What Will College Look Like This September?

column | Higher Education

What Will College Look Like This September?

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     May 14, 2021

What Will College Look Like This September?

Let’s not do that again.

Ask any university student, professor or administrator: no one wants to relive the past academic year.

But probe a bit deeper, and exactly what they don’t want to repeat differs in subtle but important ways. And that means the challenge for higher ed administrators will be to put together campus plans for the fall that keep students at the center but also embrace the concerns of their institution’s full community.

One subject that’s being vigorously debated within higher ed communities: Should faculty be invited—or even required—to teach courses both in-person and online in the fall?

Just how faculty and students respond to this question depends heavily on the experiences they had this past year.

At Laredo College in Texas, for example, provost Marisela Rodriguez Tijerina describes how traditional “academic” classes went entirely online even as some of the college’s professional programs continued in-person throughout the depths of the COVID pandemic. Those classes included health-care science and law enforcement programs—all groups that require students to demonstrate proficiencies to earn their credentials.

That led to two different sets of experiences for faculty as well as students: Those teaching the programs that continued had to work with Laredo’s administration to create ways to teach that followed the protocols laid out by the Centers for Disease Control. They instituted temperature checks, questionnaires about exposure and a staffed health and safety operation center for managing any virus incidents and other measures.

“Faculty got creative,” says Rodriguez Tijerina, transforming what were once paper-bound processes into digital ones.

Laredo did see a few cases of COVID over the past year. But the protocols kept the virus at bay. “No classmates got COVID,” Rodriguez Tijerina says. As a result, instructors who have been doing some teaching in person are very comfortable with the idea of fully returning to campus.

By contrast, Laredo educators who stayed home and taught exclusively online are more cautious about returning. To give them a better window into how to work in these new conditions, Laredo’s health-science instructors are opening up their classrooms and inviting their academic colleagues to observe and literally practice managing a classroom with either three- or six-feet of social distancing.

What remains hard to tell, Rodriguez Tijerina adds, is where students will want to be in the fall.

Every institution’s administrators are asking similar questions, weighing what has been learned about online pedagogy with the heartfelt desire to reconnect students and faculty in person.

This past year, Arizona State University pushed the boundaries of how it supports distance learning: Every classroom is getting fitted with the technology that could enable an instructor to livestream a class. Faculty have been sharing stories about what pedagogical practices worked best online. The provost’s office created an extensive resource collection to help faculty. One learning that students, whether in-class or online, seemed to welcome: break lectures into 15 minute chunks, followed by 15 minutes of class dialogue.

Directly focusing on mental health—both student and faculty mental health—may be another long-term positive that emerges from the past year. Similarly the pandemic forced administrators and educators to recognize that students face much tougher struggles than others to simply be students—because they lack tools they need for instruction (from Internet access to transportation) or because the rest of their lives puts extra stress and demands on them.

Administrators expect that some portion of students will opt to continue distance learning, even as classes open up. That increases the burden on educators to connect with and teach students well—no matter where they are.

And administrators themselves may find themselves working in hybrid and face-to-face environments, too. "I think we will have a different perspective collectively on the blend between face-to-face and distance," said Kim Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, in a podcast interview with Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. “There's an opportunity for us to think more holistically about this face-to-face and distance stuff, not just in the classroom setting, but across the rest of the university itself, and in our engagement with others across the community.”

Talking about lessons learned—both positive and negative—is the core of a free online conference next month by Arizona State University called the REMOTE summit. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the advisory committee helping create the event.)

Easy answers? Nope. But through rich conversation, educators, administrators and students are constructing plans for the next academic term.

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