In March 2020, a virulent global pandemic swiftly swept across America, bringing daily life to a jarring standstill virtually overnight. The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), however, hardly missed a beat. In short order, it seamlessly transitioned to nearly total distance learning (DL), ensuring the university remained steadily on course to continue delivering excellence in advanced education to the nation’s military officers.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, approximately one third of NPS faculty taught via DL … Over the course of the Spring Quarter, this figure had risen to 100 percent. Propelling this remarkable transformation was the university’s Teaching and Learning Commons (TLC), a relatively new cross-campus consortium dedicated to enhancing the quality of NPS education. Although less than two years old, the TLC was able to draw on the extensive inroads, partnerships and open lines of communication it had cultivated in that short time to rapidly and effectively adapt to the unfolding crisis.
The TLC did so by remaining true to its founding mission: it listened to the NPS community. Even under trying conditions, it engaged, experimented and then supported faculty in order to move forward.
“When the transition to DL was first announced, the TLC played a ‘boots on the ground’ role, meeting with faculty one-on-one or with school departments,” explained Dr. Ralucca Gera, TLC director and Associate Provost for Graduate Education. “Our goal was to provide the necessary information required to empower faculty who had never taught DL before or who had never used DL technology. What distinguished our support was our proactive approach with regard to anticipating challenges, identifying resources, and then reaching out to faculty to work with them on finding personalized solutions that meet their instructional needs.”
The TLC was born of a recognized need to bring people and ideas together from across campus. Since its inception in the Spring of 2018, it has functioned as a collaborative community of practice at NPS: the Office of the Associate Provost for Graduate Education (OAP-GE) partnered with the Dudley Knox Library (DKL) and Information Technology and Communications Services (ITACS) to coordinate a wide range of specialized services and resources. By joining forces, these entities were able to serve as a catalyst for the creation of new teaching and learning environments at NPS specifically geared towards the school’s unique student population.
“Think of the TLC as a cohesive, virtual umbrella organization over existing centers - nobody belongs to the TLC, but we bring together faculty and student perspectives as well as the technology to support their requirements,” Gera said. “Our focus is to enhance teaching and learning and instill awareness of the resources that faculty and students have for that.”
The enterprise’s success came down to communication. The TLC went to great lengths to engage the NPS community, holding a series of open forums to discuss critical issues, conducting surveys, visiting departments to determine the best ways to support them, and launching an innovative mini-grant program to seed emerging educational methods and technologies.
When the coronavirus struck and NPS President, retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, mandated all residential unclassified classes immediately transition to DL for the start of the academic quarter on March 30, 2020, these efforts had laid an effective groundwork for the TLC to act as a central hub for communication, information, web-based resources and tools to support the transition.
“If COVID were to have hit NPS prior to the formation of the TLC, the campus organizations would have been able to respond in their own way, but in silos,” observed D’Marie Bartolf, Coordinator of Education Innovation at NPS. “Because the TLC was created 18 months prior to COVID, the communication bridges were in place that allowed NPS to be uniquely positioned to respond to COVID in a collaborative manner.”
The OAP-GE, DKL and ITACS all stepped up in equal measure to ensure these bridges were solid, and that the needs of students, faculty and staff continued to be met. One of the initial challenges in realizing this was making sure an adequate information technology infrastructure was in place. For this, ITACS had the right tools for the job.
“We were fortunate to have most of the tools in place prior to COVID,” noted retired Navy Capt. Scott Bischoff, NPS CIO and ITACS Director. “We made the decision years ago to invest in Microsoft 365. It is cloud based and suits remote work well, not only as a system of productivity applications, but also the security apparatus behind the scenes.”
On top of meeting an increased demand for help desk assistance, ITACS renewed Zoom licenses for web conferencing and ensured a good VPN and firewalls with sufficient capability to handle the remote surge and the entire campus teleworking. Through the TLC, it conducted trainings on using the Sakai learning management system and Microsoft Teams for teleworking and DL classes, which were recorded and posted to the NPS intranet for easy access, on-demand training. A TLC Learning Cafe was also set up in Microsoft Teams to allow staff and faculty to post questions and learn from each other.
Additionally, ITACS established a 24x7 Cybersecurity Operations Center to defend the evolving infrastructure and continuously worked to provide and maintain user hardware - laptops, webcams and other telework tools - even as supply chains stretched thin.
“We responded well, but of course there’s no way any of this happened without the close attention of a very talented IT staff,” Bischoff said. “Keep in mind that we are supporting 300ish classes a quarter and more than 500 staff workers. Our staff has been unbelievably good, the help desk actually improved productivity, and our DevOps team built new processes and tools to fit the model and kept everything humming in the data center and in the cloud.”
