Episode 108 - Resilience Amidst Adversity: Supporting Teaching and Learning During the Covid Pandemic

President Scott L Wyatt and host Steve Meredith sit down with members of Southern Utah University’s faculty and staff to discuss how the University has adapted teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sylvia Bradshaw, Matt McKenzie, Johnny MacLean, Lynn Vartan, and Matt Weeg all share their perspective on the last year.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio, a different studio today, by President Wyatt. Scott, it's good to see you again.

Scott Wyatt: It's good to see you, Steve, this is fun.

Meredith: Yeah, we are actually on the third floor of the geosciences building here at SUU in the newly created and beautiful production space for the Online Teaching and Learning group, and we're very pleased to be here. And speaking of that, we have some folks from OTL and other campus auxiliary areas that work under the provost's office here to join us today to talk about how the university has changed and hopefully thrived under what is otherwise the dark cloud that we've all been concerned about, the COVID pandemic, and I'm very much looking forward to this conversation. President, do you want to introduce the guests?

Wyatt: Yeah, let's get started. So, this is…we always kind of feel like we need to pause for just a second and say that this pandemic has not treated everyone equally, that this has been a challenge. Some have thrived, some have had significant difficulties based on family or work or whatever else there might be. So, it's all a different experience for everyone, but as we pause at the…hopefully nearing the end of this pandemic, it's a great opportunity for us to sit back and say, "What has gone well? What are the kind of things that we learned or experience that maybe we wouldn't have done otherwise? And in what ways is Southern Utah University and all of us here in a better place?" So, I think that's kind of where we're at, isn't it? And we've got a group here, so maybe the best thing is, is first just to run around and let's start, Johnny, just introduce yourself real briefly. Tell us what your role is…

Johnny MacLean: Thank you so much for having me, President Wyatt and Steve. This is such an honor. So, my name is Johnny MacLean and I'm the Associate Provost. I work in the provost's office and really, I support several offices on campus that are faculty facing and that help our faculty create wonderful learning environments for our students. And so, really I just try to support them and the wonderful work that they are doing, and I'm so lucky and honored to be able to introduce you all to them. So, with that, I'll just turn the time over to them and let them introduce themselves.

Wyatt: And Johnny, you're also a professor of geology.

MacLean: That's right. So, I've been here about ten and a half years and spent my first seven in the Department of Physical Sciences teaching geology and I've been in the administration for the last few years.

Wyatt: Ok, Matt.

Matt Weeg: Well, President Wyatt, Steve, thank you for having us. My name is Matt Weeg, I am the director of the Center of Excellence for Teaching and Learning, which is the faculty development center on campus. Our job is to help faculty become even better teachers. I'm also an associate professor in the biology department.

Lynn Vartan: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for having us. It is so cool to talk about the things that have gone right. We talk so much about the things that have gone wrong, but it's so awesome to talk about the things that have gone right. I am Lynn Vartan and I teach in the music department, and then my role here today is as Director of…Curator of A.P.E.X. events, which is our university lecture series.

Wyatt: Matt? Second Matt. [Laughter]

Matt McKenzie: There's a lot of Matt's on campus I've noticed. My name is Matt McKenzie, I'm the Director of Online Teaching and Learning, or OTL, here at SUU. My department's job is to not only oversee Canvas, which is our learning management system, and help troubleshoot issues when faculty run into issues or students run into issues, but also to help faculty build and design online courses that will engage and enrich the learning environment for students when they take an online course. So, a lot of times we'll spend time talking with faculty about, "What do you do in our face-to-face course? And how can we translate that into an online environment so that there's an equal experience no matter what modality the student is taking the course in?"

Wyatt: Sylvia?

Sylvia Bradshaw: Well, it is sure a pleasure to be here. You may not know this, but I have a good commute ahead of me each day, and President, you and Steve are on that commute with me quite often as I listen to these podcasts, so thank you. Thank you for keeping me awake.

Meredith: I apologize for that. [All laugh]

Bradshaw: It is an absolute pleasure. I am the Director of the Sponsor Programs, Agreements, Research and Contracts Office, otherwise known as SPARC here. And our responsibility is to facilitate and oversee all of the external dollars that come into the institution.

Wyatt: OK, we've got quite a team.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: There's a lot of people that are supporting the teaching that happens. Lynn, why don't you talk to us a little bit about the lecture series, and how it has changed for the better this year?

