COVID-19 has brought about myriad challenges in higher education. Regrettably, some institutions have even capsized. However, others have proven resilient, sailing into the winds of the difficult storms of the year.
One significant challenge concerns the business of teaching, with a majority of institutions adapting their approaches to classroom instruction in one way or another. Yet while these realities have caused inconveniences, they have also produced opportunities.
At the beginning of the pandemic, many articles appeared about the best way to teach amid this environment. By this point, time has tested these different ideas. What worked, and what failed? In this article, I want to review what has worked for my institution, as well as provide some insight into our decision-making process.
Difficulties with “Going Online”
Our story is likely similar to yours. Through the first few months of 2020, we heard with increasing regularity about COVID-19. Peoples’ responses ranged from utter disregard to mass hysteria. It seemed that everyone had an opinion (and still does). But whatever peoples’ personal beliefs regarding the phenomenon of COVID-19, and the reactions of cultural and governmental leaders to it, the fact remains that governmental and accrediting bodies, as well as parents, expressed concern and/or applied pressure to the leaders of educational institutions last spring. What were we to do?
Some institutions adapted their classroom policies but continued to meet for in-person classes. However, numerous teachers have testified to the great difficulty of teaching to a classroom of physically distanced students with masks that cover their facial expressions. Additionally, space restraints made physical meetings impossible for some institutions.
Consequently, institutions (ours included) responded by “going online.” However, that prospect also presented numerous difficulties for us. For one, we developed our online programs with the best practices of andragogy in mind rather than those of traditional pedagogy, since adult learners and traditional undergraduates differ so much in terms of development, life experience, and so forth. In fact, we have resisted the temptation of permitting traditional undergraduates to take online courses, because we believe that the classroom setting is best for them.
Undoubtedly, we appreciate that the online modality has allowed us to serve a constituency that we could otherwise not teach. Still, it is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and brick-and-mortar classrooms. Students—especially 18–22 year-olds—invariably miss something of significance by not meeting together and in person. Whatever the case, the circumstances of last spring preempted us from continuing to meet physically. How could we preserve the benefits of traditional, in-person classes while also demonstrating flexibility to the difficult conditions?
Suggestions for “Going Online”
With respect to our shifting the entire course schedule online, we adopted three practices:
(1) Preserve synchronous classes:
Rather than shifting to the typical, online methodology in which students meet asynchronously, we required that instructors hold synchronous class meetings with their students through technologies such as Google Meet and Zoom. Some literature regarding online education recommends against this path and, instead, advocates for an approach that is based around asynchronous discussion boards.
Undoubtedly, adult learners in different time zones with careers and families find this latter strategy convenient. However, as I will consider below, our experience with synchronous class meetings exceeded our expectations. We have found that traditional undergraduates crave the kind of structure, interaction, and formation that a classroom-type setting (even if digital) affords.
(2) Require attendance and engagement:
We also required that students (a) attend class (b) with their cameras enabled, which helps to ensure their engagement. While some educational institutions dispensed with attendance requirements like they did with overhead projectors, we never relegated them to the dustbins of educational practice. For the most part, our students do not complain about our attendance policies anyway; also, they substantially increase the likelihood of students’ success, which is especially important for an open-enrollment institution like ours. And as it turns out, students who consistently attend class generally perform better than those who do not, even if attendance is coerced and the students do not like it. Who knew?
(3) Remain flexible for contingencies:
Whatever an institution’s policies, contingencies will always arise. Even two decades into the twenty-first century, some students lack dependable computers and reliable Internet access. Consequently, rather than letting our policies sink our students who were treading difficult waters, we addressed the special cases as they arose and accommodated them in the best manner we could. After all, policies are made for students, not students for policies.
While readers may not find anything novel in these suggestions, they comprise the basic blueprint we followed. And although you may find much literature that recommends against the approach we pursued, our anecdotal experience offered surprising success. In fact, so successful was our strategy that we replicated it for our subsequent summer (2020) and winter (2020–21) terms, which have seen the highest enrollment we have had in these terms during my tenure (since 2013). Consider these representative student comments from our summer term: “I really enjoyed this course. I did not even mind waking up at 8am.” Again: “Even with it being online, the discussions were still fun!”
The practices we adopted for “going online” informed even how we approached the fall semester with in-person classes. In the event that a student contracted COVID-19, or was exposed to it, we required him or her to quarantine or self-isolate for a designated period of time. However, they still attended class by logging onto the Zoom account associated with that class, which they observed through iPads that we had set up in our classrooms to accommodate these kinds of situations.
In the event that an instructor contracted COVID-19, or was exposed to it, then the class followed the practices that we had established for the spring semester and replicated during our summer term, which I outlined above. We tracked peoples’ potential exposure by requiring all institutional personnel and students to fill out a daily app that, among other things, assessed their symptoms. Again, we addressed challenges as they arose, but—to our mind—the gain justified the cost.
While this approach has worked for us—and I commend it to you—I recognize that each institution has its unique sub-culture and that it will have to attend to its institution-specific considerations. However, we must find ways to carry forward the best that our institutional traditions have bequeathed to us, while also handling the twists and turns of life in a manner that is prudent, creative, and forward-looking. Perhaps it is something akin to what I have sketched above.
In leadership we do our best to cultivate virtues that allow us to lead our institutions well in times of calm and crisis. We do our best to plan strategically for emergencies, but we cannot anticipate everything. Most were likely not planning for a pandemic. Yet here we are. Come what may, my hope is that this article will generate good thinking that will serve our institutions now and for years to come.