Are Colleges Ready for a Different Kind of Teaching This Fall?
This spring the University of South Florida, a sprawling campus on the outskirts of Tampa, undertook the seemingly impossible. It shifted 5,000 courses online in a matter of days, emptied residence halls of more than 6,000 undergraduates, and did its best to ensure that its students, about 40 percent of whom are lower-income, had the laptops and Wi-Fi access they needed to continue learning from home. The system’s president, Steven C. Currall, has said his goal is to reopen in the fall, bringing students back to campus, but with “some adjustments.”
What those adjustments are remains the multibillion-dollar question, not just for South Florida but for all of higher education. As colleges plan for the next academic year, so much is uncertain, including the continuing threat of Covid-19, the health of campus budgets, and the desire of students to enroll. But institutions across the country know two things for sure: They don’t want to remain fully online come late August, yet they must prepare for that possibility. Can they create a fall semester that will persuade millions of students to return to college, convinced they’re getting their money’s worth?
Higher education has been granted good will these past couple of months by students and their families. But as with an unhappy marriage, everyone involved agrees that the patched-together system of awkward Zoom classes, glitchy technology, and uncertain expectations, among both students and professors, needs to end.
Skeptical students and their parents don’t seem willing to pay full price for an experience similar to what they lived through this semester. If virtual learning is mandatory this fall, one survey found, two-thirds of students will expect discounts on tuition and fees. Some may avoid enrolling altogether.
For now, college and university leaders are sounding an optimistic note, with a heavy dose of caveats, about the coming academic year. Currall and other leaders, including Mitch Daniels of Purdue University and Christina H. Paxson of Brown University, have said that vigilant testing of students, faculty, and staff for the coronavirus, social distancing, and a blend of in-person and remote learning could get them through the fall. Rice University just announced that it would run a shorter semester, with all classes available both in person and online.
Even that degree of optimistic planning will require some serious rethinking of the undergraduate educational experience, with online learning playing a prominent role. The virus has already prompted some colleges to reimagine the traditional calendar. Now they’re considering what the classroom will look like, too. Several options for course delivery are emerging, in three broad categories:
- In person. Few people envision a return to normal this fall. Instead of lecture halls packed with students, imagine those spaces with fewer students sitting several seats apart or staggered in rows. But colleges would probably have to limit enrollments or scale back course offerings in order to make this model work — unless they ask some students to participate remotely through online versions of the classes.
- Online. A high-quality online course is different from the makeshift experience students received this spring. But the process of developing a series of well-designed courses, in which professors are trained in effective online-teaching practices, can take months. And no college has attempted to execute that option on the scale needed now.
- Blended. This version offers the most flexibility, because it involves a combination of in-person and online work, allowing some students to attend in person and others to study remotely. One version, known as HyFlex, has been getting some buzz lately for its flexibility in allowing students to decide, week by week, which mode they’d prefer. While this could help achieve social-distancing goals and accommodate students who can’t be on campus for health or logistical reasons, it’s also complicated to pull off.
“The easiest for faculty members is all face to face or all online,” says Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has looked at hybrid models as part of her work to help faculty members prepare to teach online this summer. “Anything in between is hard to plan for.”
Colleges will have to think strategically about how to train their professors to teach more effectively online, redesign course offerings, and decide which experiences absolutely must be done in person and which can be handled remotely.
Such a shift won’t be easy. While just about every professor now has some experience with learning-management systems and videoconferencing or other tech tools, relatively few have been trained in effective teaching practices or online-course design. And higher education’s siloed approach to online instruction, professional development, and course design can make widespread improvements difficult.
Even as the world becomes increasingly digital, says Angela Gunder, vice president for learning at the Online Learning Consortium, which provides professional development to faculty members and others involved in designing online coursework, most colleges still treat online education as a thing separate from their core mission. “One group thinks about online. Everybody else thinks about face to face, and never the two shall meet,” she says. “We really need to move away from that.”
Many colleges see their summer sessions as a test run for the fall, in terms of how quickly they can scale up faculty training and offer high-quality online courses.
South Florida has to prepare to teach about 3,200 students online this summer instead of offering a combination of online and in-person courses, as it normally does. The first session begins in mid-May. A second session, which starts in June, will welcome nearly half of the more than 5,500 freshmen expected to enroll in the fall.
