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Listening to the Sound of Silence in Supporting Instructors' Transitions to Remote Teaching During COVID-19

By Kayon Murray-Johnson, Anna Santucci, Diane J. Goldsmith / February 2021

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In this article, three educators engaged in the work of adult learning, faculty development, and online education reflect on factors that might have contributed to a seeming silence or lack of instructor engagement with a few well-known support systems in our offices during the first four to six weeks of the pandemic. Our reflection began in simple conversation as we had heard of a department chair at another university who was concerned about faculty non-participation in professional learning experiences in support of transitioning courses online. While we successfully transitioned several of our core faculty development programs in progress to an online space and postponed others, we also began to notice that (otherwise popular) requests for one on one or small group consultations for teaching and course design were slow in coming. Because consultations like these were built to help faculty navigate significant changes to their teaching and learning contexts—and because of the “emergency” laden move to distance learning for all, we anticipated so many more might have responded in the short term with a view to getting help with the transition from face-to-face to online teaching. Specifically, during the initial weeks, we pondered how well we were reaching faculty—especially those who we had heard had little experience with distance learning, but may not have been reaching out to us. We soon realized colleagues from our respective fields at other campuses shared several of these kinds of curiosities themselves. This led us to reflecting on our processes for connecting with all faculty during the pandemic with added criticality and intentionality.

As a significant portion of our reflection, we now earmark lessons learned from our attempts to discern specifically what instructor “silences” during those initial four weeks of the pandemic might have meant, and lessons learned relative to how best we might support instructors’ online transitions during COVID-19. We initially defined “silence” simply as fewer instructors than usual voicing their professional development and support needs, particularly in the midst of a pandemic informed remote transition—despite our initial email offerings of support. However, our reflection on potential reasons for perceived silence (through observation, dialogue. and writing) has uncovered important learning takeaways for moving forward. Although we weave in evidence-based material from the literature that supports our key observations, our documented experiences are framed (a) solely within the context of our university campus and (b) solely as a practitioner piece, rather than empirical research.

Interestingly, one year after initially documenting this reflection, we have benefitted from a rise in faculty participation in our programs during the spring and summer periods of 2020, when compared to similar periods in previous years. We believe some of this is directly linked to some lessons we unearthed—or practices that were affirmed—while planning and reflecting on what “silence” could mean for us and for the faculty we serve. As such we hope that our practice reflections invite readers to consider whether, as tragic as it is, the pandemic may also serve to illuminate pre-existing opportunities for improvement within faculty support structures that are designed for professional development around e-learning.

Factor 1: The Right to Resist

Very healthy forms of resistance may stem from our fundamental human drives to preserve our safety and assert our autonomy. Resistance to change, broadly speaking, is often a default posture for many of us. When our “normal” is disrupted, our natural instincts to question and resist kick in. In a COVID-19 climate, this is more than understandable, given multiple emotional, economic, and psychosocial burdens associated with it, personally and professionally. Since remote learning became mandatory, some resistance to that change is to be expected.

Many scholars have outlined diverse factors influencing resistance to online teaching and its related initiatives over time [1, 2, 3]. Beyond faculty perception that teaching online is more difficult and labor-intensive than teaching traditional courses [4], researchers have commonly noted the following challenges: lack of institutional and instructional support through training [5, 6]; the constraints of time—time to learn about the platform, develop the courses, or to facilitate students thoroughly and effectively in an online environment [7]; as well as cost issues. More recently, Mitchell, Palaris, and Clarbourne moved to describe three categories relative to patterns of resistance over time and in their own investigation of resistance: cultural assumptions and values, fear of the unknown, loss and failure, fear of losing interpersonal relationships, concerns about the external impact [8]. In a COVID-19 (emergency remote) climate, alongside fear of the unknown, elements like anxiety, lack of control and difficulty visualizing what courses highly dependent on human interaction might look like virtually have also been amplified. Elements like these in the face of a pandemic that affects both the personal and professional elements of our faculty may foster resistance in complex ways.