Vartan: Yeah, happy to. Actually, so many good things have happened with A.P.E.X. this year. So, when we first knew that we were going to be doing this combination of remote and, "How is it going to work?" And all of these kinds of things, the first thing was figure out the tech so that we could actually have events where the guests were remote. So, this was just one thing to get it up and running.

Wyatt: Well, and I said "lecture series," and that was the wrong way to say it, because it's broader than lectures.

Vartan: That's exactly right, and one of our remote guests this year was a violinist who played on camera virtually from Los Angeles and played for us and talked about it. So, yeah, it's really more than just lectures; it's events, it's performances, it's groups, it's everything. So, once we got the season set and then we got the tech set, it became a game of working with the guests to figure out who was comfortable being here and who couldn't travel and wasn't comfortable traveling. And so, we had to have this option for remote guests. Then we started thinking, "What opportunities does this make for our students to interact with people they maybe couldn't have ever interacted with?" And I think the best example of that is this spring, we had Sonia Aboagye who is from Ghana, and she was Zooming in from Ghana and we just had a packed house and we had 275 people also watching online, and our students got breakout class visits with her, she spent time at our Center for Diversity and Inclusion with our students there, and this is a guest who we would have never been able to get, because getting someone from Ghana here would have just not been in our logistical structure. So, it was a great opportunity to get people here, if they weren't even in person, to get people there that we might not have been able to get here before. And then streaming the events made it so that many, many, many more people could watch and really interact as audience members.

Wyatt: In a lot of ways, this has been a great method to increase diversity, hasn't it?

Vartan: Yeah, yeah.

Wyatt: People that otherwise couldn't have come for any number of circumstances.

Vartan: Right. That's absolutely right. People who maybe weren't comfortable coming to large events even before COVID, students who maybe had more difficulty traveling or difficulty with commuting, this kind of thing, it just really expanded our audience on so many levels and also expanded our reach in terms of the kinds of guests we can bring. So, that was really great.

Wyatt: I think we've all discovered that there are a lot of people that will listen to something that otherwise wouldn't even come because of the time or…

Vartan: Exactly.

Wyatt: You know, "I'm in the middle of dinner, I don't feel dressed up enough to go so I'm just going to sit here in my sweats and…"

Vartan: Yeah, we've even noticed that with faculty and administration and staff, because now they're working, but they may have that opportunity to tune in for half an hour. So, when we get that Zoom report, I'm starting to see many, many people on campus who maybe couldn't get away from their desk for a full hour. They tune in for a little bit, see what's going on…and so, it's been really great that way.

Wyatt: Alumni that live in other states…

Vartan: Absolutely, yeah.

Wyatt: Can engage with us every week with the events that you're producing.

Vartan: That's exactly right, yeah.

Wyatt: Well, that's fun. We found, even for just campus forums where we're just answering questions and talking about issues, that more people log in. And more people feel comfortable asking questions.

Vartan: Right.

Wyatt: It's a little less intimidating when you're sitting in your office surrounded by all of the comforts. Matthew…

Weeg: Yes, sir.

Wyatt: Matthew Weeg, that is.

Weeg: That's true.

Wyatt: Not to be confused with Matt McKenzie.

Meredith: We'll call them Matt W. and Matt M.

Wyatt: Tell us about some experiences you've had this year.

Weeg: So, obviously this has been a challenging year for teaching and learning. I think when the pandemic first started, faculty were shocked. The idea of not being able to be in the classroom with their students, it was a complete unknown. And what that meant for teaching and learning was really unclear. When you're trying to learn a new teaching technique, there's a literature out there about different techniques and strategies that you can turn to. But we had nothing. We were basically inventing the wheel, because nobody had ever tried to do anything like this before. So, once faculty got through the initial shock of, "OK, everything that I know about teaching and learning is changing," people just rolled up their sleeves and figured out how to make the best of the situation. And I think some of the things that have really come to the forefront is the importance of building community in the classroom, and the importance of recognizing the complexities of our students and the complexities of their lives and that we're really working with human beings; that we're not teaching content, we're teaching humans and we need to keep that in mind. And I've just been heartened by all of the stories of people who have really gone the extra mile to build community in these distance classrooms, whether it is using back channel communication methods so that students can have a chat going during class asking each other questions, making comments on the discussion…which, back to the idea of inclusion, this opens up the opportunity for students who would really not do that speaking up in class, they're more than happy to type out their answers or their comments through one of those communication channels.

