Preparing for a Fall Without In-Person Classes

If campuses are still off-limits to students come September, this spring's version of remote learning won't suffice. Some colleges are preparing (quietly) to deliver better online learning at scale if needed.

April 1, 2020
 
istock.com/jacoblund

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Let's give a full-throated shout-out to America's colleges and universities, their professors and staff professionals, and their students.

Collectively, they pulled off a remarkable transition this spring, shifting instruction they had previously been delivering predominantly in person for most students to an almost entirely remote experience for pretty much everybody.

It may not have been seamless or pretty, and it certainly wasn't painless -- either for instructors having to deal with the anxiety of new tools or for students worrying about good internet access or where in their homes they could find a quiet place to study. But instruction continued to happen remotely, en masse.

If you'd asked most people months ago whether a higher education enterprise that many write off (often unfairly) as hidebound and change-averse was capable of a wholesale pivot in a matter of days or weeks, they'd have laughed. And yet it happened. Amazing.

So take a bow -- and a deep breath. Because now comes the hard part.

You read that right, I'm afraid. Depending on how things go -- what the arc of COVID-19 is nationally or in certain regions of the country, whether physical distancing rules are still in place, etc. -- college campuses may remain off-limits to students come September. Whether that's a 5 percent likelihood, or 25 percent or 50 percent, I have no idea (I'm no Tony Fauci, and even he can't say for sure). But it's almost certainly not zero.

In such a scenario, the impact on college campuses would be enormous -- operationally, financially and otherwise. Inside Higher Ed's amazing reporters and editors will be exploring those issues as they unfold, as they have throughout this crisis.

But this cozy corner of our publication is dedicated to questions about teaching and learning, so I'm consumed by questions about how things will unfold if in-person instruction is either prohibited or inadvisable come fall.

Any decisions about the fall are multiple weeks, if not months, away, and many people aren't ready to discuss the topic, at least publicly. But some foresighted campus officials are (often quietly) exploring that possibility, and I'd like to share some early assertions (or at least hypotheses) based on those discussions.

  • The kind of emergency remote learning that most campuses delivered on the fly during this spring's crisis may have been sufficient for the moment. But it was not nearly as good as the instruction most colleges normally deliver in person or that's available to students in many high-quality online programs.
  • What was sufficient to get through the crisis of the spring is unlikely to be seen as adequate in the fall, given that colleges will have had more time to prepare. The expectations will be higher, and colleges that don't deliver will risk angering students and parents and, importantly, potentially failing their most-vulnerable students.
  • Delivering higher-quality online or virtual instruction by the fall will take a huge amount of planning and work -- and it should start soon, if not now.

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It's early April now, so decisions about the fall might seem a long way off. Provosts and other academic administrators are focused right now on getting their students and instructors through the spring while doing their best to protect the quality of the educational experience and the emotional well-being of everyone involved.

But what's ahead won't wait: while some colleges haven't announced their plans for summer programs, many institutions have announced that their summer programs will be virtual (or at least those for the first half of the summer, as campus leaders try to wait as long as possible before pulling the plug on later programs).

Interviews with officials at a range of institutions find them at various stages of thinking about and planning for a longer-term shift to virtual instruction. (Several agreed to talk only on background, to avoid getting out in front of their fellow administrators.)

Evangeline J. Tsibris Cummings, associate provost and director of UF Online at the University of Florida, said she remains impressed by the "tremendous campus solidarity" that emerged from hundreds of professors (some of whom had never engaged with online learning) getting courses into virtual settings within two weeks, many with the help of the university's strong online learning structure and support team.

Many of those instructors, she said in an interview, are thinking, "Let's just get through this, and then get back to normal," but it's not clear when (or even if) that might happen. The university has already announced that all early-summer courses will be delivered virtually, and that's where its officials are focusing now: deciding which courses are most crucial to remake for the summer term, for instance, so that students scheduled to graduate by summer or fall can stay on track.

Because UF Online educates more than 4,000 undergraduates fully online, it's ahead of many peers in having a set of high-quality online courses already built, including all of its general education offerings. But Florida has about 30,000 residential undergraduates and delivered about 3,000 face-to-face courses in the spring (at least until COVID-19 came around), and the prospect of delivering an academic program on that kind of scale in "fundamentally new ways" is a big lift even for a place with a head start, Cummings acknowledged.