Our “Lessons Learned”

When working alongside faculty, we found success in first listening to and acknowledging these feelings and beginning our work by asking: What do faculty really need at this moment? How might we locate resources that specifically support anxiety reduction—particularly for the more challenging virtual transitions (e.g. labs or some performing arts content)? We asked in different ways: formal and informal surveys, feedback, and cross-disciplinary conversations. For example, Vella’s learning needs assessment framework (LRNA) asks these questions [9]:

  • Who are the participants and leaders?
  • Why should they learn or what situation is calling for this learning time?
  • When should this take place?
  • What are the achievement-based objectives?
  • How will this learning take place?

Instructor responses have informed our planning and workshop design efforts to create targeted, rather than “one size fits all” learning spaces. We focused on differentiating instruction in virtual sessions and/or co-facilitating varied types of sessions (e.g. micro-teaching, drop-in sessions, extended workshops) so that:

  • Instructors only focused on honing the skills or competence they needed to move forward
  • Instructors who may have been more prepared for an online transition might play a role as peer leader/trainers for present and future
  • Our potential solutions might be co-created, rather than built from the top down. 

Factor 2: The Trauma of Uncertainty

Many of us are still trying to understand what it means to navigate the waters of acute uncertainty and rapid change during such a time of crisis. Aside from the perception that moving courses online in this climate is cumbersome or next to impossible, it is likely some faculty may not know exactly where to start. Several considerations were critical as we provided support:

  • Are faculty silent because of a lack of knowledge of the most effective support programs and resources available to them?
  • Have we made our support systems visible and accessible to all faculty—full and part-time? 
  • Are our websites and documents easy to read, digestible, in small chunks, or do readers need to wade through very lengthy emails?
  • Does our language reflect full support for faculty on both a personal and professional level throughout (“we do care” or “we understand”).
  • Are we encouraging faculty to apply relatively easy to learn technology that doesn’t add undue burden to their already full plate? As one faculty colleague shared recently, “saying [the technology] is easy to learn is relative, based on who you’re talking to... the statement can heighten anxiety and a tendency to withdraw if one doesn’t feel “techy” enough.”

Our “Lessons Learned”

When faculty are encouraged to facilitate courses remotely, the temptation for some might be to immediately begin selecting or engaging in training around technology tools that they believed would help them duplicate their face-to-face classroom experience. But this may not be the best route for student learning. As Palloff and Pratt have long concluded, technology is the vehicle for the delivery of an online course and should not be the central focus [10]. Likewise, Lehman and Conceicao assert that although online technologies may change rapidly, core pedagogical needs remain the same [11]. We found it more effective to bring small groups of instructors together in informal virtual spaces, with a view to exploring key pedagogical implications of a move to a remote environment, first. Here, faculty specifically probed:

In this new (online) learning environment and based on my learning goals and content area:

  • What will my students’ learning activities and assessments look like?
  • How might I give feedback efficiently and effectively?
  • How might I best communicate and engage my students? 

This approach reduced anxiety/uncertainty, boosted morale, and provided a clear plan for faculty to define the most critical learning outcomes for the transition period.

In fields like adult education, an approach like this reflects a community of practice (CoP) model [12]. “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” [13]. We utilized a CoP approach internally by building an intentional and ongoing collaboration of small teams from our office who brought expertise in faculty development, adult learning, online education, assessment, and instructional design. This team sought to expand on the core questions mentioned above and build on them as foundations.

As an extension of our internal CoP, our approach to creating collaborative spaces for faculty support was also guided by Garrison’s communities of inquiry framework for online learning; our design of the online space sought as best as possible to reflect the framework’s components, namely social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence [14]. We named this initiative “first steps” to helping faculty move online—focusing on pedagogical before technical considerations wherever possible first. But also as a proverbial first step—very much emphasizing social presence, given what was a period of incredible isolation and uncertainty. Social presence as defined by Garrison includes faculty ability to exchange ideas and emotional expressions in a risk-free, collaborative online environment [14]. Our cross-unit team of facilitators in office (several of whom also teach) coupled with participating faculty from multiple disciplines, provided a holistic discourse around course design considerations during first step sessions. 