Meredith: In fact, we might discourage them as faculty from holding a conversation in the middle of class, right?

Weeg: Right.

Meredith: You know what I mean? You would be disruptive to simply have a conversation with the person next to you, possibly, but it's not disruptive in this particular environment.

Weeg: Exactly, and it brings more voices into the conversation which is great. I think a lot of faculty are being much more flexible with students. There aren't so many hard deadlines and due dates, which poses some challenges as well, but students have been very, very appreciative of having that added flexibility and that added understanding that there is a lot going on right now, and sometimes an assignment falls down on the bottom of the priority list for a student. And if they just have a little bit more time, then they can complete the assignment and they can demonstrate the learning that is really what they're here for.

Wyatt: There's kind of a randomness of the due dates, and everybody's life commitments don't fit into those due dates perfectly well.

Weeg: Exactly. The best laid plans, right?

Wyatt: Well, the preparation started prior to the announcement that we were starting to move to online, and I think you were part of that, as was…both Matts significantly engaged. So, there was a lot of training going on in anticipation.

Weeg: Yes, absolutely. And we really leaned on the faculty for their expertise as well. We didn't pretend to have all of the answers, and so we really looked to faculty and put together a lot of discussion panels where faculty could share what they've been trying, what they were planning on doing, and throughout the year, I've continued to hear faculty refer back to those panels saying, "Hey, back in August I heard this idea and I was so intrigued by it that I gave it a try and I put my twist on it." So, I think it's really the entire campus community has come together to provide a support network.

Wyatt: Give us one thing that you think is going to stay that we wouldn't have done had it not been for the pandemic?

Weeg: I think that that greater understanding of the importance of community and including everybody in the classroom and being a little bit more compassionate. I think this pandemic has made everybody realize the importance of that. When you're completely separated from your friends and your family, you take that for granted when you see people that you care about every day. And when you can no longer do that, the importance of being with other people is just placed at the forefront. And teaching and learning is all about community, and so I think that that's going to be much more at the forefront of everybody's mind. It's a good reminder that we need to keep that front and center with everything that we do.

Wyatt: WE had an A.P.E.X. speaker a while ago that talked about the only thing that…we can't really learn and retain anything unless it's emotional. And emotion is defined broader than most of what we think emotion is, and I think you're speaking to that. Students can learn more, retain it longer in a sense of community and relevance and all of those kinds of things.

Weeg: Absolutely. The parts of the brain that process emotion are wired together with the parts of the brain that process cognition and learning and memory. So, those two aspects of the brain influence each other, and so when there's not an emotional tie or when there are negative emotions going on, that severely compromises learning.

Wyatt: Johnny, give us your take on the year.

MacLean: Oh, it's been a fascinating year and I just have seen so many examples of people rising to challenges, and it's been inspiring. It's been very difficult, but it's been inspiring and I think we can take a lot into the coming year. I actually have a specific example of a group of colleagues that have created something new that I believe they'll take into the future that I don't think they ever would have thought to create had it not been for COVID and it comes from my home discipline in the geosciences. So, full disclosure, I didn't personally work on this project, so this was accomplished by my colleagues in the geology program. But in geology, we have been teaching a five week field course every summer for decades, and this program brings people from all over the country, sometimes all over the world, to southern Utah, which is I think the best place in the world to learn about geology. And we take them into the field, some of the weeks we go camping in and near our national parks, and it's just a wonderful experience. But one of the challenges for our field camp and for field campus around the country for a long time has been an inclusion problem. There's been an ongoing conversation about how to include geology majors who might not have the ability to go on long hikes in the outdoors under sometimes somewhat extreme conditions. And COVID actually forced our hand. So, our geology colleagues have created now a remote version of our field camp that still allows students to learn about our wonderful national parks and their surroundings and the fantastic geologic history that's exposed here in Utah, but it also allows students to attend remotely, and that has allowed for a broader access. And I think that ties into some of the points that Dr. Vartan was making about the A.P.E.X. series, and it also ties into some of our changes in our mission to allow and encourage more access for students.

