Updated: Mar 30
So, here we are now... in a place that we probably never expected to end up.
COVID-19 has forced colleges across the country to essentially close, and the traditional classroom experience has wisely been traded in for a distance-learning model for the safety of all involved.
Remote learning, online courses, and virtual classrooms are surely nothing new to students anymore, but faculty (and K-12 instructors) have put a spotlight on how quickly they were able to adapt their content material and deliver it in a digital medium. The reason for this, that rings truer now, perhaps more than ever, is their utilization of a curriculum.
A Curricular Approach is long past being considered just a sexy trend in Student Affairs, and I would argue that it's probably leaning towards a best-practice. I mean, how could it not be? Utilizing a curriculum in residential programs or Student Affairs divisions was never revolutionary; it was us finally adopting long-proven techniques and tools from our academic partners. It helps us speak the same "language" as our colleagues and supports our efforts to be intentional in how and what students learn outside of the classroom.
Now we face a new challenge... especially those utilizing residential curriculums...
What do we do now that students aren't living with us?
...are we still responsible for creating strategic learning opportunities for students?
The world is a crazy place right now. Is this really a priority?
This brings us to our first important point:
A curriculum brings stability.
This crisis has created a constant sense of uncertainty. Schools weren't prepared for an event of this scale, and all of our processes and the approach to our daily work is constantly in a state of transition. Utilizing a plan, like your curriculum, offers guidance and stability in a world that has none right now.
Please don't think that this is a question of priority, either. Safety and security must come first during a public health emergency... but sticking to your educational plans and finding different ways of adapting and delivering learning means that you can still carry out the intentional opportunities that were intended.
It can also offer some much-needed normalcy and structure to your work experience.
Learning is still happening, with or without us.
Just because the students aren't physically present in our halls, villages, or buildings doesn't mean the learning stops. In fact, the idea of forgoing the pursuit of student development and only focusing on course or academic content during this period almost feels like a declaration that the learning you were hoping to deliver might not have actually been that important.
We know that's not the case. Students still need to develop in the ways that your curriculum intended. Imagine the important conversations, identity development, wellness and independent living skills that students are navigating during this strange period. They need our support systems more than ever to offer them appropriate forums to strategical explore the climate we are all sharing in. Your curricular approach is likely already designed in consideration of most of these developmental areas, so utilize your current lesson plans and adapt your delivery methods. If our students are continuing their development regardless of setting, we should still be finding ways to be a part of it.
Meeting students where they are.
Distance Learning can certainly provide accessibility issues for those students who don't have access to technology or the internet, but from a learning perspective, it's forcing educators to differentiate their instruction in new ways.
How do they change their pedagogy to be inclusive, catering to individual learners, and still work to engage students with the content?
For many standard residential curricula, this new environment is helping us to meet students where they are, in an entirely new manner. So much of every residential curriculum incorporates long-standing "traditional" practices like floor meetings, community agreements, programming, conduct meetings. These all require students to voluntarily participate in ways that might not always suit them best. Not having students around, but still being responsible for their development has pushed us to explore meeting students online. In doing so, we are utilizing tools that can perhaps reach more students than ever by moving beyond the techniques we've always used. This could help us finally reach the students who don't attend our events or our intentional conversations... and build new relationships and communities we never considered before.
Now we can explore zoom meetings and break out into smaller conversations within that platform. We can post video links, tweet, DM, "Insta" or even Tik-Tok... we can use any tool to engage with our students in a way that they typically like to engage with one another... and ultimately engage with our intentional experiences.
A great opportunity for direct learning assessment.
One of the most difficult parts about initial curricular buy-in is tentative stakeholders always asking to "prove that it works." Look, I understand why the question is asked... and that's great in theory... but in practice, what are they really asking? Are they asking you to prove the value of having a plan for learning? Are they asking for educational strategy effectiveness? Are they asking you to prove if learning is happening?
One of the interesting aspects of migrating your educational strategies to a distance-learning environment is the ability to quickly and easily assess student learning. It's one thing to ask students to complete a post-event assessment... (and the chances of them filling it out are slim) but in digital learning spaces, you can build direct assessment right into your strategy to check for comprehension. Doing so also doubles as interactive ways to get learners to engage with the desired skills or information and one another.
This provides us a chance to move beyond facilitator observations of student learning or different indirect assessment measures. This helps to move beyond reporting that students felt like they learned something from our opportunities and instead helps us to tell our story about the direct skills or information students gained when engaging with us.
Keep what works.
While one of the main advantages of a curricular approach is that everything is supposed to be developed and ready to use long before the implementation of our educational plans and strategies... the reality is that sometimes we also have to do some of the creating while we're in the thick of it. Adapting your delivery and assessment methods, on the fly, during an already stressful period of time is surely an undertaking... but utilizing your standard lesson plans, facilitation guides and learning outcomes will help to make it easier. It's important to remember that while our current circumstances are temporary, the new educational strategies or delivery methods you construct can be incorporated into future educational plans if that data demonstrates that they work. This adds new tools to your curriculum to use in the future to support students and perhaps reach the previously mentioned outliers.
Launch at 40%.
An unofficial motto of a Curricular Approach, Institute on the Curricular Approach keynote Charles Schroeder once encouraged institutions to "Launch at 40%"... just get it started and keep working at it. It doesn't have to be perfect. In our current situation, perfect is surely the enemy of good... our students don't need perfect right now, they need normalcy. They need some level of structure, support, and engagement in the ways that we have already planned.
They need intentionality in a world that feels chaotic.
A curriculum supports students in that very way.