An undergirding principle of Palloff and Pratt’s work on facilitating effective online learning is that knowledge should be acquired in spaces designed for collaboration and for skill practice [10]. Similarly, Lock contends a fundamental approach to effective online learning spaces for faculty is one of community building in the process of learning a new skill or competence [2]. During “in session” moments of formative feedback, as well post-session evaluations, faculty often shared their appreciation for our efforts to facilitate spaces like these. They reported finding meaningful collaboration and community through our efforts to build multiple, more informal faculty communities online—and finding they left sessions encouraged with meaningful tips, information, and skills. Faculty takeaways included:

  • Sticking to a few technology platforms “to prevent students from getting overwhelmed”
  • Identifying varied student feedback strategies
  • Collaborating/ brainstorming with colleagues [more]
  • Feeling less alone after hearing another faculty member with the same concern
  • Learning new teaching tools/platforms

Factor 3: Access and Equity

A sudden transition to virtual learning magnifies glaring and complex issues around equity and access. Our institution was greatly concerned with student equity and access but had to also consider these issues for faculty. Some faculty might be silent because they do not have software or hardware that might support their institution’s platforms and tools, or not know how to access it within their department. Others may struggle with bandwidth issues, not be able to afford upgrades or timelines for “training” if support personnel are limited, be balancing things with homeschooling and caregiving. It was also useful for us to consider a more obvious issue concerning “access” in a broader sense of the word: Prior to COVID, some faculty may simply not have had the same exposure to digital tools, were dealing with a steeper learning curve, and needed more personalized support.

Our “Lessons Learned”

Several pieces of higher education literature that point to glaring technology-related inequities for minoritized groups during COVID-19 have emerged recently [15,16]. Though a significant portion of these are student-centered, we found them meaningful to consider the issues relative to faculty. In line with these articles, we found four strategies meaningful:

  • Reaching out in a targeted way with specific messages of support and solution, e.g. via chairs, deans, coordinators of part-time programs, part-time peers, faculty liaisons, and a special faculty and staff task force set up for remote transition;
  • Going simple e.g. amplifying the use of an instructor’s cell phone as a helpful teaching and learning tool in transition;
  • Maximizing the use of free software that was intuitive and effective and
  • Seeking and receiving institutional funding and provost level support for technology purchases
  • Considering support personnel needed for remote transitioning as individuals, and determining the extent to which they could be most effective in supporting faculty while avoiding burnout

We contend Harper’s call for attention to COVID era inequities might also apply to faculty and have implications for the way we planned and designed the very “anxiety-free” collaborative and inclusive online spaces we envisioned [17]. As president of the American Association for Educational Research (AERA) during COVID, this scholar recently earmarked equity challenges relatable to faculty including issues of trauma and grief, mental health, and paying close attention to preparing faculty as culturally responsive facilitators, specifically when teaching students from communities of color who may be disproportionately affected on multiple levels [17].

Factor 4: Professional Identity Perceptions

A global pandemic, like COVID-19, can rattle our sense of self and professional identity in unique ways. As academicians, we have been trained for years and become experts in a particular area; in a matter of days, we have now learned that there is so much that we may not have expertise in. A faculty colleague of ours once posed this question: Might some of us as faculty assume that a Ph.D. in content area equates to expertise in teaching praxis? If so, it seemed important to consider that a few silent faculty might have been grappling with the dissonance between their sense of expertise and their need for additional support for an effective transition. With the advent of this COVID-19 crisis, we have been reminded of how crucial it is for us to continue seizing opportunities to design a faculty development space that is cemented in interdisciplinary dialogue, collaboration, exploration of evidence-based strategies, and co-creation of knowledge and expertise—where learning is reciprocal. Without doing so, times of crisis may heighten an unfortunate risk—of support personnel and structures being erroneously perceived as remedial spaces with which faculty should only engage if they are “not as good” as some of their peers.

Our “Lessons Learned”

Our institution’s faculty development office has a very small team but has found success through leveraging solid relationships with faculty and a positive reputation honed by its predecessors.  We are also very fortunate in that we work closely with our assessment and online education offices. For us, COVID-19 and its ensuing emergency transitions is a stark reminder of how critical it is to consider the kinds of relationships faculty have with those who provide professional development support for them. The enhancement of teaching and learning for faculty remains a core mandate for us; educational development, in particular, carries several layers of responsibility to the university in this regard [18]. We each work hard at attempting to maintain positive relationships and constantly ask the question: How can we best honor and leverage our faculty affiliates, liaisons, or departmental representatives to gauge faculty support, help strategize, build capacity for support programming, make the impact more visible and connect with as wide a range of faculty as possible?