Wyatt: As you were describing this, I was thinking, "Yeah, there are people in wheelchairs or there are people that have other disabilities or have life commitments that allow them to participate virtually that participate 100%. A lot of people can't give up their day job for that long of a period of time.

MacLean: That's exactly right. And in geology now, there are still jobs that require field work, but so many more jobs require the use of technology. And so, the more we can utilize technology in our geologic educational experiences, really, the better we're preparing our students for the job market. So, there have been several kinds of wins with this, despite the challenges and kind of hardships through it all.

Wyatt: We've all been in classes when someone says, "Oh, and don't forget so-and-so who is watching this online." And it's been interesting for me to see how many students are looking out for…students in the class are looking out for students who are not in the class. Whatever the name is, "So-and-so can't see the chalkboard from that angle, so can you scoot over or write over here or something?" It's been fun to see how they've taken care of each other.

MacLean: That speaks to that community that Dr. Weeg was talking about, and I do believe we're looking out for each other more now and it's heartening and it's inspiring to see.

Wyatt: Thanks. Sylvia, tell us about your experience.

Bradshaw: Wow. Well, I can tell you, in this type of environment, when something this global happens, this is when the government gets to work and this is when our job absolutely explodes. Immediately, the government starts looking legislatively what kind of funds to open up to help respond to this pandemic. And as you know, there was the CARES Act that was signed march 13, 2020 which absolutely opened up the door for SUU to receive some funds to help respond to what was going on. And that first allotment was at the tune of 5.6 million dollars, which was split halfway between the students to help the students make it through this time, and then the other half was to the institution.

Wyatt: Which means basically scholarship money for students, essentially.

Bradshaw: Essentially, yes. It gives more money for them to be able to use towards their education. They're not worrying about how to cover any extra costs that came about from the pandemic, exactly. And then there was another allotment in December through the CRRSAA Act, the Coronavirus Response [and Relief] Supplemental [Appropriations] Act, which gave us another large chunk very similar. And there is a third one coming down the pipe, the ARPA, American Rescue Plan Act. So far, we've been awarded about 17.3 million dollars with an expected about 20 million more coming. Now, before we all get excited about those dollar amounts, they come with a whole lot of regulations. A whole lot of requirements that we've got to make sure that we are spending those dollars in a way that is approved by the federal government and in the best way possible. So, it absolutely…we're working some very long, long hours, but it was some exciting hours. To be part of the solution felt really good. It was really fun to be able to help with that side of things.

Wyatt: Yeah. And as we see more funding come, it is a tremendous support for everything we're doing, but it is also, as you kind of alluded to, doubles your job because that means there's more grants, there's more requirements that have to be satisfied. So, it's interesting how when the pandemic comes, it has typically involved a lot more work for everybody. There aren't many people at the end of this that say, "Well, I really had a relaxing year."

Bradshaw: Ooh, but I tell you, the most exciting piece of it that came from this, we are now absolutely paperless. You can imagine a grants office and the amount of paper that was involved…we had already started making that transition and when the pandemic came along, that was beautiful. We have no more stacks of paper anywhere, it's lovely.

Wyatt: Yeah, that's right. We're all trying to get rid of paper so that we're not touching the same pieces.

Bradshaw: Exactly. [Laughs]

MacLean: We've also found some ways in several offices to improve efficiency through remote working options. Sylvia, do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Bradshaw: You bet, I'd love to. Our office is one of those offices that really made that switch very easily. Like I said, we had already started that transition a little bit before the pandemic hit of some remote options and we do have a couple of people in our office that already work remotely. And so, we had already started that paperless transition. Everything we do is through online systems, and we were able to do that very efficiently from the home when this whole pandemic came about. But the efficiency side of it, what we realized, "Wow, these Zoom meetings with faculty, we can jump on, we can display our screen, we can show them the budget that we're working on, show them where we need to make adjustments and we're looking at the same thing all at once." And we have become so much more efficient just from that capability. Yes, we do get Zoomed out, so to say, but that sharing screen option, as simple as that is, has made a huge efficiency for us in our office.

Wyatt: I don't think we're going to go away from Zoom, do you?

Bradshaw: Nope, I don't think we're going anywhere away from Zoom.

Wyatt: I had a meeting this morning in Ogden, but I was able to do it from my office here. So, I had an hour meeting that otherwise would have taken…what would that be? About ten hours to drive up, have the meeting, and drive back. So, yes. Pretty cool.

