Unexpected Challenges & Opportunities: COVID-19 Adjusts Academics at Augustana University

Augustana University took on an unexpected challenge in the spring of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any we’ve seen in the past. The campus administrators, staff and faculty quickly came together and formed a risk-assessment team in a matter of hours to protect everyone on our beloved campus and to start thinking about the future of academics.

At the time of print, there were no cases on campus. On March 13, the decision was made to extend Augustana’s spring break. However, as the Department of Health continued to monitor the global outbreak, and more cases were discovered in the region, the risk-assessment team and administrators soon made the bold decision to announce the campus would be embracing online learning through the end of the semester.

To control the spread of the virus and to limit contact with others, the campus also made the decision to default most campus operations to virtual meetings and working remotely. Only approved students who applied to remain on campus had access to essential campus services.

This decision posed a great challenge to academics; one that administration saw as an opportunity. Guided by our mission and core values, the campus community came together and acted in the best interests of the students, faculty, and staff.

“The risk-assessment team was meeting regularly to monitor the spread of COVID-19,” says Colin Irvine, Ph.D., provost and executive vice president. “One of the suggestions was to create contingency plans for what happens when South Dakota, Sioux Falls, and our campus has their first case of COVID-19 confirmed. The announcement that South Dakota and Sioux Falls had positive cases came on the same day. We immediately began to discuss how instruction should occur.”

Jay Kahl, Ph.D., assistant vice provost for assessment and academic excellence at Augustana University adds, “At the same time, we were monitoring what was occurring at other regional institutions. We felt, and still feel, that extending our spring break and moving to modified instruction until the end of the semester would allow us to make more informed decisions about the safety of our students and broader community. We are, in all of our decision-making, doing our informed and compassionate best to evaluate the nearterm risks and the long-term implications of our choices.”

And when it came to really sitting down and thinking more about how to educate online, Drs. Irvine and Kahl stepped up to the challenge. “It really changed the way we had been doing the majority of our education,” Kahl says. “COVID-19 has presented our faculty members with the opportunity to examine both how they are teaching and what the most crucial objectives are within their classes. For example, we would never assume that a biology lecture and an art studio class would be identical in their approach. To assume that modifying our instruction to include online experiences would mean these experiences would be the same would also be a fallacy.”

Irvine agrees. “As faculty members survey the number of instructional technological options we have, they also have to examine what the most crucial objectives are of the experience. As one faculty member recently stated, we need to focus on what we don’t want students to miss, as that is the most crucial element of these experiences. This speaks to a move away from coverage of material as the guiding principle toward a focus on learning outcomes. That being said, this question about how this situation is changing the ways we teach begs an essentially important and very much related question, ‘how has COVID-19 NOT changed the way we’re educating?’ We are not, as noted, seeking a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction or adaptation. Nor are we abandoning the most central and unwavering element of our instruction at Augie, which is a relational approach to teaching and learning. Now, more than ever, we are committed to connecting through concepts, questions, problems, ideas, and shared concerns with our students to the outcomes and the related content. The extent to which we can accomplish this will be the measure of our success in maintaining our mission,” he says.

Something both Drs. Kahl and Irvine are especially proud of is the faculty and student response. “Overall, the responses I have heard from faculty have been inspirational,” says Kahl. “The faculty are concerned with the safety of our students and the community as a whole. Both parties have had a number of questions and we are trying to be deliberate in prioritizing our responses to each constituent. That can be hard, and we want to be sensitive to the anxiety of the unknown.” Irvine adds, “Having a group such as the risk assessment team meet daily has allowed us to ensure we are timely with our messaging and making decisions with as much information as we can gather.”

“The pandemic has given us the chance to truly gather around our sense of community."

— Colin Irvine, Ph.D., Provost and Executive Vice President

It was this type of approach that really speaks to the mission and values of Augustana. “The pandemic has given us the chance to truly gather around our sense of community,” says Irvine. “This value states ‘by caring for one another and our environments.’ We deeply care for our community and want to ensure a safe learning environment for our students, faculty, and staff. At the same time, we need to assure our constituents that they have permission to speak up about their fears and that sometimes this means taking care of themselves and their loved ones. Augustana is seen as a leader in the community, and that is reflected in our dedication to our community.”

While Drs. Irvine and Kahl admit this is unchartered waters for Augustana, they know they’re not alone. However, there’s one thing that remains constant.

“Our whole goal is to care for the whole person and care for the community,” says Kahl. “This deep sense of care is informed in all we do by a willingness to work together and to listen. And we will continue to listen to our students, faculty, and staff as changes and adjustments become necessary. We agree that the uncertain causes anxiety, and we simply need feedback from our constituents to make this transition as easy as possible.”

It’s that feedback that administration is looking forward to. “We will be a better institution as a result of this,” says Irvine. “The analogy I have been using is that we have just agreed to run a marathon on short notice. We may be wearing the wrong shoes, need to change our diet, and need to find a place to train. However, the best way to prepare is to just start running and then modify as needed. We are jogging now and know we have a long road ahead of us. With everyone chipping in as they have done, we will emerge a better institution at listening to each other and adapting to the unexpected.”

Media Inquiries: Contact Jill Wilson, public relations and communications strategist.