#5: Newly Minted

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly all higher ed institutions in the U.S. to switch their campus-based courses to remote delivery, and on very short notice. Many, if not most, of the faculty teaching these courses had never taught virtually before and, in some cases, if they’d had a choice they might never have done so.

There’s already been quite a lot of media coverage on the challenges this change poses for instructors and institutions. Later in this season of Wired Ivy, we’ll be talking to a friend and colleague about her experiences making that transition from decades of experience as a face-to-face educator to remote delivery, mid-way through the term, and with very little time to prepare.

But we felt it would also be instructive to hear a variation on that story… by speaking to a newly minted PhD who was offered and accepted a full-time faculty position with an online doctoral program last Fall.  

We want to hear about your experiences as well–are you new to virtual delivery or have you been teaching online for a good while now? What unique challenges has COVID-19 created for you, as an educator, and how are you addressing, or trying to address, those issues?

Share your thoughts and ideas with us by joining our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, or by tweeting us @wiredivy.


DAN:  We’re keeping it in the family today. Our guest is Dr Olivia Marcucci, a first year assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins school of education. She’s an interdisciplinary scholar of educational and racial equity. She teaches in the doctor of education program, which is delivered online. I know all this because Olivia is also my daughter.

KIERAN: We’re so excited to talk with Olivia because she can shed some light on the new faculty experience in online education.  We’re interested in the whole experience of course. But we have an eye this season to our theme, online learning communities, and so we’ll have some specific questions about that too. Welcome Olivia, it’s lovely to have you with us!

OLIVIA: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

DAN: Hello, Dr. Marcucci.

OLIVIA: Hi, Dr. Marcucci.

KIERAN: I think the first place that we should start is by having you tell us a little bit about the program that you’re teaching for right now.

OLIVIA: I started last July, actually got the offer two weeks after I gave birth to my second son.  I… so I started last July. So this is my first school year in the middle of the second semester. The program, the school itself actually is not old, I couldn’t tell you exactly, I don’t want to misspeak, but it’s less than two decades old for sure, then the EDD program is even younger than that…

KIERAN: …and by EDD you mean?

OLIVIA: …the doctorate of education. So EDD is the shorthand.


OLIVIA: I’ve heard the Dean say this kind of one of the, the flagship programs of our school. It was one of the first in the nation to have this type of structure of being completely online. I couldn’t tell you how many students that works with, I should probably know that.

KIERAN:  How many faculty members are there?

OLIVIA: Primarily… I think around 18 that have their primary affiliation with the EDD program. That said, there are sometimes, like, there’s other affiliations of course, like my primary affiliation is with the EDD program, but one of the courses I’m teaching this semester is in a master’s level course in a different program.

KIERAN:  Are you tenure track?

OLIVIA: There is no tenure at the school of ed, um, no matter who you are. I am considered promotions track. So there is a research promotions track, which is an up or out system, although you don’t get tenure even if you get promoted up to associate professor, and then there is a clinical promotions track, which is not an up or out system. There is flexibility in when you go up for promotion. So I am in the clinical promotions track as most faculty are associated with the EDD program.

DAN: So that, the clinical promotions track implies that you’re doing more teaching or that your research is applied to research?

OLIVIA: The former that you are doing more teaching. I don’t know if it’s completely standard but you have a slightly higher teaching and advising load than you do if you were on the research track.

KIERAN:  Okay. So I happen to know you’re not based in Baltimore.

OLIVIA: Yes. I’m based a mile away from you.

KIERAN: Yes, exactly, in St. Louis, Missouri. But I’m curious to know, is that more than norm or more of the outlier within the faculty for this program?

OLIVIA:  Yeah, I was really excited to find out that it is more the norm. When I first took the job I was very unclear about how many faculty worked remotely, um, even though I knew this was a completely online program…

KIERAN:  …it doesn’t always translate.

OLIVIA: …no, not all, and even as I was getting the offer from the Dean, I didn’t actually know if he would be okay if I would work remotely, but then that eventually turned out that, you know, he was happy with it. And within the EDD program definitely more than half are remote if not more than 75%, maybe. 

