Safety priority with new block schedule, hybrid learning

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July 24, 2020

student sitting in library

COVID-19 has been a little like baseball’s most elusive pitch, the knuckleball.

Not even the pitcher knows if a knuckleball is moving up or down, left or right or straight down the center of the plate. Likewise, when the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University started to plan for the 2020-21 school year with the ongoing pandemic still impacting day-to-day life, there were some variables to consider.

But there was no variable for one element of that plan: bringing students, faculty and staff back to campus safely and reestablishing the community CSB and SJU are known for, according to members of the Scenario Planning Committee composed of representatives from both institutions.

To help safeguard the community, CSB and SJU announced June 8 that they will institute a block schedule with hybrid learning for the 2020-21 academic year.

“Our priorities in addressing the fall (schedule) was to identify a plan that would allow the community to return to campus in the safest way possible,” said Barb May, academic dean at CSB and SJU and a member of the planning committee chaired by CSB/SJU Provost Richard Ice.

“We are still meeting to address other needs as we prepare for fall and will continue to meet into the academic year to allow the institutions to adapt as we learn what COVID-19 is doing and how the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines change,” May added.

Block schedule to meet safety demands

In the block schedule, each semester is divided into four-week blocks. During each block, students will take one four-credit class for a three-hour period four days a week (one- and two-credit classes will be offered on Wednesdays). Faculty will mostly teach one course during each block.

There will be some exceptions. Students may have a one- or two-credit class or take a lab in addition to the four-credit course, and some faculty will be teaching a lab during this same time.

This structure supports the safety components that COVID-19 demands. Students and faculty will move across each campus less frequently, which creates safer situations in dining areas and busing by reducing the number of trips people will make on The Link.

Two CSB/SJU faculty members who know the ins and outs of the block schedule are history Professor Gregory Schroeder and political science Professor Claire Haeg.

Both are members of the Scenario Planning Committee and the four-member Academic Schedule group (with Pam Bacon and May) that drafted the proposal for the block plan with hybrid learning. (The Academic Schedule group was a sub-group of the larger planning committee.)

Schroeder said that faculty will “have to rethink our courses fundamentally” with the new schedule.

“Faculty have generally responded by asking for information to prepare for success in the fall: How many class periods per block? When will 2-credit courses be offered? How will we teach capstones? When can I practice with the new classroom technology? Faculty are eager to redesign their courses, and spaces in faculty development workshops have filled quickly,” Schroeder said.

“This will be a different way of teaching, and for me it really involves thinking through how I cover the same learning goals in an intense and focused way,” said Haeg, a professor of political science at CSB and SJU who also served on the Scenario Planning Committee. “We know that it works best for projects and less well for a survey sort of course.”

Both the CSB and the SJU Student Senates had a Zoom session to further discuss the plan with May and the Academic Schedule team.

“I think that the block schedule gives CSB/SJU an interesting opportunity to continue our education in person,” said Joseph Schwamm, a rising senior who is the incoming president of the SJU Senate. “It allows us the chance to return to campus, while also maximizing our safety in spite of the continuing pandemic.

“Of course our schedules may look a bit different, but we get to be back on campus and interact face-to-face in a classroom setting. That’s a win to me,” said Schwamm, an economics major.

In addition to having classes on-campus, incoming CSB Senate President Sade Larson pointed out three other benefits of the block schedule.

“It allows for a better focus on one subject and class at a time; it eliminates finals week; and if we need to go back online, it eliminates the stress of having to focus on too many subjects,” said Larson, a rising senior majoring in psychology from St. Joseph, Minnesota.

“The block schedule is the most flexible and safest approach we could identify to address the uncertainties of COVID-19,” May said. “Not only are students and faculty moving less frequently across campus, it also means classrooms are used by less courses, and thus less students and faculty in these classrooms. It will also give us time to disinfect classrooms.

“Most importantly, the block schedule will maintain the educational experience you expect at CSB/SJU,” May said. “Research demonstrates that this intensive learning model has no significant difference in meeting student learning outcomes as compared to a traditional semester model. While it will feel different, we will sustain the excellent CSB/SJU education our students deserve.”

Hybrid learning allows flexibility in teaching, learning

Hybrid learning will allow faculty and students the flexibility to attend class virtually, even as others attend class in person. It includes new technology purchased by both schools and allows for innovation in classrooms and maximum flexibility as health and safety guidelines change.

“The new classroom technology will include cameras and microphones to allow the simultaneous participation of students both virtually and in class,” Schroeder said. “We expect to practice social distancing – fewer people present at one time – so the new technology will permit us to conduct classes by rotating groups from day-to-day if necessary. The technology gives us the best chance of maintaining academic focus and community under difficult circumstances. 

“The technology looks really interesting and will be another thing to get used to, but it will be great because it means I can be in the classroom with students, and that’s the most important thing for me,” Haeg said.

“I will have all the technology I need to explain difficult concepts to students who are in the classroom that day and the group who are attending class online, and to have great small and large group discussions so we all get to know each other,” Haeg added.

“Even without COVID-19, we expect this technology and the combination of in-class and virtual participation to be the future of higher education,” Schroeder said.

“This is another adjustment we are making to create flexibility as we adjust to COVID-19 uncertainties and learning needs into the future. For example, this will allow students who might be in quarantine or who are unable to get to campus because they cannot leave their home to participate virtually,” May said.

Administration officials are confident the changes made will create a learning environment that not only sustains but enhances the interactive and in-person academic experiences with safety and flexibility that CSB and SJU are known for.