Victoria Farnsworth – University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Vicki Farnsworth has only been in her current position since January 2020, but already she’s dealt with a global pandemic and a devastating Easter tornado that wreaked havoc on faculty, staff and students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
There were power outages, some lasting more than two weeks, and many students were without access to the internet.
“It created an all-hands-on-deck situation for the university community,” says Farnsworth, the school’s vice chancellor and CIO. “The community came together and offered ways for students to watch lessons, take exams and continue learning.”
Battling Mother Nature and a deadly virus was not in the job description when Farnsworth left her post as executive director for enterprise solutions at Purdue University. But she leaned on her 24 years of experience at the school in West Lafayette, Indiana—also her alma mater—to tackle myriad challenges she’s faced in her short time at UTC.
“I have pivoted my leadership goals to find the right way to invest in UTC for pandemic and beyond, and it has been a really interesting challenge,” Farnsworth says.
The availability of education
UTC reopened to students in August and it’s a different learning environment for everyone involved.
As of October, only about three percent of UTC classes are entirely face-to-face (like clinicals and labs). Farnsworth is carefully watching enrollment, which she notes is up for the fall semester. Additionally, she says understanding student engagement and student interest is crucial, especially with the new ways education is being delivered.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school is moving some classes into large auditoriums to allow for social distancing. In terms of technology, supply chain issues have been constant, Farnsworth says, as many schools scramble for badly needed tech. But the UTC IT team, in partnership with the university’s Walker Center for Teaching and Learning, has still managed to install more advanced web cameras, microphones and Kaltura lecture-capture software.
In another change, the UTC team quickly pivoted the school from traditional learning methods to new hybrid models. One such model, called synchronous high flex, means half the students come into the classroom on one day and the other half comes in on another day with alternating students connecting remotely.
“Equipment in the classroom has been a huge thing, because faculty have to be able to talk to and connect with the students in the classroom but also those at home,” Farnsworth says. “The faculty has done a great job coming up to speed with brand-new software and equipment that got installed at the end of September.”
Re-imagining learning spaces
Farnsworth points out that from an engagement perspective, this new method of learning has been challenging for both faculty and students. The school conducted a survey and found that most students would prefer either fully in-person learning or fully remote—not the hybrid model the school currently employs.
But having enough flexibility and collaboration from everyone involved—professors, students, administration and the community—has made the early part of the fall semester as successful as Farnsworth could’ve hoped.
Farnsworth says the IT department’s role has been more about communication with faculty and students than just supplying equipment and managing the technology.
Initially, faculty started asking more detailed questions about their classroom equipment. In the past, there was never a need for a master list showing which classroom had which technology. But now, faculty members want to know exactly what they’ll have at their disposal so they can prepare accordingly.
“We’re connecting with the faculty in ways we’ve never connected before,” Farnsworth says. “We’re having team members sit and watch faculty teach to learn about what other things they might need in their classrooms or what challenges they are facing.”
She adds that faculty are having to decide almost on a session-by-session basis how they want to deliver their lessons. Does a professor want to use a whiteboard and Zoom or a document camera and Kaltura? Because of the extra time an instructor needs to prepare for the start of each class, some universities have added time between classes, something UTC hasn’t done—yet.
“Everyone is also worrying about masks, cleaning and all the other protocols associated with COVID-19,” Farnsworth says. “We’re doing all we can to make it easier on everyone involved.”
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