By Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz (Centreity), Ellen Keohane (College of the Holy Cross), Jim Burke & R. Todd Bruce (John Carroll University)

Note: This article is dedicated to Rev. Gerald Sabo, S.J., former professor at John Carroll University, and among its first faculty to learn new techniques for teaching online during the pandemic. Fr. Sabo passed away on October 24, 2020.

Rev. Gerald Sabo, S.J., former professor at John Carroll University (photo by Pierce Srail of John Carroll University)

Rev. Gerald Sabo, S.J., former professor at John Carroll University (photo by Pierce Srail of John Carroll University)

Five centuries ago, a cannonball became the vehicle of transformation for “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown.” (Autobiography, 1) The man who became St. Ignatius of Loyola received a “shock” to his life that reverberates to this day.

According to Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz, CEO of Centreity, an online learning solutions company, and past Executive Director of JesuitNET Global, “Ignatius didn’t just survive the shock. He became stronger: he was a living example of anti-fragility and architected a formula to thrive in uncertain times hidden within the Spiritual Exercises: the basis of the Ignatian Pedagogical Framework.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, stressors, love, adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resist shocks and stay the same; the antifragile get better…

…Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them—and do them well.

The connections between anti-fragility and the life of St. Ignatius were made apparent last spring, as the coronavirus spread across the globe, forcing colleges and universities (including Jesuit institutions in the United States) to adapt to a new reality. The pandemic hit John Carroll University at a particularly unfortunate time. The University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, once a strong faculty-led force for professional development on campus, had been on hiatus for a number of years. Information Technology Services (ITS) had been trying to fill some of the gaps, but some faculty were uncertain about taking pedagogical advice from IT professionals. Inconsistent attendance at training sessions and the failure of a sizable population of faculty to productively use Canvas (John Carroll’s learning management system) left the University vulnerable to challenges associated with online learning.

When the coronavirus hit Cleveland, things moved quickly. Todd Bruce, Assistant Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment at John Carroll, explained, “We moved from ‘perhaps we should have a day when everyone has class online to practice how it works’ to ‘classes are cancelled for the rest of the week and everything is online thereafter’ in the course of hours. The next few days saw a massive mobilization of ITS.”

Chief Information Officer Jim Burke said, “Suddenly, workshops that were poorly attended in the past were full-to-overflowing with faculty and staff who needed new skills to succeed in this remote environment. Dozens of workshops brought hundreds of faculty and staff up to speed in just a few short days.”

Click on the image to take a look inside a Zoom Classroom at John Carroll University (video by Mike McDonald of John Carroll University)

Click on the image to take a look inside a Zoom Classroom at John Carroll University (video by Mike McDonald of John Carroll University)

In addition to training the campus at large, ITS quickly organized workshops to teach the remaining IT staff what they needed to know to support the campus through the transition to an all-virtual learning format. Burke said, “The word agile comes to mind but doesn’t begin to describe the response of the IT staff as programmers and server administrators worked side by side with the IT Service Desk staff to support the deluge of help calls that would come in. And come they did. Even the five-fold increase in IT staff at the Service Desk was challenged to keep up with the equivalent increase in service requests.”

Not surprisingly, John Carroll had to institute a hiring freeze, but at the Provost’s direction, Bruce and Burke leveraged an established relationship between ITS and Centreity to fill this void. In April, Bonfini-Hotlosz and her team served as an Instructional Design Help Desk and pushed out tips and suggestions to faculty.

When the spring semester ended, Centreity created an Ignatian Pedagogy Design Workshop: a series of four-week bootcamps that focused on building HyFlex (hybrid-flexible model) courses using a template based on the Quality Matters International Standard for Online Learning. Combined with skill-based courses to complement the training offered by ITS and the University’s Center for Digital Media, faculty and staff engaged in over 50,000 professional development hours completed through the summer.

In preparing for the fall semester, the HyFlex course design model was chosen for its flexible delivery options. Building courses for the worst-case scenario would enable a robust experience that could flex or adapt when necessary, for both faculty and students. Faculty member Malia McAndrews created a HyFlex learning group, and webinars were offered by the Provost’s office, faculty, ITS and Centreity to prepare faculty to return to teaching for the fall semester.

Bruce noted, “The result of this effort was truly a transformed experience for John Carroll students when we began the fall semester. While this was a very challenging transition, it was an amazing display of the cura personalis that is the hallmark of Jesuit education.”

Bonfini-Hotlosz said, “Ignatian Pedagogy has anti-fragility built into its framework. There are five elements in the model: Context, Experience, Reflection, Action and Evaluation. When the first element (context) changes, the experience adjusts to the new context. Evaluation not only completes the learning cycle, it assesses the context for the next stage of learning.”

A Jesuit prepares to give an online lecture at John Caroll university (photo by Mike McDonald of John Carroll University)

A Jesuit prepares to give an online lecture at John Caroll university (photo by Mike McDonald of John Carroll University)

After learning about the success at John Carroll, the College of the Holy Cross reached out to Centreity to pilot their approach with fifty faculty members in July. Five cohorts of faculty built their courses using the Ignatian Pedagogical Design Framework. At the same time, Holy Cross was transitioning from Moodle as its Learning Management System (LMS) to Canvas. Centreity assisted IT in providing skills-based Canvas sessions to accompany a learning workshop.

“At Holy Cross, our vision was not only to get through this crisis by serving our students as best we could in a remote learning mode, but to emerge from this stronger,” explained Ellen Keohane, Chief Information Officer at Holy Cross. “We have no plans to continue in a wholly online mode [after the pandemic], but neither do we expect to return to the same face-to-face classroom experience as before. We will be changed and our challenge is to continue to use educational and instructional technologies in ways that enhance our preeminent face-to-face, in-classroom experience.”

In reflecting on the relationship between anti-fragility and Jesuit education, Bonfini-Hotlosz said, “It isn’t about building courses online — it is about building a faculty body capable of pivoting and thriving in times of uncertainty. With the pandemic, we have been able to measure the fragility of our organizations. If institutions simply replace face-to-face learning with synchronous learning without re-imagining the educational experience, then, when faced with the next crisis, you start from scratch. If you build a curriculum that is anti-fragile, during the next crisis, you will quickly pivot and become better for it.”

Bonfini-Hotlosz concluded, “After working with Jesuit institutions over the past two decades, it is clear that the formula for anti-fragility exists within the Ignatian Pedagogical Framework. We will emerge from this crisis with a faculty capable of delivering education across a spectrum of communication channels – stronger and prepared for whatever comes next.”

Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz is the Chief Executive Officer of Centreity; Ellen Keohane is the Chief Information Officer at the College of the Holy Cross; Jim Burke is the Chief Information Officer at John Carroll University; and Dr. R. Todd Bruce is the Assistant Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment at John Carroll University.