Chaos and Confusion: Reducing Instructional Uncertainty in Times of Crisis
“There may be times when what is most needed is, not so much a new discovery or a new idea as a difference ‘slant.’”—Owen Barfield
Educators live in a constant state of disrupted comfort. Classrooms, students, curriculum, assessment, and strategies change daily. In 2020, our foundation was shaken to the core as a pandemic and social unrest necessitated quick pivots and contemplative pedagogy. Our institution, the University of Central Florida, is known for our ability to instruct online at scale. The unprecedented growth of our institution and the desire for online and distance learning created a perfect storm of opportunity. We launched an environment of innovation and excellence built on best practices and data. What we could not have anticipated was that even an institution like ours, which has been an industry leader for decades in the distance learning realm, would still see faculty resistance during the quick online pivot in spring 2020.
The rapid shift became a rallying cry for both sides of the distance learning debate. Those still opposed to distance learning yet again championed the “we told you it doesn’t work” argument, while distance learning proponents reinvented the “this is why distance learning is important” mantra. The merits of distance learning, especially its pedagogical implications, have been well documented and discussed. We believe what is missing from that conversation is not a resurgence of faculty development related to technology, tools, and strategy but instead a method to help faculty members cope with what we are referring now to as an all-encompassing instructional uncertainty.
For those familiar with previous literature, instructional uncertainty is not an entirely new concept. In 2004, for instance, Frykholm outlined a theoretical framework to address teacher discomfort. His conceptualization hearkened back to Dewey (1933), who focused on discomfort hat arose from doubt, perplexity, and anguish and resulted in a desperate search for materials that will help resolve the doubt. This reality—that instructors face significant doubt and anguish about the current state of instruction—should be repositioned today in light of the Zoom-boom and the uncertainty that surrounds distance education and synchronous virtual instruction in a COVID-19 world.
Instructional uncertainty, for us, is not just a feeling associated with the teacher, although that is certainly part of the equation. In our estimation, the doubt teachers feel not only pertains to the current context and the modalities our institutions use but also entails a deep sense of a loss of control. This loss, experienced primarily as instructors struggle to get a sense of student presence and engagement, especially during virtual synchronous instruction, can be extremely difficult for faculty to reconcile.
As our initial conversations with faculty indicate, loss of control continues to be a recurring issue. For one, instructors seem to be concerned about their student’s engagement levels in synchronous virtual contexts. Basically, faculty are anxious about students “doing something else” (e.g., checking email or social media) when they should be participating and engaging in class. In addition, when students participate in synchronous virtual contexts without video or audio, instructors are concerned that the students are not actually present at all. This uncertainty is a concern and can persist even when faculty realize students may have legitimate reasons for turning off their cameras and mics.
Uncertainty reduction theory
Given these observations about instructional uncertainty and feelings of less control, it may be time for us to consider why we should reduce instructional uncertainty and, maybe more importantly, how. Historically, uncertainty reduction has been a topic of great interest in communication scholarship, with the uncertainty reduction theory being arguably the most pervasive framework through which this is examined. Berger and Calabrese (1975), who developed the theory, suggest that individuals are a part of a world that is constantly in flux. Because we are subjected to this constant change, we naturally seek to predict and understand what will happen next, both in the world around us and during interactions with other people. Additionally, the theory suggests that we generally become anxious when we cannot predict what is coming next, so we seek to reduce our uncertainty through information seeking. When uncertainty is successfully reduced, it can create positive outcomes. When uncertainty escalates, we may be more inclined to disengage or form negative perceptions.
We believe uncertainty reduction theory confirms what we in higher education leadership know: we must reduce instructional uncertainty to create positive outcomes before the inability to do so results in disengagement or overall negative perceptions of distance education and synchronous virtual instruction.
Practical ideas to correct instructional uncertainty
- Provide high-touch training. In faculty development, we want to replicate ourselves, especially right now. That said, we think it is important to remember that the content we need already exists online. Faculty members’ needs go beyond tech savvy; they need hands-on workshops and experiential learning to truly understand what to do if and when an instructional (technology) crisis comes.
- Focus on engagement strategies. Faculty need a two-pronged approach now more than ever. They need to know how to translate their content for a virtual synchronous environment, but they also need virtual-specific engagement strategies.
- Be transparent. We live in an age of grace (at least in some ways). Your faculty want to know what you know. Providing as much transparency and information as possible will help reduce big-picture instructional uncertainty. When you have information that you can share regarding course modality, timelines, and other pertinent information specifically related to teaching, share it in a timely and appropriate manner.
- Reassure. Just like our students, each faculty member is operating at a different level of comfort and knowledge. It is important to recognize this and provide reassurance. They can accomplish their instructional goals—and sometimes just hearing that from someone with the skills they need can relieve anxiety.
Barfield, O. (1957). Saving the appearances: A study in idolatry. Wesleyan University Press.
Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Research, 1(2), 99–112. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. D. C. Heath.
Frykholm, J. (2004). Teachers’ tolerance for discomfort: Implications for curricular reform in mathematics. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 19(2), 125–149.
Michael G. Strawser, PhD, is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Central Florida. He is also the managing editor of the Journal of Faculty Development.
Melissa Looney is the director of learning, development, and engagement strategies at Bentley University and a PhD student in strategic communication at the University of Central Florida.
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