South Florida typically offers about 1,400 courses across its three campuses each summer. To help faculty members convert to an online format the more than 500 courses in that cohort that would usually be offered in person, the university created a scaled-down version of its regular online-course-development program.
All told, the university will invest more than $5 million to move summer courses online and make the fall semester more adaptable to online teaching, says Ralph Wilcox, provost and executive vice president. South Florida already has a significant online footprint: One-third of students’ credit hours this year were already being delivered online, which made the initial pivot this spring a lot easier. Before the coronavirus shuttered campuses, 30 to 40 percent of the university’s faculty members took a five-week online-instructor certification course, enabling them to support their colleagues during the spring transition.
A strategy to raise retention and graduation rates, begun more than a decade ago, has also fostered a culture of cross-campus collaboration, says Wilcox, and allowed South Florida to quickly move advising and other supports online. The university can also tap into expertise in its Innovation Education unit, which supports online-course development, as well as its Center for Instructional Technology in the College of Education.
As for the fall, Wilcox says, academic units are considering a range of options to help plan for possible online teaching and reduce the number of people in classrooms. The options include taping lectures and using virtual reality and other technologies to substitute for some in-person lab work. They are also seeking to hire more specialists to help train faculty members to teach effectively online, deploying graduate students to support that training, and rethinking course schedules to incorporate social distancing into classrooms and lecture halls, with some students beaming in remotely.
The $5 million to make all of that happen, says Wilcox, is critical to South Florida’s long-term success. “If we didn’t make this investment and students weren’t provided access to the coursework needed for timely graduation,” he says, “they’d look somewhere else.”
Education experts who have been following higher education’s transition to remote learning say that colleges need to act now if they want to be fully prepared for the fall. Van L. Davis, a policy and planning consultant for the Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies and other higher-education organizations, is concerned by how few colleges have started that planning. “It’s almost already too late when you think about what it takes to do good design work for online,” he says. “A lot of schools are still very much reacting to what’s in front of them. Faculty do not have the capacity to think about fall yet.”
Colleges should start by evaluating what went well, and poorly, this spring, so they can start identifying gaps in training, planning, and technology, he says. They should also assess their campus resources to begin preparing instructors for the fall. They may find that instructional designers, academic-technology experts, and faculty members familiar with online tools and teaching are less effective because they are spread thinly across campus, not centrally deployed.
College leaders should also encourage conversations within departments on how to prepare some of their coursework to be offered online in the fall, experts say. Can professors collaborate on creating well-designed online versions of gateway courses, which typically enroll large numbers of students? Can they identify the faculty members who might need the most help with effective online teaching and direct them to summer training programs, either on campus or through an outside organization? Can they come up with the money to pay adjunct faculty members to enroll in those programs as well?
Gunder, of the Online Learning Consortium, worries that some colleges may be undercutting themselves as they furlough employees to get through a tough spring and summer. “I’ve seen whole departments responsible for teaching and learning just wiped off the map,” she says.
Like South Florida, a number of other colleges have been ramping up faculty-training programs to create higher-quality online courses for the summer and lay the groundwork for multiple options in the fall. But even those with extensive online experience can do only so much.
California State University at Fullerton, for example, has announced that it needs to “prepare for all variables” for the fall. Although its goal remains face-to-face instruction, the institution is also asking faculty members to be prepared to teach virtually. Campus experts in the Faculty Development Center and the division of online education and training have banded together to offer two-week training sessions to help faculty members redesign assignments, learn new technology, and study effective teaching practices.
That is not the same as teaching instructors to design a fully online course, which comes with a different set of standards and faces a course-approval process, says Erica Bowers, director of the Faculty Development Center. Her team is also looking to share training and online coursework across the 23-campus Cal State system. “We begged, borrowed, and stole from each other to get up and running” this spring, Bowers says. “And we’re going to continue to do that.”
Emory University also has a head start but is similarly challenged to train a critical mass of professors to teach online. It began developing online courses for undergraduates, primarily in its summer programs, six years ago. About 60 faculty members have gone through a robust, eight-week training program to learn how to design and teach an online course, says Sara Jackson Wade, senior associate director of Emory College Online and summer programs, who is overseeing the move to equip more professors to teach online.