That said, a lot of the remote faculty live within driving distance of Baltimore, so they will drive in for the faculty meetings.

KIERAN: So they don’t have an office on campus…

OLIVIA: Yeah. Yes, correct. But they can drive, you know, two or two or three hours away. So they’ll drive in. But there are still some folks like me that, you know, live, you know, a flight away so they won’t necessarily come in for every single meeting. There is always a meeting, so I’ve understood and I experienced last semester, every, at least once a semester, they tried to bring in all faculty, regardless, to be having an in person meeting as one of our monthly faculty meetings.

KIERAN:  And it’s likely that won’t happen this semester because…

OLIVIA:  Exactly, I was going to say…

KIERAN:  …we don’t want to completely ignore the context of COVID-19 and everything else that’s happening in the broader world and then the impact that that’s having on higher education as well, so…

OLIVIA:  Absolutely, that, that’s not going to happen.

KIERAN:  We’ll get back to some of the ways that the faculty interact with each other. Tell us about the classes that you’re teaching.

OLIVIA:  Yeah, for sure… so last semester I taught two sections of what’s called disciplinary approaches to education, which is a year one, semester one introduction to how scholars think about education. All of our students are practitioners in some way. They’re not, they don’t necessarily come from the kindergarten through 12 world. Some are in community colleges, some are from the ed-tech world, but they are practitioners in some ways so they have full time jobs and they’re taking this, although they are considered full time students, they’re taking this on top of a full time job.

KIERAN:  We know from our experience teaching online that a sense of connection and engagement is really critical to student success and to faculty satisfaction in that remote context. It keeps online courses from feeling like 21st century correspondence courses. How do you, and your program more broadly, address that aspect of online instruction? 

OLIVIA:  One of the values that I hold as an educator is the importance of building those really strong educator-to-student relationships. And I really do kind of believe that is the crux of what makes learning a positive experience for students and can be really foundational to learning at any level, be it preschool or be it higher ed. As when I was face-to-face instructing undergraduate courses, I found that to be a very positive experience for me. Like, I really enjoyed building up relationships with students, interacting with students.

Oftentimes that would happen kind of informally in, you know, as we came in and set up the classroom, I also in my face-to-face courses instituted, we would like have a check-in circle at the top of every class session about some, whatever silly thing, but I, I talk about pretty sensitive subjects, we talk a lot about race and racism and other, discrimination, so conversation can get very tense and heated at times. So, and I’ve used more than once kind of fallen back on that relationship building piece.

So, kind of as a preface to say, I was nervous going into online teaching because I wasn’t really sure how to build up that community, and because I teach in the EDD program and this is a cohort model there’s a lot of community, kind of built into how the cohorts interact and what they do.

KIERAN:  Say more about that… how are they doing that?

OLIVIA:  Every summer there is an optional residency, like two or three day residency. Most students, I would say, fly to Baltimore and all the faculty come to Baltimore and have a couple of days together where they’re, you know, with their cohort all day, every day, working together, building relationships, and then I’ve also understood from some of my advisees and students that they have ongoing Whats App that they, that the whole cohort uses and other things like that for them to kind of keep building relationships, and there is a real sense of community among the students kind of built into that cohort model.

In terms of how I have tried to enhance my relationships with students and build up that sense of community — and I did this actually with my face-to-face teaching as well —  because I teach such small courses, I try to have a one on one meeting with every student at the beginning of the semester. I have since changed it to an optional one-on-one. So it’s not, like I say, this is a required thing. I encourage it and I encourage them to try to set one up with me. Not everyone takes advantage of it.

I will say I feel more connected to those that I’ve been able to just have a casual 15-minute conversation at the beginning of the semester, so I know what their family life looks like, what their work life looks like, how confident they are as a doctoral student. So I find that strategy very helpful in starting to build up that sense of community.

