Scott Rosner | Redefining the educational experience amid the pandemic

Scott Rosner, Professor of Professional Practice; Academic Director, M.S. in Sports Management Program, School of Professional Studies, Columbia University, details the turbulence at the university this past spring due to Covid-19 and how it is adapting for this fall

The challenges facing the academic side of the sports industry over the past several months have been daunting. As the academic director of Columbia University’s Sports Management program, my leadership skills have been tested in ways that I could have never imagined when I began my commute on March 9, 2020. 

As I sat in traffic near campus that morning in what would soon be the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, I received an email notifying me that university classes that day and the next would be cancelled and that all classes would be taught remotely as of March 11. With eighteen faculty members and only one online course in the spring semester, the transition to remote learning began immediately. 

A quick meeting with program administrators Lj Holmgren and Tom Cerny created the plan to deliver classes at a high level in a way that they were not built to be delivered, with faculty who had never taught remotely, and using a delivery tool, Zoom, that most had never used before. 

Holmgren and Cerny paired with the faculty who would be holding class that week, “coached them up” on Zoom and the adjustments that were required and sitting in on every class for the next six weeks in order to troubleshoot any issues that arose. Within a week, faculty had been trained in remote instruction (as per university requirements). Within two weeks, the faculty had mastered Zoom. Faculty taught, students learned, and administrators…administrated. 

In many ways, it was business as usual.

But in so many other ways, it was not. Our students hail from 13 different countries. Uncertainty about living in the dire conditions facing New York City, worries about contracting Covid-19, and the adaptation to a new learning environment created an incredibly unsettling and stressful situation. 

This was compounded when two of our students were diagnosed with the virus and our longest-standing, beloved faculty member, Bill Squires, was hospitalized and spent a month on a ventilator in medically-induced sedation. We talk a lot about grit with our students and this was most certainly tested. Some fell down, but all got up. It was the proudest moment of my career.

Our staff have faced their own challenges, as Holmgren and Cerny each have two children under the age of five and working spouses. Like many other working parents, they suddenly had two full-time jobs – and their day jobs were ruled by chaos. Work hours often extended to post-bedtime hours. Young kids regularly appeared on Zoom, simultaneously fascinated by the technology and clamoring for parental attention.

Quick trigger fingers on the ‘Mute’ and ‘Stop video’ buttons were quickly developed. My video background skills became strong, with Disney characters dominating the scene. We all laugh it off and the work keeps getting done. The importance of great team chemistry has never been clearer to me than over the past five months.

Our programmatic response has focused on over-communication, availability, transparency, and empathy. We immediately began three sets of hour-plus weekly meetings with students, faculty and staff, the first two of which were held at two different times to accommodate both time zone differences (as many individuals returned home) and work schedules of our adjunct faculty members.

Recognizing that graduate-level education encompasses more than classroom instruction, we used the quarantine moment to add two types of co-curricular programming: town halls that rely on our faculty’s subject matter expertise and industry conversations with global experts who suddenly found themselves with time on their schedules and a desire to share their wisdom with aspiring professionals. 

Both touched on a variety of topics but centered around the impact of Covid-19 on the sports industry over the short, medium and long terms. The programmatic axiom has been to over-deliver in as many ways as possible while trying not to burn anyone out. 

We have certainly made our share of mistakes. We did not immediately think about and were slow to react to the disruptive nature of taking live classes from the other side of the world when our Chinese, Japanese, Australian, and Singaporean students returned to their home countries as the pandemic evolved. The students toughed it out without complaint though they should not have been forced to. 

We also over-relied on Zoom as our medium for student communication. While the recordings from all meetings and events were made available to students who were unable to make it to the weekly meetings, we could have distilled the information down to takeaways and emailed them to students who were not able to attend meetings to ensure that the message the students heard was from the program, and not from a student group chat. 

Student anxiety was understandably high throughout the spring due to Covid-19, but it then reached an entirely different level during the nationwide protests against racial injustice fuelled by the murder of George Floyd. Like the city in which we are based, our program is a melting pot of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Black students comprise approximately 15 per cent of our population.

The tenets of over-communication, availability, transparency, and empathy again guided our response. I spoke with every black student and a number of our other students (many on multiple occasions) to check in on their well-being and to solicit their ideas on potential programmatic changes. 

I similarly connected with every Black member of our faculty and staff. A lengthy, heartfelt letter to our community was crafted. There were – and will continue to be – difficult conversations. Town halls were held in which there was anger, tears, apprehension, expressions of ignorance, teaching and learning, among other things. Additions to our existing programming were agreed to and have already begun to be implemented. The conversations will continue.

The next challenge faced by the program was the Trump administration’s short-lived policy that would have forced international students to be enrolled in in-person courses in order to remain eligible for their visas. This misguided, nationalistic approach to higher education – especially in the midst of a global pandemic – led to what can fairly be described as panic among the 30 per cent of our students who would have been impacted by the policy. Their voices were heard in heartbreaking emails and emotional Zoom calls. Our program statement in opposition to the policy and in support of our international students was unequivocal.

Our staff spent considerable time crafting workarounds that likely would have allowed these students to continue their education at Columbia. But the relief was palpable when the administration withdrew the policy immediately before a federal trial court heard the matter. The unpredictable nature of the Trump administration means that this existential threat remains as rumors persist of a future, modified policy. 

All of that brings us to the present. Columbia University left the determination of what graduate level instruction would look like in the fall up to its fifteen individual graduate/professional schools. In turn, our school delegated that decision to its 17 individual programs. After having separate conversations with each faculty member to gauge their comfort level and interest in teaching face-to-face in the classroom and surveying our students, we are planning for a fall semester of both online and hybrid courses. 

The online courses are a known entity at this juncture. The hybrid courses are the unknown. In the hybrid courses, students who so desire will attend classes in person on alternating weeks in order to maintain social distancing in the classroom while others will participate remotely. Teaching assistants will serve as the in-class intermediaries between the students attending remotely and the faculty member teaching the course. In the classrooms that lack fixed cameras, camera people are being hired and trained to do the filming. New class attendance and participation policies have been created, as have plans for asynchronous delivery for students in places that are less friendly in terms of time zone. 

While agility, flexibility and creativity are the guiding principles and I know that our faculty, staff and students are all-in, it is logistically quite complicated. In case anyone was asking, it is execution of the hybrid course plan that is keeping me awake at night. Our fall schedule is packed with online workshops, networking opportunities, career events and culture building activities. 

Perhaps my biggest takeaway has been the importance of both organizational culture and high functionality during high stress situations. We have developed a very strong programmatic culture that is driven primarily by our students. Students constantly hang out with each other in groups both large and small. It’s not uncommon to find a contingent of 30 to 40 students in Central Park on weekends, sunbathing, playing sports, babysitting their peers’ young children and likely doing other things that we don’t necessarily want or need to know about. There are high levels of trust and cooperation. They are excellent teammates. 

That culture has allowed our students to perform remarkably well over the past five months. The overlapping nature of our cohorts provides us with an opportunity to offer a peer mentoring program which pairs returning and incoming students. While organizational culture is a work that is constantly in progress, our structure allows the culture to permeate the program rather than be limited to one cohort. I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to develop culture among our new cohort of students in a remote environment.

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