The infrastructure ITACS sustained allowed NPS to remain united and functioning despite the manifold challenges and uncertainty of the unfolding COVID environment. Navigating this was no easy task, yet the TLC lost no time in touching base with the NPS community.
The TLC immediately began conducting periodic surveys which, as the Spring Quarter progressed, captured feedback from faculty and students enabling the TLC to better coordinate support for teaching and learning, according to Gera.
“Back in March 2020 we found ourselves in a living laboratory environment, and the TLC’s main goal was to support faculty as they transitioned to DL and explored new ways to engage the students,” she said. “We looked to determine the necessary technical and functional support required to enable a successful transition. In addition, we provided teaching guidelines for faculty, and lessons learned from DL veterans and novices.”
The training sessions the TLC recorded and made available on-demand, plus a plethora of additional resources they’ve created, have enabled a rapid shift from residence to DL classes for all the faculty that started teaching online for the first time and established a bedrock for subsequent academic quarters as the pandemic persists.
Based on feedback from the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL) as well as the Classrooms of the Future initiative, the TLC also purchased a range of equipment enabling faculty to teach directly from their homes, including Microsoft Surface Pro tablet computers with pens, document cameras, web cameras, microphones and connecting dongles.
“We wanted to make sure faculty had the proper equipment to support the development and delivery of both synchronous and asynchronous activities,” Gera said. “After using these devices for some months for online teaching, some faculty will now bring their newly acquired online experience and devices to hybrid learning in Winter Quarter 2021, and furthermore to the ever-evolving teaching and learning ecosystem at NPS.”
That this ecosystem has continued to grow and thrive in the austere conditions of the COVID environment is testament to the collaborative strength of its stakeholders, including instructional designers, media developers, graphics designers, librarians and instructional coaches.
“There are many stakeholders in the delivery of high quality education to our students,” said Dr. Dennis Lester, Director of the Graduate Education Advancement Center (GEAC). “In addition to our schools and departments that play the primary role, organizations such as the GEAC, ITACS, DKL, Graduate Writing Center (GWC) and Thesis Processing Office (TPO) all play a crucial support role. Our biggest challenge during the transition to the COVID environment was to have all of these organizations working together - seamlessly and quickly - to provide optimal solutions for our most important stakeholder - our students.”
This is where the TLC shined. The collaborative culture it fostered in its pre-pandemic days now easily facilitated a rapid whole-of-campus response as the university moved to online instruction. For example, the GEAC’s Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL), already an integral part of TLC initiatives, was able to readily adapt existing programs and services and leverage relationships with faculty.
“The OTL was able to identify the critical requirements for emergency online instruction and provided small group and individual assistance to address them,” commented Ali Rodgers, OTL Director of Faculty Development. “This was integrated with faculty training to use web-based technologies provided by the TLC. Collaborative and synchronized interactions provided valuable information that facilitated outreach to schools and departments to determine additional needs and to resolve emerging problems.”
This spirit of collaboration echoed throughout the university. The DKL, long the epicenter of campus life, remained a hub of teaching and learning through continuously working with the NPS community. Virtual town halls through the TLC, according to University Librarian Tom Rosko, provided the opportunity not only to communicate services to students and faculty, but for the library to listen to - and meet - their needs.
“For instance, we learned of the need for printing and we were, and continue to be, able to provide some print-on-demand services as well as access to interlibrary loan resources,” he said. “Similarly, we also started a pick-up service so that students and faculty could request physical copies of books and pick them up in the library lobby or have them mailed to them if they could not come on campus.”
“Throughout this time, the library’s electronic resources and services have remained available and have been well utilized and we are now considering ways to continue to expand our services,” added Greta Marlatt, DKL Outreach and Collection Development Director. “We have also developed a suite of ‘how-to’ videos as well as making recordings of workshops available.”
Last Spring, the coronavirus drastically altered NPS’ educational landscape. Yet the TLC showed up. It listened. It engaged the community, experimented with innovative solutions and fully supported faculty, enabling them to move forward and, despite the sudden pivot to full DL learning, NPS did not waver in its core mission.
The TLC continues to provide comprehensive support as COVID conditions continue and students provide feedback on their needs and the challenges they experience. Underlying this success is a current of community in the truest sense of the term, and the TLC’s recognition that community engagement is not only a pedagogical but also a psychological imperative.
“Our goal,” Gera said, “is to continue to support a diverse population of faculty who continue to deliver quality online education, supporting their flexible teaching styles that enable distinctive learning experiences.”