“The ambiguity shrouding this whole crisis makes it all the more difficult for the mind to adjust to, runners can only pace themselves if they know how far the finish line is and yet in this race our finish line is just a prediction, an educated guess.”
― Aysha Taryam
It seems like just yesterday when we gathered in PC 521—FIU’s executive conference room. So many important meetings had been held there before— the first meeting of our then newly named provost, Steve Altman, to consult with university leaders about our future. Then the meeting called by President Gregory Wolfe to ask faculty to figure out what the university could do to help stem the tide of refugees who were drowning in their water-borne flight to Florida from either Haiti or Cuba. Then there was the meeting I vividly remember provoked by the likely tidal wave of change caused by the fast-moving advances of the digital economy, and the need for our university to embrace a new approach to this obviously transformative tool.
As provost, I was charged by President Maidique with the task of kick-starting our digital initiative including implementing a new university-wide enterprise data system and leading the institution’s post Y2K programs. Uncertainty was rampant — a brave new world was surely on its way. My deans and I spent considerable time debating the coming digital explosion and how we were to address it. Then one dean asked a practical question: how much will the “Fifth Floor” invest in any proposed programs to jump-start our e-learning initiatives?
My response was flat but predictable: we do not have new investment dollars. You must take this out of your current budgets. Polite silence. You could hear a pin drop. To break the spell, I had the bright idea to poll deans right there by asking them to discuss what strategies for their units they might propose. Mistake. Silence might have been better. Only two deans had anything positive or encouraging to add to the conversation. Then, as now, we needed clarity about the path ahead. Then, as now, there was ambiguity and uncertainty.
But one dean seemed to have clarity and intentionality about what needed to be done. Credit then Dean Joyce Elam. What she wanted to do then has become the backbone of our approach today. Back then, the College of Business offered the first set of online courses – 300 students in ten different classes, largely at the graduate level. The online courses proved popular. Demand increased exponentially. Before too long, those same deans who were quiet earlier pivoted their new found clarity and intentionality around the College of Business’s on-line model to help them develop and offer online courses in response to the rising demand in their units.
By 2005, FIU Online was formed to help faculty throughout the university to design and develop online courses and to support students taking online courses. Given that many of our students were working adults with families to raise and stringent work schedules, this new modality made sense. One of the challenges early on was getting faculty to agree to teach online, Elam reminds us. This challenge was met by providing incentives to the faculty to develop online courses and by providing them with a dedicated instructional designer to work closely with them to develop their courses.
Today, nearly twenty years after we first met to chart a course to modernize educational delivery, we clearly have gone way beyond those early moments. We went from ten on-line courses to nearly 1,600 fully on-line courses this semester. We went from no on-line degree programs to nearly 100 fully on-line programs today with more on the way. This was a gradual process over some twenty years. Now, our online courses are highly rated. Over 450 FIU Online sections have been certified by Quality Matters and there are currently 257 active certifications in process, more than any other university in the state and second in the nation.
In a matter of relative moments, things change. Scenarios that you could not imagine yesterday become real today. To paraphrase martial arts icon Bruce Lee,“… it’s not what happens that counts, it’s how you react…” In mid-March, our university community had no choice but to make a hurried transition to remote teaching. Indeed an era characterized by intimacy and grab and go ended as social distancing became a new norm — overnight as the COVID-19 pandemic frenzy began to take its toll in Florida.
Although we already were offering 1,600 courses fully on-line, in a matter of days, we converted over 5,000 face to face courses to remote teaching modalities in about 100 hours — from Thursday March 12 through Monday March 16. We also provided training and support for over 800 instructors.
This transition was carried out by our hard-working professionals in FIU Online, by Educational Technology Services, and by the Center for Advancement of Teaching through a task force known as the Academic Continuity Team (ACT). This has been facilitated by high-powered software and bandwidth that were not known in 2001. And by a faculty and staff willingness and capability to make such a rapid conversion that could never have been predicted, not even on March 11, 2020, much less March 11, 2001.
Take a look at our help page on this conversion. Welcome to Zoom World. Welcome to a whole new language of education that is now au courant and mainstream for any educator who wants to be viable and relevant in the next few years.
We have learned a lot along the way. Faculty have been incredibly accommodating with the abrupt modifications of their teaching and exam offerings. Students have found a way to do their lessons, take their classes and be tested even in the most difficult of conditions. And we have designed a virtual commencement for May 8, 2020 that will be a source of pride and happiness for nearly 5,300 graduates, their families and friends. While this virtual celebration is no substitute for the packed and giddy crowds that normally frequent our Ocean Bank Convocation Center during our 36 traditional graduations throughout the year, we do hope that later in the summer we can hold face to face real graduations so that families and loved ones can celebrate more grandly their milestone achievements officially recorded on May 8.
Our summer terms will likely all be taught remotely. Some faculty have admitted that this last semester’s first half — taught face to face, helped ease the way for the second half that has been taught remotely. Now with the A and C terms approaching, remote will be the approach du jour from the outset — reducing even more the opportunity for traditional face to face relationship and confidence-building, key elements in any successful student-faculty relationship. We are redoubling efforts to make sure that every student counts, and that we want everyone who has started with us to finish and graduate!
But as we start to turn out of the Spring semester, there are still more questions than answers, the cycle of ambiguity, clarity, intentionality begins anew. More and more frequently we hear about a “new normal,” one that will be defined by the excesses, tragedies and actions or inactions of leadership high and low, and in and out of government and elected office. As Taryam points out, “runners can only pace [italics-mine] themselves if they know how far the finish line is and yet in this race our finish line is just a prediction, an educated guess.”
But since when did we ever consider seriously the issue of pace, either in Miami or at FIU? We have been in a hurry in this community and in our university, particularly given the early post-charter lethargy by state and local leaders to actually fund Senate Bill 711 that established us in 1965. Four years later, when we finally were funded, our first President Chuck Perry sent a strong visionary message of urgency about our mission. His successor was brought in to slow us down — to calm us. That did not happen. Many of us “boomers” who were hired during this period wanted to build an impact-oriented research university, commensurate to the destiny of our community. Our third leader, Dr. Wolfe had this tempered impatience with the guard-rails that were put up around us. No one would ever accuse Mitch Maidique of timidity in the face of repeated barriers put in our way. Working closely with the faculty and community, he knocked them down. Then as now, we look to the horizon, to try to understand its outline, and then finally to shape it rather than be shaped by it. Throughout, our faculty and organizational culture have enabled our accomplishment and ascent. Then, as now, we are unapologetic for wanting what our learners deserve, and more.
There has been much speculation about what this COVID-19 pandemic actually means for us. The so-called finish line mentioned above is but a figment of a more traditional linear approach. Yet as Einstein reminded us, “Logic will get you from A to Z; Imagination will get you everywhere.”
Our fear of the unknown has galvanized us and enabled us to use imagination (and courage) to structure our response to the COVID-19 virus. We will not let the ambiguity of the moment overshadow our sense of purpose and direction. The best is yet to come for our FIU!
In the Panther spirit,
Mark B. Rosenberg