Factor 5: “I’m Ok and on My Way!”

It was very likely that many instructors were doing ok and were well on their way to finishing the semester without help. We all succeed in different ways and with varying styles and personalities in play. Introverts by nature, for example, might not need to reach out for support until they have processed initial materials carefully. There may also be faculty who have harnessed some expertise in using technology tools elsewhere and were comfortable applying that; more than 200 faculty at our institution already had experience and professional development in teaching online and in hybrid formats. We also hope our support resources, documents, and related links alone may have been effective in helping many instructors make the transition online. Finally, faculty may have been working things through within their respective programs, departments, and colleges, with other peers with whom they tend to collaborate, and taking advantage of the wonderful wealth of resource sharing that many disciplinary networks have been witnessing.

Our “Lessons Learned”

What might our responsibility be to those who were on their way, and as we moved into fall teaching? We have learned to continue:

  • Creating channels for best practice documentation
  • Catering pro-actively to faculty needs while planning for responsive initiatives
  • Developing targeted partnerships with departments while also fostering interdisciplinary peer leadership/mentorship, and collecting advice from those who have thrived pedagogically online on how best to support others with future remote teaching experiences
  • Increasing our use of communities of practice as a strategy for sustaining the spread of best practices in online teaching, and for reducing silos or a sense of isolation amongst faculty

That technology has opened up new and dynamic possibilities for professional development through group collaboration, knowledge sharing, and information exchange remains undisputed [19]. As virtual teaching needs increase rapidly in a challenging COVID climate, virtual communities of practice will continue to emerge as a significant professional tool toward increasing instructors’ competencies. As has been found in the past, we anticipate it might continue to build educators’ sense of professional identity and reflective practice, while diversifying knowledge and skills [20]. Now more than ever, we are committed to harnessing the element of social presence [11,14] to foster an authentic sense of belonging, a greater sense of community, and sustained participation in such isolating times. Continuing to support faculty in unprecedented times like these has caused our institution to take a look beyond the surface of challenging issues around technology and training often associated with a remote transition. Those of us here who are specifically tasked with supporting faculty professional learning and development in the transition online have used it as a valuable opportunity to reflect on the nuanced lessons learned from those who might seem to remain “silent.” We certainly are still learning. The COVID-19 crisis has been a call to build our capacity as well.


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About the Authors

Kayon Murray-Johnson, Ph.D. is an adult educator and assistant professor in the College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Rhode Island. With more than 17 years of training and experiences combined in facilitating adult learners and in instructional design, Dr. Murray-Johnson has developed scores of workshops, seminars, and one-on-one coaching sessions for instructors in varied post-secondary contexts. Complementing her work in adult learning and education, her current scholarship examines effective faculty approaches to navigating critical dialogues on race and ethnicity—an area of study for which she recently received the Christine A Stanley Diversity and Inclusion Research Award from North America’s Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network.

Anna Santucci, Ph.D. is a faculty development specialist in the Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Rhode Island. She works with faculty promoting active engagement in evidence-based teaching strategies, learner-centered approaches, and critical reflection around the best ways to support and enhance students’ learning. Her work and interdisciplinary collaborations on critically inclusive pedagogies with colleagues within her current and previous institutions, as well as local and national networks across the United States and Europe, is informed by applied theatre, performance theory, language education, and intercultural teaching and learning.

Diane J. Goldsmith, Ph.D., has been the director of the Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Rhode Island since 2012. Her focus has been on supporting faculty in teaching and assessment in the classroom, online, or in a blended format. She has led the efforts to develop URI Online and an Academic Testing Center. Previously, Goldsmith served as the executive director as well as the dean of planning, research, and assessment for the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, as principal investigator for varied educational foundation grants, and as director of transition and women’s programs at Manchester Community College. Her research, service, and scholarship have remained focused on online learning and teaching, LGBTQ+ Issues, and gender and women studies.

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