So that was probably my one tangible strategy that I use. And then of course I repeatedly encouraged students to reach out to have, you know, meetings about assignments with me. I don’t have office hours but I say I have office hours on demand, so essentially I just can meet with them whenever they want. But small things like that, I think they’ve been helpful. Just making sure I’m connecting with students kind of about their lives first and recognizing that my course is not the center of their life. I think students have been pretty positive in responding that they appreciate that kind of support. You know, in announcements or in emails, I’ll always sign off with some something, you know, some, some small recognition of their humanity. It sounds small and silly, but it seems like it’s been impactful so far.

KIERAN: The courses you teach rely heavily on discussion… did you set up discussions to allow students to interact with each other informally, you know, without a prompt or something that’s ungraded, that’s not part of a class assignment.

OLIVIA:  I did not, at all, I would say, probably mostly because I felt like overwhelmed last semester with how much was on my plate. So it felt like I was just trying to be really protective of my time.

KIERAN:  This may be less applicable in your courses, since the students you teach move through the program in a cohort, but in many online courses instructors will ask students to introduce themselves to others in the class by creating their bio in the LMS course site. Is that something you do as well, or do you feel that’s not as necessary in your specific case?

OLIVIA:  All of the courses that I have taught have had a pre-session or, like, in session one, ask them to do some sort of introduction in, in the discussion boards. I have not designed any of these courses, so that wasn’t a choice I made, that something, I think that just most courses are designed to do in our program. It might be short, something just like, you know, where do you live? What do you do? You know, who are you, like those types of small questions, but there was all, there is always an element of introduction in the beginning.

And I think that because… even though it is a cohort model and I think that does help a lot and making a sense of community. The cohorts are not huge, but I think they’re probably between 50 and 60. There is an element of introduction that kind of starts off each semester. But probably less time dedicated to getting to know each other just because a lot of them do know each other already.

DAN:  You made a reference earlier to creating what we would call a psychologically safe space or a socially safe space in the classes. I’m wondering if that is something that is explicitly stated that you put in the courses or is that something that the program itself has stated explicitly that being able to be secure in this social space is important. And then the followup question of that is how, you know, do you see that as critical in developing an online learning community?

OLIVIA: In the EDD program they have program-wide course… discussion expectations. So I don’t know if they explicitly use the language of like safe space but there are program wide expectations for how you engage in the online course.

DAN:  How to behave.

OLIVIA:  Yeah, exactly. And that is restated every single course.

For my master’s level course that I am teaching, I did explicitly set up some ground rules because that course is particularly on race and racism in educational spaces. Kind of reminded people of some ground rules, both for our synchronous and asynchronous discussions.

DAN:  Clearly that’s something that is seen as an important element of developing the online community.

OLIVIA:  Yeah, for sure. Yeah.

DAN:  I actually have a question a little bit related to the students. So I’m wondering if  even though the students are identified in the LMS, the fact that they’re a bit remote and their identity is a little bit detached from the words on the page, if you think issues of gender, issues of race, or issues of age that oftentimes come up in classroom dynamics are different in an online class. Have you experienced anything that gives you evidence one way or the other?

OLIVIA: I mean, I think that’s a great question. I don’t know if I have a good answer to it. I remember you, Dad, talking about, you know, experimenting with genderless, raceless avatar class, so no one knew, which I think is, would be a fascinating idea to move forward with. Because of our cohort model that’s not, like, really possible.

KIERAN:  Since your students are working professionals, do you have any sense of whether or not they get to know each other in ways that are not facilitated formally in the class? Either by meeting in person because they find out they live near one another, because that’s a potential way for them to expand their professional network… It’s also a way for them to help one another with the class, all those kinds of things. I’m just curious to know if, if you know of that happening.

OLIVIA: I know of frequent Whats Apping. I’ve heard my advisees be excited that they have that opportunity to collaborate with their peers, and also sometimes I think he can get a little overwhelming.. so I know that there’s WhatsApp groups. Most of the students come together, you know, every July for our two or three day residency. Um, so they’re able to build that face to face and then a lot of people are in the same classes so they’re able to kind of collaborate like that. And we do have small group work built into a lot of our classes. At the very least peer feedback, which, you know, I think you can debate the merits, peer feedback.

