Taking the first steps toward pursuing a doctoral degree are never easy. Combining starting a doctoral program, balancing a full-time career and juggling a family is enough to give anyone pause. Add in a pandemic and increasingly dire economic situation that creates a weekly shift in expectations, planning and level of certainty of the future creates a recipe for even calmest minds to question, “What am I doing?”
And yet, on the beautiful morning of May 16, 2020, logging on to the Zoom meeting for doctoral orientation at Virginia Commonwealth University is exactly where I found myself. The groundwork for success was laid by my wife who awoke all the children early and ushered them out to adventures unknown in order to create the calm and quiet that I would need to focus on the information and pertinent introductions being shared.
This orientation for my personal educational journey was quite unlike the previous three journeys that I have taken with VCU School of Education. In my undergrad program (BA ’02, BA ’02), my graduate teaching program (MT ’03) and my post-master’s program in Educational Leadership (’08), we always had significant face-to-face orientation experiences. And, yet, here I found myself 23 years after first stepping on the Monroe Park Campus logging in to a Zoom meeting to take the first steps on another (final?) journey with VCU SOE.
Our orientation proceeded as normal, or at least as normal as anything that was inherently meant for a personal presence adapted into a digital world can be. It was a pleasure to see and hear from all the guides who will shepherd me through the next three years.
For the final 45 minutes, we turned our work toward the teamwork scenario that had been shared with us a week prior. At that moment, the shift in our environment became clear. This orientation and the group work assigned was perfect for the day-long, face-to-face orientation. That day and for many days to come, however, we lived in a pandemic-affected world that would require us to constrain this activity in time as well as into a digital space. These dynamics shortened our conversation and significantly diminished the time we would have to offer solutions to the scenario.
The teamwork scenario process included pre-planned groups, divided by cohort and assigned specific moderators. Once transferred to our group through the magic of video conference technology, the moderator began by eliciting opinions and rankings of the items in the scenario outline. Participants shared, albeit reluctantly at first. The moderator used probing question and asked for specific opinions from those who did not initially volunteer. The moderator worked to guide the team to build consensus and then sought a team member who would present the consensus to the larger group.
In this scenario, there were few prescribed protocols. Whether to rank the two groupings of topics separately or together was not specified. No ground rules for the discussion were articulated. The group was given great autonomy with only mild guidance from the moderator.
Team members initially responded with open ideas from their current backgrounds keeping an eye toward what could be done in the short term to bring stability to the local schools and long term to create viability in the higher education programs that were outlined in the scenario. Of the four student group members, we represented diversity within educational settings: one from private K12 leadership, one from non-profit leadership, one from public higher education student success and myself from private higher education leadership. As opinions were expressed and outliers from the consensus emerged, the moderators worked to assess if the outliers would acquiesce to the consensus or obstinate and remain with their original ideas. In the end, all were able to express their ideas, the group was able to find consensus weighted toward the will of the group while inclusive of the opinions of the outliers.
The group, and the moderators, remained even and level-headed, avoiding confrontation. There was no dissent, although polite acceptance of the opinion of all was evident. The initial interactions conveyed a demeanor expected of a first-contact meeting of graduate students in the initial stages of the program.
The activity felt shortened due to pandemic scheduling to the point where time constraints allowed the group members little more than one opportunity to express opinions. What could have been a dynamic discussion was confined to an overview of opinions, moderation to seek consensus and quickly creating a summary of proceedings. The conversation lacked a structural framework like a cluster discussion. One technique could have been to have all use the available Zoom polling to rank items from the beginning, then after discussion, to have the group re-rank to see if opinions or consensus were impacted by the discussion.
The lack of time for the scenario activity due to the pandemic-adjusted style of teaching should serve as a stark reminder that styles of teaching and learning from pre-K to graduate education will have to adjust dramatically to maintain the level of engagement that schools of education have been striving for over the last 35 years. Adjustments might also have to be made daily, weekly or on-the-fly as new pandemic conditions emerge.
During this activity, I found myself concerned about the limited time for the activity due to pandemic changes of the format of the orientation. While being on camera, I felt more aware of my facial impressions and visual cues in order to make a strong first impression to my group members and moderators. Being at ease with the Zoom technology served as a strength during this exercise due to having over 5 years of experience participating, conducting and teaching in remote synchronous web conferences.
After the activity when returning to web conferenced meetings in my career, I became more aware of several lessons:
- major decision-making via web conference necessitates more structure than typical face-to-face meetings
- careful moderation is needed in web conference meetings to avoid consensus being built around the loudest voice in the “Zoom”
- decision-making in a remote setting requires careful planning for time, whether tackling a large project over a long meeting or breaking the project into sprints that can be completed in stages of shorter meetings
At the conclusion of this activity, I have been researching:
- What are the best practices for reaching consensus and how have they been adapted for remote digital environments?
- When developing frameworks for teamwork scenarios, does it remain relevant to develop frameworks based on modality (face-to-face, remote synchronous, remote asynchronous) or, in times of fluid modality, would modality-agnostic frameworks best serve educators and moderators?