my clinical leadership experience, and the experience of our campus presidents, was the best preparation possible for our current roles in academia. Collectively, we could appreciate the magnitude of the response needed. We were uniquely positioned to address the crisis and execute a coordinated response due to our experience offering online education to over 20,000 students.
For Chamberlain University, educational continuity wasn’t something we committed to just to keep some level of normalcy and forward movement. At Chamberlain, we put students first; we simply could not put our education efforts on hold. We are dedicated to educating nurses and getting them into the workforce, especially during a pandemic when they are needed more than ever. That is why we moved swiftly to provide a full virtual curriculum and support services to our undergraduate students. The readiness mindset many of us learned in clinical environments, coupled with Chamberlain’s deep experience with online learning, allowed us to pivot while maintaining the continuity of our operations. In the course of just one weekend, while other schools took weeks or even months, our team had our entire BSN curriculum up and running online coupled with support resources for faculty and students.
Almost a year later, we continue to focus on delivering a quality undergraduate education through hybrid learning.
I recently sat down with Chamberlain provost Carla Sanderson, PhD, RN, and Patrick Rombalski, ED, MS, our vice president of operations, to reflect on what set us on the right path at the start of the pandemic, what we’ve learned, and what it means for the future. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You Can Never Be Over Prepared
Patrick: The details of that weekend are seared in my memory. We had all our key executives at the table and our campus presidents on video. We immediately implemented a plan to transition direct-contact instruction to virtual platforms, which were then being utilized via online post-graduate programs. We leaned on the collective clinical and operational experience of Chamberlain University leadership team members to coordinate our COVID-19 response, and shut down our campuses to help halt the spread of the virus. On Friday, we informed the faculty and students we would be moving to virtual education, and by that same weekend, IT help teams had been established to provide our educators the necessary technical support.
Carla: We also moved right away to set up training sessions and tutorials for students and faculty with step-by-step instructions on how to access the new virtual classrooms. Computers were loaned to students who needed them, and IT office hours were scheduled to ensure that students could get one-on-one assistance. By Monday, students were attending their classes online.
Patrick: Luckily, well before our March meeting, as news of a novel coronavirus emerged, we decided to consider and plan for the scenario that ended up occurring: that we would quickly transition to online learning. In January, we identified the key areas that would be affected by a transition to online learning—academic courses, clinical placements, admissions, accreditation, IT services, tutoring, advising and other student services—and created a planning dashboard. As we identified implementation barriers, we had the people best positioned to address them right there in the room with us.
Karen: I’m so grateful that we incorporated the entire team in the planning. All the technology, communication, and operational plans can never replace a committed, engaged and cohesive faculty. Identifying strong, flexible leaders, preparing for the unexpected, adopting best practices, and striving for continual improvement is what will keep us prepared for future obstacles, whatever they may be.
Carla: Many of us also had prior experience with disaster response. I was an administrator at Union University when a tornado ravaged Jackson, Tennessee. That experience made me keenly aware that anything can happen. In addition to an immediate action plan, it is important to develop multiple future plans. For us, that meant preparing for in-person, hybrid and fully online learning scenarios so adjustments could be easily made.
Karen: Such a great point, Carla. Preparedness is a core value in healthcare as well as in education. Fortunately, at Chamberlain, as we strived to deploy a transition from brick-and-mortar to virtual pedagogy, we had confidence of success because of strong university leadership, preparedness, innovation and existing technology.
Envision Student Needs and Develop Faculty Support
Patrick: We decided right away that a poorly designed virtual platform could not be allowed to become the obstacle that prevented students from learning. Robust IT infrastructure and resources were paramount.
Karen: You’re right. Even though our online graduate nursing programs gave us a playbook for how to implement online learning at the undergraduate level, we knew that students require assistance in transitioning to an online platform. We prepared our faculty with resources and they continually worked with each of their students to ensure they were eased through the process to successfully transition online.
Carla: Fortunately, we had already developed a Master Instruction curriculum to prepare our graduate program faculty to teach in a virtual environment. Making those classes available to our campus-based professors was step 1. We also had to find substitutes for in-person experiences with actual patients. Like many nursing schools, we turned to virtual simulation, adopting i-Human Patients to give students access to interactive virtual-patient encounters right on their home computers.
Ensure that Students are Engaged and Progressing
Patrick: To add to that Carla, it’s not enough to simply take lectures that occurred in classrooms and broadcast them to virtual meeting rooms. We needed to inspect what we expected and confirm that students were mastering the necessary concepts required for professional accreditation prior to graduating.
Carla: Perhaps most important, Patrick, is that we were able to maintain the support services that are critical for student success and integral to the Chamberlain Care® educational model. We retained our entire student support staff, and faculty went the extra mile, communicating with students after hours to ensure they adapted well to online learning and were coping with personal strains caused by the pandemic. Outside of the learning environment, we fostered engagement and belonging among faculty and students through tactics such as virtual morning coffees, town halls, frequent faculty huddles and after-hour social gatherings.
Karen: We had hoped to be fully back to on-campus learning by now, but infection rates have made that impossible. We were able to reopen on-campus simulation and skills training labs in September, and in February, some of our campuses reopened their science labs as well. What have we learned this past year that you hope to apply once the pandemic is behind us?
Continue a Forward-Looking Mentality
Patrick: Well, we’ve broken the traditional thinking that 100% of undergraduate learning must be campus-based and face-to-face. Given our continued success with the NCLEX-RN®, student retention, and student feedback, we now know we can offer more of our learning remote and online as a supplement to in-person learning to further expand access to nursing education.
Carla: The pandemic has given us an appreciation for academic technology partners who allow co-creation of content and clinical learning resources. Simply put, students need to learn the material and higher learning institutions need to employ the most effective ways to teach.
Patrick: I’d also like to see us continue to use technology to maintain those personal connections we used to make on campus. At the end of the day, a student-first approach that focuses on the relationship between students and faculty, is what will be key to future success.
Karen: Thank you Carla and Patrick for your insight. As we move forward on how we deliver an undergraduate education through online learning, it will be imperative to universally embrace technology and leverage it in order to progress, both now and in the future.
The pandemic has forever changed the way that education will be delivered. Although the past year has been a terrible time for humanity, it has also driven quick evolution in a myriad of areas that will serve us better once the global pandemic has subsided. Ultimately, Chamberlain has a reinvigorated dedication to identifying learning platforms and methods that will ensure our students are thoroughly prepared for the careers that await them.
By Karen Cox, PhD, RN, FACHE, FAAN
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