KIERAN:  Mmmhmm… You have TAs, that you have instructional designers that you work with, you have your peers that are also teaching and that’s a distributed team. Are there sort of more formal ways for all of you to interact with each other and feel a sense of community and purpose as part of a, a program or is that something that’s happening more at the behest of certain individuals or…

OLIVIA: I mean it could be that there are things going on that I don’t know yet. Hopkins School of Ed is not giant, but it’s definitely big. So there, I’m sure there are things that are going on that I’m not aware of.  Within my program, like within the EDD program, of course there’s monthly faculty meetings and we do discuss a lot of like curriculum and applied dissertation work.

Something that was a very positive experience for me last semester, which was my first semester teaching, we have a couple of multi-section courses, introductory courses. So all of the faculty who were teaching sections of one of these courses would get together, essentially became every other week. And it might’ve just been like a 20-minute conversation just to check in on, you know, how experiences were. It was a great opportunity for me as a new faculty to ask questions because all of them had, were more experienced faculty. I think that helped my transition to teaching because it was kind of a community for me to go to and ask questions in a more casual way.

DAN:  And by “get together,” you mean have a Zoom meeting — over Zoom video conference?

OLIVIA: Yes. Yes. I think one of the four faculty actually lives in Baltimore.

DAN:  So that was an opportunity to collaborate with your colleagues on a specific project that you’re working on, which was delivering this course, right?

OLIVIA: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

DAN: One of the things I’m wondering is your colleagues in the academy and since you’re an online teacher and you’re working remotely from your campus, you’ve got colleagues from graduate school or other colleagues that you know from conferences. What sort of relationships or community do you build with them? And is is the online space something that is useful for that?

OLIVIA:  Mmmhmm… So I still live in St Louis where I went to graduate school, and two of my close friends from graduate school graduated like a year or two years ahead of me and they both live in St Louis, um, and are still in academia. So I frequently meet face to face with them actually and I think that helps when sometimes working remotely and working in an online program can feel isolating even though I, I do feel connected overall to Hopkins.  I, so I still live in St. Louis, um, and these colleagues live in St Louis… there is something nice about sitting and we have work dates together. I’m sure we’ll sit in the same cafe and work for two hours on our projects. And one of them also works remotely, although not as far as me. She works, um, for a university a couple of hours away. So it’s just nice to have that space.

KIERAN:  Sure, sure… that raises a really interesting point, which is there’s this idea that because it’s an online class that the only way that anybody could interface with each other or with the material is online, right? It’s just a channel. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be offline engagement with whatever, you know, to send somebody out into the field or to meet up with other students that are in the program if you happen to be lucky enough that they are nearby or any of those kinds of things. And that’s all legitimate, right? I mean, it’s not intended to put boundaries over it and say keep your eyes on the screen at all times, right?

OLIVIA:  Yeah, and I will say there’s actually one Hopkins EDD student that lives in St. Louis, and she is new to St. Louis actually, and works at a school that I have an ongoing research relationship with so I have met one on one, I have met with her a couple of times in person and that has been really nice as well. And I’m now on her dissertation committee because I’m familiar with her context where she was doing her research. So that’s been kind of very nice to have those moments in person with her.

KIERAN: So as a new professor in an online graduate program, what’s been your overall impression so far? Not quite a year in, did you expect to be teaching online and part of a distributed team or is this completely different from your, your sort of idea of how your academic career was going to be when you first started your PhD program?

OLIVIA: Completely unexpected, I would say. In graduate school, that’s not an emphasis I ever heard anyone at my institution talking about. It’s not something my, at least my department engages with, there’s no online courses in my graduate department.

