How Woodbury and Its Students are Overcoming the Challenges of COVID-19

An Interview with Dr. Reuben Ellis, Ph.D., Interim Dean of Woodbury University’s College of Liberal Arts


Dr. Reuben Ellis
Dr. Reuben Ellis
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken virtually every realm of society, perhaps none more than higher education.  What’s been the biggest transformation for you, personally and professionally?

Dr. Ellis:  As a global community, we are only beginning to understand the impact of the extraordinary events caused by the pandemic crisis.  As an educational community, we are already vividly experiencing the profoundly far-reaching effects of the shutdown of our beloved campus and our rapid shift to virtual learning and instruction.  As individuals, we experience this moment of uncertainty and alarm in any number of ways—a range of human emotion and response that reflects the full diversity of who we are as persons across the diverse spectrum of society.  Personally—and I know this sounds a little strange—I feel a deep sense of gratitude and humility lately.  My loved ones are safe and well.  I am one of the genuinely privileged ones who have the opportunity to “work from home.”  My colleagues—faculty, staff, students—are pulling together to overcome the challenges that have come our way.  It is a real honor to work with such fine people as we have at Woodbury.  At the same time, my heart goes out to those who are truly suffering now, who have lost loved ones, who are at risk in so many ways.


How are students coping with the transition to online learning?  What specific challenges are they facing?  What opportunities? 

Dr. Ellis:  I have been very impressed with how our students are adapting to online learning.  I know that in our College of Liberal Arts courses, the overwhelming majority of students remain actively engaged in their classes, attending and participating virtually.  Again, the ease with which students adapt to the formats associated with online learning varies a great deal from person to person.  It is just easier for some students than for others, it seems to me, and that is not at all a measure of academic performance or aptitude, in my opinion.  It mostly reflects I think, differences in learning styles and personalities and does not indicate much at all about the overall ability of students.  Being forced out of the customary patterns and environments we know as in-person learning challenges everyone.  In-person and online learning are in a sense like two different languages through which we can communicate comparable content but in different idioms.  Learning a new language is not easy, but it sure feels satisfying when meaning and knowledge light up between us in a different set of words.


What, specifically, does the transition entail for most students? Faculty?

Dr. Ellis:  I think it means that we need to reimagine ourselves as engaged and caring social beings through the much narrower “bandwidth” of technology.  We thought we were pretty good at that already, with our many electronic devices, our social media, our screens, blogs, chats, and searches, but the pandemic crisis has raised the stakes.  The contraction of our physical social spaces, and in some cases the nearly complete physical isolation from others amplifies our need for human connection. A university like Woodbury is a social space while it is an educational space.  We are learning how to keep that alive, how to nurture that in a new way.


How much of a factor is motivation as students migrate to an online environment?

Dr. Ellis:  I have felt inspired as I have listened to students talk about the inner resources they have found to stay committed to their education, even in the midst of these very strange times.  Educators have a certain tendency to be so focused on our own subject areas and disciplines as to see them as the most important things in the world.  That is understandable and speaks to our passion for knowledge.  Students, of course, engage with their studies within the unique contexts of their own lives.  The pandemic has altered those contexts, foregrounded them.  The pandemic has imposed many very basic challenges for students in terms of home and family, livelihood, safety, and wellness.  None of us were prepared for this, and when students continue to value learning, ideas, and the acquisition of professional skills under these circumstances, that is a powerful thing to witness.


What kinds of motivational tools and techniques are most useful in helping students succeed?

Dr. Ellis:  In terms simply of participating in coursework, I am hearing from students that controlling the work environment is the most important part of adapting to online learning.  This can mean getting used to paying attention in class through the somewhat unfamiliar interface of a video conferencing platform.  It can mean establishing regular schedules for schoolwork and free time.  It can mean something as basic as eating and sleeping at regular intervals.  I get a lot more emails from 3 am since the shutdown than I did before.  Our way of life these days tends toward a certain kind of limbo.  Students are finding a way through that uncharted space.


What has been most surprising about this shift – especially in a positive way?

