Final exams are underway, we are preparing our virtual commencement messages (to be followed up with a live event in the fall) and the rush to declare classes pass/fail is over. Believe it or not, we are at the finish line for spring 2020 disrupted. Discussions about fall have begun, but before we get to that, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from this pandemic so far. In reverse order, here are my top three lessons learned.
Lesson 3: We were not prepared for this.
Well, “how could we be,” you say? “This is new for everyone.” Yes, but we could have done better if we were not in the habit of thinking short-term.
We consider emergency scenarios all the time. From devastating storms to campus lockdowns to fast moving illnesses, all of higher education has worked hard to prepare for the worst. And we have been through many of these things at WCSU. Since I arrived at WCSU in 2012, there have been two major October storms that made campus largely uninhabitable for a week. We had to pause. We had a tornado (a micro-burst) that did much the same. There have been water main breaks and heavy snow seasons and so on, and each time, well things mostly just stopped.
That is not preparation–that is closing. Yet, we had the technology available for continuity of instruction all along. In this new normal, where the possibility of closing could recur multiple times in the next year (I’m sorry, but that seems likely given the spikes associated with reopening), we should be truly prepared for moving online.
Taking the opportunity to learn about online instruction must become a regular part of the life of a faculty member. Unless one’s career is fully devoted to research, with no expectation of teaching, this is as important as keeping up with new developments in one’s discipline. We don’t all have to be experts, but every university must establish basic guidelines on course design that are the minimum, and every faculty member should know how to meet that minimum. Every course should be developed to meet those minimum standards as a routine practice.
In other words, when we write a syllabus, develop schedule, and select course materials, we should then put it all in whatever learning management system the university uses, as routinely as we used to make copies to hand out in class. It cannot be acceptable to just stop instruction whenever it snows or rains or any flu rages. Unless the power goes out, we should be ready to teach. That is prepared.
Lesson 2: We have an equity issue.
Prior to COVID-19, we were content to let our neediest students depend on our computer labs and libraries to fully participate in their education. What a ridiculous state of affairs that was. Those same students are the most likely to have work schedules that keep them from being available when those spaces are open. This is just a “duh” moment folks. One cannot fully participate in higher education without a laptop and access to the internet.
When we all became tech crazed, private colleges and universities did things like give all first year students a laptop. It was really a publicity stunt for them, because most of their students can afford to bring their own. We never thought it was within our means to do this in public higher ed. Guess what, this must be a minimum standard for all of our students. It is not just about moving to online in an emergency: it is about full access to one’s education and all students deserve it. It is time to right this wrong and provide those minimum tools to all students.
Lesson 1: Online Education Sucks!
We have known it all along, of course, but this experience confirms it. There is just nothing like the immediacy of face-to-face learning in a shared space. Online learning is ok for graduate programs that serve working adults. It is okay for the odd undergraduate class as an alternative learning experience, and because, well, it gives some schedule flexibility. We push it for returning adult learners because they are usually juggling other things. Do you see the theme here? Online education makes room for education for those who are trying to fit it in with other things. It is not an opportunity to immerse oneself in education that a more traditional approach allows.
I want to be clear, there can be wonderful online learning experiences. Good course design and a passionate instructor can truly engage students and help them grow. In fact, I have taught online and felt fully connected to my students. The kind of organizing required to do good online teaching actually improved my on-ground teaching as well, because if forced me to be a much more careful planner and to really think developmentally. So, online has its place and preparing for online teaching is a good practice.
I also think that the use of hybrid instruction can very much benefit all students. It gives students multiple ways of encountering the course material, which is central principle of universal design. Shy students often shine online, and many students develop skills as independent learners in this environment. There are even good opportunities for collaboration online that are sometimes difficult for students to achieve face-to-face. Using online to enhance an on-ground class can help faculty dispense with a review of readings by quizzing students online before class (among other things), freeing up time for more discussion. When combined with online instruction, class time can be a true opportunity to explore further or apply knowledge. I am a big fan of that.
But without the face-to-face experience we lose something, and that something turns out to be irreplaceable. This forced experiment with a totally online campus has all of us aching to return for good reason. There are a million little things that happen when we are all in the same room. An idea is discovered, a shaky voice becomes braver, the direction of the discussion shifts totally unanticipated ways. There are hallway conversations that praise or condemn what happened in class, which makes the learning seem more real. In the real world there is spontaneity.
Like the connections that Facebook and Instagram and all the other social media provide, we are thrilled to be able maintain the connections with students that online learning provides. It is an excellent continuity of instruction system. And everyone in higher education depends on the electronic access to resources all the time, and that is a true benefit to the digital revolution. But putting the whole thing online … that just isn’t the real deal.
So, let us have no more talk about the efficiencies of online education and the potential cost savings (which are never real). Online education is a supplement, a means of making up for a disrupted schedule, but the classroom is still the best home for learning.