I applied to this Hopkins position a little bit on a whim, not knowing if they would be flexible but knowing that I wanted to physically stay in St Louis, so I needed to try to find a job that would let me do that. It was kind of a complete surprise and a little bit intimidating as I was offered the job. I was extremely excited to be, like, at such a well-resourced and well respected university in such a well respected program, but kind of intimidated by the thought that, all right, well now I gotta learn this whole world of online teaching, and online programming and, and in a matter of months. And, of course, the learning curve has been steep, but Hopkins has had a lot of resources to make sure that I’m successful. Obviously they are invested in my success as much as I am. So everyone’s been very both kind and collegial and there’s been a lot of resources for me to fall back on when I have questions.

DAN: Is there anything in this first year that surprised you about teaching online that you just weren’t expecting?

OLIVIA: I would say that you are able to build a sense of community. I mean, and obviously I, I knew that theoretically you can have a very cohesive course or cohesive community in an online manner, obviously. But I think that’s something I was very nervous about because I think I’m very good at relating to people and helping them feel supported, paying attention to things like the classroom geography to make sure that spaces are kind of democratic and encouraging intellectual and social engagement in the issues that I teach about.

So I felt very confident as a face-to-face instructor and very worried that I wouldn’t be able to place value on the same things. And obviously it’s different in an online space but I am pleasantly surprised that I have felt very close and connected to my students. For the most part. And I’m not trying to say it’s been perfect. Some of the courses I’ve taught I felt more successful in building up that community, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I have been able to have that sense of closeness that I really value as an educator.

KIERAN: Has the experience of teaching online changed your perspective on teaching in the classroom?

OLIVIA: I can’t say that it has to be totally honest. Thinking, you know, if I ever were to go into a face-to-face classroom again, I might lean a bit more heavily on the LMS that we’re using. In that way, maybe going back into the face-to-face world, if I ever were to do that, I would be more confident and use that LMS space a little bit more.

KIERAN: So you’ve mentioned that you have continued to have an interaction with the folks at your graduate institution here at in St Louis so I’m curious to know what the reaction has been of your professional network, whether that’s your peers in your graduate program, graduate advisor and your committee members various people that you might’ve interacted with at Hopkins or just the broader community. What’s been their reaction to you taking a position as a full time online instructor?

OLIVIA: I would actually say overall people have been very excited. St Louis is not the biggest town, I mean, it has certainly has universities but as with, as with a lot of kind of midsize cities, there’s not that many in your field open in the year that you are applying for jobs. So there was a kind of a big question of what my career would even look like. And I think broadly in the higher ed world, at least in the corners that I frequent, there is a bit of a crisis narrative, and I’m not saying unjustifiably about the job market once you have your PhD. So the fact that I have a position with an assistant professor title at a very well respected university has been very exciting for me, for my colleagues, for my advisor, certainly for my program that I’m coming from that they’re able to say, you know, one of their graduates is now an assistant professor at Hopkins.

OLIVIA: I would actually say overall people have been very excited. St Louis is not the biggest town, I mean, it has certainly has universities but as with, as with a lot of kind of midsize cities, there’s not that many in your field open in the year that you are applying for jobs. So there was a kind of a big question of what my career would even look like. And I think broadly in the higher ed world, at least in the corners that I frequent, there is a bit of a crisis narrative, and I’m not saying unjustifiably about the job market once you have your PhD. So the fact that I have a position with an assistant professor title at a very well respected university has been very exciting for me, for my colleagues, for my advisor, certainly for my program that I’m coming from that they’re able to say, you know, one of their graduates is now an assistant professor at Hopkins.

KIERAN: Well, higher ed is changing. I mean the job situation in higher ed is changing for a lot of reasons and online is one of them, but a changing demographic of students…

OLIVIA: Yeah, yeah. So I think overall people have been neutral to excited. I don’t, I have not personally received any kind of quips about online learning.

KIERAN: What was your dad’s response.

OLIVIA: I’m following in his footsteps so… I hope proud.

DAN: Yes, well I say go for it.