Dr. Ellis:  The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is being observed around the world this week, April 22, a day not so much set aside as set in place to be mindful of our deep relationship with the natural world and to the vitality of that relationship.  I am hearing from students and others as well a sense that while the movement to virtual realities and modes of interactions is a crucial survival tool, a new language to learn, we still live our lives through deep physical and spatial connection—between people and between people and the living Earth.  That lesson is here in the pandemic.  From my office at home, as I look out through live oaks to the lower slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, I am reminded of our fundamental modes of connectedness.  I want that inspiration and insight to be part of what informs Woodbury going forward.


Are certain disciplines more likely to manage the transition well and if so, which ones and why?

Dr. Ellis:  Well, certainly the disciplines that are more hands-on and practicum-based have experienced the greatest challenges in the conversion to online learning.  I am thinking here of the studio and lab courses that are such a large part of the campus culture at Woodbury.  But even in the case of these courses, instructors and students have responded innovatively and creatively.  Instructors in some of our humanities courses that are traditionally seminar and discussion-based have told me that the conversion to online went very smoothly.  Because learning in courses like these are based on Socratic conversation and student-centered participation, I think the challenge is becoming comfortable with remote modes of interaction, humanizing the digital, if you will.  Students and faculty are making it work.


How much are students thinking a bit longer-term – e.g., the effect on overall college record, possible impact on career or professional track, etc.?

Dr. Ellis: In many ways, the pandemic experience tends to focus us on an unfamiliar and elongated present moment, an oddly expansive here and now.  Ram Dass’s notion of “be here now,” from the 1971 book of that title, has a somewhat altered meaning these days as our certainty about the future sometimes seems tentative, qualified.  But our Woodbury students are strategic thinkers, tactical entrepreneurs of their own futures. They have come of age understanding that adaptability and agility are the skill-set of this still-new century. What a laboratory the pandemic has provided them for understanding themselves in that context!


Are you encouraging students to work together remotely (virtual workgroups, in other words), away from structured class sessions?

Dr. Ellis:  I believe that our faculty are exploring every means available in online learning to maintain participatory, collaborative, and student-centered learning.  I have also been very impressed by how student organizations and event planners like the Student Sustainability Council and the Verse Come Verse Serve open mic group, among others, continue to provide extracurricular activities to the Woodbury community.


What technologies are you finding most helpful in easing the transition and shrinking the distance from traditional classroom learning to this new environment?

Dr. Ellis:  Most of our College of Liberal Arts courses are relying on the video conferencing platform RingCentral to create synchronous (real-time) classroom experiences and the course management system Moodle to house the rest of our course content and provide means of asynchronous interaction.  Most students and faculty were already familiar with navigating Moodle, but video conferencing is new or still somewhat unfamiliar to many of us, including me.  Personally speaking, I have been enjoying learning how to use this new tool.


Do you see COVID-19 having a lasting impact on higher education? If so how?

Dr. Ellis:  There are many ways a person can respond to this question.  Woodbury moved from in-person to virtual instruction in about three weeks.  I doubt if there is any kind of precedent for something like that in the university’s 136-year history. This experience melds our tradition and continuity with what I think of as an inspiring new sense of poise and agility.  I would like to see that be part of the legacy of this virus.  Furthermore, we all know that the pandemic has exposed serious divisions in contemporary society—ideological, economic, and social. The shift to online learning has reminded us of the fundamental equity issues and differences that still very inhabit the academy—the “digital divide,” for example, differences in access to digital tools and connectivity, and the entire substrate of difference and inequity in society that gives rise to that.  Someone once said that inequity is like riding a bicycle in the wind.  You don’t notice it so much when you are riding with the wind, but turn into the wind and there it is, very much in your face.  I hope that the pandemic reminds us to never be satisfied or complacent but to continue to try tirelessly to make the word we use so often when talking about higher education—community—meaningful, experienced, and lived for everyone.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dr. Ellis:  Yes, please take care of yourselves, everyone.  Take care of the ones you love.  My hope is that we will all find it in ourselves to expand that circle of affiliation as far as we can, with empathy and goodwill.

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