Bradshaw: It opens the doors for collaborations with the other institutions as well. That's something else we've seen throughout this pandemic. I was on a meeting just this morning with colleagues through the nation with other researchers that have some really exciting ideas that they want to collaborate with Southern Utah University, and this environment lends to those opportunities opening.

Wyatt: We could have always done this.

Bradshaw: Yes.

Wyatt: But it just wasn't within the paradigm until we had to do it. And we'll leave some of the Zoom meetings behind.

Bradshaw: Some…

Wyatt: But we'll keep…that's fun. I've told this story before, Steve, but my first meeting with the Board of Higher Education…don't anybody repeat this [All laugh]…

Meredith: So, are we not going to publish this podcast then? [All laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah, let's just keep it to ourselves.

Meredith: OK, just checking in.

Wyatt: My first meeting with the Board of Higher Education last March when this whole thing started, instead of driving four hours, getting a hotel, and then spending the whole next day and then driving home, instead of doing all that, I put on my dress shirt and my Levi's,, grabbed my laptop, went out into the garage—because I didn't have anything to present, I just had to be there in case a question was asked—and went into the garage and spent the whole day cleaning the garage and listening to the meeting. So, one task required a lot of attention, another task that required no attention. And I think that's happening a lot, that we're getting…I think I've done two jobs this year. Just because instead of driving for nine hours and having a one hour meeting, I'm working for nine hours.

Meredith: And it hasn't all been garage.

Wyatt: And it hasn't all been garage.

Meredith: Most of the time you're working on university stuff, not garage.

Wyatt: That's right.

Meredith: I just want to be clear, since we are going to publish this podcast. [All laugh] I'm backing you up here.

Wyatt: It's really been something though. I saw you lean forward, John.

MacLean: I was just going to say that the meeting that required the attention was the Board of Higher Ed and not the garage. Just making that clear, too. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Thanks for backing me up again.

Meredith: That's right. We're just trying to dig you out of this hole a little bit, that's all. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah. Matt, tell us about your life.

McKenzie: Well, you were talking about not having a hard year; that was us. We got to do what we loved. I think about all of the collaboration that took place from the moment we realized what was going to happen. Collaborating with Matt to set up the Webinars and determine faculty that could help us share different ideas. The collaboration with Lynn with the A.P.E.X and getting that streamed out to people, which led to then streaming the various conferences, the UMCA Conference, the Best Friends Conference, the Utah Rural Summit. And it started really getting gears turned for us as far as what could we do differently? By the time we got to the Rural Summit, we had multiple cameras going for different angles instead of just having the one stationary camera in back, our multi-media team had thought it through and said, "OK, well what if we set it up here and we'll need to do this to be able to switch between angle and make it seem seamless. And the SPARC office, trying to get our hands on some of those funds that Sylvia was talking about…but the collaboration that took place was definitely a rush. Not that we weren't busy, we had lots to do whether it was helping get the cameras installed in all of the classrooms and then training faculty on it, but it really was eye opening to see all the problem solving that took place. I have to thank you first, I guess, because I told Johnny once, "I don't know how OTL would have handled this when I first got here at SUU, because it was four of us." And we actually had added several positions to OTL prior to the pandemic before this even became a thing, and when the pandemic hit, I still had several employees that were on probation, so to speak, so we were a new staff, but being new brought a lot of different ideas of, "How could we do things?" And so, we had the staff in place to be able to help support wherever faculty requested. And I'm sure we missed some things here and there, but just doing all of that…it also was awesome because we got to create and teach a course for the professional development community group on online and hybrid teaching foundations, and little things that a lot of times faculty and students get frustrated with and say, "Why do we have another discussion?" Well, it goes back to that whole sense of building a community, and in an online environment, you don't have that face-to-face all the time. And so, what happens is you start looking at those discussions and thinking, "How do I build community out of these discussions?" And as we taught that class, several participants stated—and these were higher ed teachers, these were K-12 teachers—said, "You know, it makes sense now. Now that I understand the purpose behind discussions, it makes sense to me why I want to include them." And so, just all of that was exciting for us. It also gave us an opportunity to evaluate things as part of trying to get our hands on Sylvia's money, we're looking at our tools and saying, "OK, this is a nice tool, but this took would make videos more engaging for students," or, "This tool would make this a more aesthetically pleasing course." And so, it's really caused us to start asking that wonderful question of, "What if? What if the reigns were pulled off and we could just go? What would we want? What's that ideal look like?" And it's just…I just keep going back to it, it's been exciting. Yeah, there were lots of nights that we were up, and I know my team put in additional hours beyond their "40 hours a week," but I think everyone was doing that. But it is, it's been a good time for us.