KIERAN: I’m so sorry for the hard turn I’m about to make from laughter and parental pride but… we can’t ignore the seismic impact that COVID-19 is having on academia right now. Of course, that’s only one aspect of the impact. But… face-to-face faculty have been told to switch to remote delivery on extremely short notice, and faculty who have experience teaching online have been asked to mentor others or at least be an ad hoc resource. And that’s happening all across the country. Olivia, how is your program handling this still-evolving situation?

OLIVIA: I think It’s been very, very difficult. I mean, in some ways, actually, for our specific program it could, in theory, be seamless because we are completely online, um, and always have been, and we have the infrastructure to make sure faculty and students are successful in online learning. So in that way, you know, it felt kind of funny, and I said this explicitly in my most recent announcements to my courses, you know, in some ways we just continue to plod along. But, kind of the big, huge asterisk to that comment is that we are working with practitioner-scholars, many of whom are in K through 12 schools, which obviously have been as impacted, if not more.

KIERAN: Have you been hearing from your students about this, specifically? How are they holding up?

OLIVIA: So I have students who are responsible for getting food to food insecure students, making sure there’s internet access as teachers start to shift to online learning. I have a student who is a community college faculty, who within two days was asked to switch all of her courses to online. I think that’s kind of one of the benefits of focusing on community that I kind of have that knowledge base and personal relationships with my students where they feel comfortable saying, “Hey Olivia, I was asked to change my six to seven community course load and to online learning within 48 hours. Give me an extension.” And I actually, I’ve posted two announcements specifically about COVID-19 to my courses, and in my most recent one I was pretty explicit about how it was impacting my family.

KIERAN: That was going to be my next question. ‘Cause, it’s not just your students, right? You are in that same situation yourself. 

OLIVIA: Yeah, so I was pretty explicit, like I have two young kids, my husband is a physician, so he is working full time, likely more in the coming weeks than he normally would. I got actually a number of emails back from my students just thanking me for that. I also specifically said you have a carte blanche extension for any assignment for the rest of the semester.

Because I’m working with doctoral students and I have a personal relationship with them, I could see maybe some instructors would be concerned that students would take advantage of “there’s no due dates anymore, get it in when you want to get it in.” But ‘cause, you know, I’m working at the doctoral level and I know and trust my students, I had no concern saying that at all.

KIERAN: Right… they have always had a personal motivation in addition to the accountability of class assignment deadlines.t

OLIVIA: Yeah, exactly.

One other comment is that the EDD has an applied dissertation, which means not only  are my students’ work and personal lives impacted, but their dissertation research is embedded in their workplaces, which are closed now. So there has been a lot of talk among faculty and we actually have an upcoming faculty meeting about how to ensure the integrity of the Hopkins EDD dissertation, while navigating this whole new world that we have right now.

DAN: But what I’m hearing is that your relationship with the students and the students’ relationship with the program isn’t purely transactional. You’re going to be working with them in future semesters. They’re committed to the program, they’re committed to each other, you’re committed to them. So this community actually becomes something that carries quite a bit of water through a crisis like this, it sounds like.

OLIVIA: Mmmhmm. Yeah. Yeah, and I think, I mean, I’ve had a couple students say, you know, being able to focus on coursework and kind of tune out the world has been helpful for them, you know, and as they cope with whatever they’re experiencing right now.

DAN: Well, we’re in isolation and we can still work on online courses. So there you go.


KIERAN: Dan, you’ve mentioned this before–that if you’re going to have a sense of connection between online students and the instructor, students and one another, there has to be an intentional effort to build that community… but, really, the same is true for face-to-face courses, too.

Olivia, it was such a pleasure to be able to talk with you today. Thanks so much for taking the time, especially right now when things are so hectic.

DAN: Thanks for joining us and sharing your wisdom today.

OLIVIA: You’re welcome, thanks for having me.


Olivia Marcucci joined the faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Education in 2019 as an assistant professor. She teaches primarily in the online Doctor of Education Program where she teaches educational and racial equity. Her research investigates school discipline and restorative justice in American schools. She holds a PhD in education and a Master of Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis.

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