And it's not just academics, she said, noting the many student services -- financial aid, mental health counseling, advising and the like -- that must be made "remote-enabled" if students are to succeed. That's especially true of the most vulnerable students.

Vickie S. Cook, executive director for online, professional and engaged learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says her institution has "started planning" for the possibility that "we're going to be forced into a virtual fall."

Cook raves about her university's emergency pivot to remote instruction this spring -- but she acknowledges that "teaching remotely is really different from teaching online."

Will the expectation be higher in the fall than it was this spring? "I don't see how it couldn't be," Cook said.

"By fall, students and parents have the right to expect a high-quality education, in whatever modality it's delivered," she said. "If it's online, it shouldn't 'less than,' especially when there's time to address it."

Not that it will be easy, Cook acknowledges. Faculty buy-in for virtual instruction will remain an impediment, although she and others say they believe many professors will have emerged from this spring with a better appreciation of how challenging technology-enabled instruction can be.

Cook said she is less worried about equipping Illinois Springfield's instructors with whatever technology they might use to deliver courses in the fall than preparing them to teach effectively. "Online learning is a type of teaching that requires very specific pedagogical skills," she said. "The pedagogy is more important than the technology."

And like others interviewed for this article, Cook worries that institutions forced into online instruction this fall will shortchange a virtual transition for the noncurricular elements that can make or break student success, especially for the most vulnerable students: tutoring, writing centers, career counseling and good library resources.

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Flower Darby, director of teaching for student success at Northern Arizona University, agrees that the instruction that most colleges are delivering this spring wasn't particularly strong -- and she says most professors know it, too. "They themselves are frustrated with the experience," she said. "They know that this is not very good instruction for their students, and they want that for their students."

Colleges may not end up teaching virtually this fall, Darby said. But one way or the other, they need to prepare for a future "where we need at the drop of a hat to switch modalities," be it from another pandemic (or one that recurs) or something else. (Vincent del Casino Jr., provost at San Jose State University, noted in an interview that California institutions have experienced all sorts of "interruptions" in educational delivery, from forest fires to campus closures for campus shootings.)

As Darby helps Northern Arizona develop its strategy for educational continuity for the fall and beyond, she is focused on professional development for instructors and procedures for ensuring quality in online courses. (Technology is the least of it, she said: "Good online courses do not have to be high-tech. You can be fully asynchronous and fully low-tech and still have quality learning.")

On the former front, "we're developing more robust professional learning opportunities," including hourly facilitated online workshops that take place for an entire week. The facilitators initially will be instructional designers, but Darby soon wants faculty members to replace them, because "faculty talk to faculty -- that's who they trust."

Just as important as having more available professional development is "getting the faculty to actually come and buy in to the value and necessity of engaging in that learning," she said. "We will need a series of carrots and possibly sticks to make that happen."

Regarding course quality, Darby also plans a system by which every course being taught online for the first time is monitored for a semester by an online teaching coach. "There has to be a feedback loop."

***

Those interviewed for this article (on the record and off) expressed wide-ranging levels of confidence about how well positioned their institutions might be to deliver high-quality virtual instruction for all of their students if the need arises.

Their confidence varied, in part, based on how much online education their college or university already offers, which often equates to how much instructional design and technical support they have.

But another source for this article -- one of those who spoke only on background -- said the biggest impediment to a wholesale (even if short-term) pivot to fully online learning wasn't either technological or pedagogical.

Successful online programs, "those that truly put taking care of learners first," this administrator said, require substantial consistency in course design (so students can comfortably navigate through the curriculum) and deeply integrated support for learners, blending student and academic services as seamlessly as possible.

"Those two things -- more constraints on the curriculum and more integration of roles -- cut across the grain for traditional institutions," which are "distributed by design" and significantly value faculty autonomy.

The shift to remote learning that most colleges have taken this spring, this person continued, "works well for the learners who normally do well at our institutions," but not nearly so well for the "already disadvantaged" students who have "more chaotic lives" and need more support than can be delivered by a professor via Zoom lectures and email. "It will drive inequalities."

A full-blown shift to online learning, done right, the source said, "is not pedagogically difficult or technologically difficult -- the challenge is cultural."

Achieving that by fall, without months of preparation and planning, could be a tall task.

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