MacLean: President, I think all of these offices and probably all of the offices across campus have really learned a lesson in being nimble with the changing priorities as we've tried to address the challenges that…kind of the ever-changing challenges that have been confronting us. And I believe we're going to take that nimbleness forward with us as we continue to be a leader in innovation across the USHE system and across the Intermountain West. So, I'm hopeful for that and I say that as I totally acknowledge how many times I called Matt McKenzie up especially to say, "Hey, we have a new top priority." [All laugh]

McKenzie: I was going to say, "My staff doesn't really like you." [All laugh] Joking, joking.

Wyatt: That's kind of like my garage story. You can try to wheel that back.

Meredith: Yeah, that's right.

McKenzie: We do have a running joke that anytime you walk into my office or I'm like, "Hey, Johnny needs me to come over," when I come back, the first question is, "What's our new top priority?" So, just so you know, that's where my staff is at this point.

MacLean: There were days when the top priority changed two or three times. But that's just the nature of this pandemic and this kind of new world we're in. and one take on it is it's exciting, but the way I think of it is this is just how we're going to operate, and we need those skills to be able to change our approach, change the way we look at things, and move in new directions. And I think COVID has forced our hand to develop those skills and we're going to keep moving forward.

Meredith: I like to think of it as kind of the MacGyverisation of our lives. "What would you do if you had to teach your classes with just a Band-Aid and a paperclip?" And that was all you could do, you couldn't use anything of the things that you were used to using. And people have adapted. Some have happily, quickly adapted, others have said, "I wish this wasn't the way it was," but all of us have had to make great adaptations to what we've been doing. And I'm with Matt, I of course don't wish to make light of any of the suffering that's been brought on by the pandemic, but it has been wonderful. Like with you, Sylvia, our world is full of acronyms, and I never have to worry about SPARC, because I always think it reminds me of Sylvia who is always so happy, and it doesn't matter that the world is falling around us, I know that Sylvia is going to be happy to talk to and that reminds me of SPARC. Which, by the way, I always think it starts with, "Society for the Prevention of…" Sponsored Programs never…but I always remember "SPARC" because of you. And there are colleagues all over campus, including everyone in this room, that have said, "Yes, there are some dark moments here." And we don't wish to make light of those dark moments at all, but you sort of have to strap a smile on and move forward, or else you're…the ship is scuttled. You're done.

Wyatt: Everyone comes out of something like this better or worse.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: And it's our choice which one we come out. Aside from some uncontrollables that are significant.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Matt, Dr. Weeg Matt, as a biologist, this had to have been an interesting year for you.

Weeg: Oh, absolutely. For many, many reasons.

Wyatt: Give us one or two.

Weeg: I think one of the interesting things to me as a biologist is to see the differences in opinion about the severity of the situation, the concerns that have arisen over the vaccine, and to be blunt, some of the anti-science sentiment that has come out over the last year. It's really been interesting to watch, sad to watch as a biologist. But I think it also speaks to one of the roles of higher education, which is to, obviously, educate people, but beyond just the course content but to incorporate current events into what we're teaching and how we're working with students. And not to just focus on the students that are coming to our institution, but to have conversations with the broader community about these issues and to try to clear up some of the misconceptions that are out there. I think that is becoming more clear that that's a role that higher education needs to fill. Not just educating the paying students, but educating the communities that we're a part of as well.

Wyatt: And helping us figure out how to sort out information and determine what is the more reliable information.

Weeg: Exactly. In this day of social media, we're bombarded with information and it's a huge task to be able to filter through it all and figure out, "OK, what is reliable? What is based on evidence? And what is somebody's opinion that has no evidence to support it?" It's a huge challenge.

Wyatt: And how do we sort through differing opinions that are both evidence based? Which one is the better evidence or the better processes?

Weeg: Well, that's the nature of science, right? Science is all about building evidence to make an argument. And sometimes there are examples where different pieces of evidence point in different directions. Oftentimes then, it comes down to, "What does the preponderance of evidence suggest?" And not all evidence is created equally. When you're doing a scientific experience, some results are considered to be more rigorous than others just based on how many replicates you have, how the experimental design was set up, and so scientists take all of that into account as well when there may be a couple of hypotheses that have support for them. But it's always about continuing to gather new evidence, because you could be coming to a conclusion with a lot of evidence behind it and all of a sudden, you do that one crucial experiment that completely turns things sideways. So, it's definitely a challenge, but at the end of the day if you're just relying on something that one of your friends posted and taking that as fact, oftentimes you're going to have a bad time.

Wyatt: We've been talking about how the educational experience has improved over this year, but education itself, Johnny, that's what you and your team are all responsible for is the product that we're delivering, which is education.

MacLean: That's exactly right. And you started this particular line of questioning with biology and the importance and the connection of biology to the pandemic, but what I'm thinking about right now and what I hope that we don't neglect to take into the future, I hope we do take forward this opportunity and this recognition that the biggest challenges facing this world and our country and our communities are more complex than any one discipline can inform. And COVID is a fantastic example of that, where the biological portion of COVID is mandatory, you have to talk about the biology of a pandemic, but there's also the political nature, the sociological nature, the economic implications, the rhetorical implications. I mean, there's so much to talk about when we talk about these major challenges. And to help people sort through the complexity of these issues, to unpack the biological components and the other disciplines, that's the importance of higher ed so that we can take all of the information, as much as we can gather, and then make decisions about our lives and about our communities. That's the point, and I hope we can bring that forward.

Wyatt: We experiment with and talk about education courses that revolve around a theme; this has been a year of a theme, hasn't it? And there isn't a single discipline on campus that isn't connected in one way or another to this pandemic. So, it's kind of been the ultimate field trip. So, as we're coming to the close of this, Matt, let's circle back to this just a little bit and maybe you can talk a little bit about how your office has expanded. And I'm also really interested in how the online experience, developing the online experience, is supporting the face-to-face experience as we move into a far more technological world. How many people do you have in your office now?

McKenzie: So, we have…

Wyatt: You had four.

McKenzie: Yeah, we had four, and if you include me, we have 13.

Wyatt: Yeah.

MacLean: Plus students.

Wyatt: Plus students.

McKenzie: Yeah, not including student workers. So, the significant investment into online education prior to the pandemic actually put us in a really good position when this did happen.

Wyatt: And both for face-to-face and online.

McKenzie: Yeah, we hope anyone that's using Canvas or comes to us and just says, "I want to know more about this…" I think one of the questions asked earlier was, "What's going to carry on past this pandemic?" One thing that will definitely continue on past this pandemic when I think about online education are tools like Flipgrid and things that remove just the text-based of online education. Flipgrid is a discussion tool, but Sylvia posts a video with her response to the question, and I post a video response directly to her video. And so, now it's not just this written text I have to read through, it's this video back-and-forth. And I'm teaching an ed tech course right now, and students have started just recording their own videos and posting those as the discussions, because they've become more comfortable with this idea that, "I can be on camera, I can verbalize my response just as well as I can type it." And so, I think things like that, tools like that, and engagement like that is going to continue on past this pandemic in online education well beyond the first few years afterwards.

Wyatt: Well, written communication skills and verbal communication skills are both enormously important.

McKenzie: They are.

Wyatt: And we've tended, in the past, to lean more on written than verbal. So, that helps us catch up with something. I wish that we could say that we were super smart and saw this coming when we moved your office from four full-time to 13 full-time people all in the space of a couple of months leading into the pandemic, but I think, Steve, we're just going to have to go with fortunate.

Meredith: Yeah. Well, it's good to be lucky. [Laughter] Sometimes you're good, sometimes you're lucky, and we'll take both.

Wyatt: We'll take both.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guests in-studio Lynn Vartan, Matt Weeg, Matt McKenzie, Sylvia Bradshaw and Johnny MacLean, and these are all leaders from across campus who have been sharing with us their thoughts about where the university has thrived during the COVID pandemic. We are grateful to them for spending a little time with us, and grateful to you, our listeners. We'll be back again with another podcast soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.