Her team is now focused on training another 90 faculty members in a three-week version of that program so they can “move out of emergency remote teaching and something closer to best practices in online learning,” she says. That will allow Emory to offer all of its 140 summer courses online. It plans to make a decision about the fall semester this month.
Effective online teaching, Wade says, depends more on building engagement than on mastering complicated technology. “People genuinely miss that interaction with students and their colleagues,” says Wade. “But they’re encouraged in the training because they realize there are better ways to recapture some of what’s been lost.” The summer training will focus on setting up an asynchronous course, akin to a flipped classroom, where students study material on their own and then come to class expected to discuss what they’re learning. The program will also focus on how professors can use online tools to create a more vibrant online experience.
By the start of the summer, about 20 percent of Emory’s tenure-track and lecture-track faculty members will be trained in effective online course design and teaching, Wade estimates. That, combined with work the university has been doing to redesign some foundational courses, will help prepare it for more remote teaching in the fall, if needed. Those revamped courses are easier to move online, she says, because all professors in a department had agreed on a common curriculum and common assessment methods, and developed a library of resources that they put into the learning-management system.
“That looks a lot different than taking your face-to-face syllabus and mapping it online,” she says.
At the University of Central Florida, Thomas B. Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning, estimates that more than 80 percent of its 1,600 faculty members had received some form of professional development for teaching online before the coronavirus hit, ranging from self-paced training on how to use the learning-management system to the university’s 10-week online-course-design program. Given the need to rapidly prepare hundreds of instructors, says Cavanagh, the university is in the process of developing a streamlined three-week course, “essentials of online teaching,” through which it expects to train around 200 instructors. About 350 instructors will also take a short course called “teaching through lecture capture — Zoom edition,” he says.
As for fall planning, he calls that a “cake that’s still baking.” Central Florida has outlined several possible scenarios, including a fully online calendar, though the university’s president has also reportedly told trustees that he’s “operating under the assumption” that the campus will open in the fall.
Despite Central Florida’s extensive online catalog — about one-third of undergraduate courses are taken online — Cavanagh says that it’s still not sufficient to cover every subject this fall. His staff is mapping out scenarios in which the university supplements its online course offerings with a cohort of in-person classes where as many as two-thirds of the students are learning at a distance.
Some colleges better positioned for an online fall may be those with the fewest resources, namely community colleges, says Davis, the consultant.
“They’re used to working with students who don’t live in dorms and stumble out of bed for a 9-o’clock class,” he says. “They’re thinking about a working adult who is juggling a job and family, who might not have control over their work schedule. Or they’re thinking about how to create smaller chunks of programs so if a student has to sit out a little bit because of life, they’re not going to get behind an entire semester.”
To prepare for all contingencies, the Virginia Community College System is accelerating its use of open educational resources, laboratory simulations, and “course sharing” among its 23 campuses, says Sheri L. Prupis, director of teaching and learning technologies. In course sharing, one campus could enroll students in the online version of a course that’s also being offered by another campus, she says, or it could simply share a course “shell” in which some content is already in a learning-management system and ready to be taught.
Prupis is in the midst of helping coordinate training so instructors can teach online summer courses, which start this month. While she feels good about the webinars on how to use Canvas, Zoom, and online library resources, she knows many instructors need more help on effective teaching strategies.
“We are struggling, like everyone else, with distinctions between remote teaching and online learning,” she says. “For the summer we want faculty members to understand that there are different ways to teach. You can get away with a 40-minute lecture in person, but not on Zoom.”
To that end, Prupis, who serves on a systemwide Covid-19 task force, is working with others to devise lessons on best teaching practices, and perhaps to require instructors to seek certification in preparation for a possible fall online.
As for career- and technical-training programs, many of which require hands-on learning, Prupis says that, like other colleges, the Virginia system is talking about front-loading the lecture portion of courses and, if restrictions are lifted, creating, say, two weeks of intensive lab work near the end of the term. But her team is also considering virtual simulations, kits that can be sent to students so they can perform experiments at home, and other strategies.
Like others, she worries less about conveying content online this fall and more about the social aspect of learning: the connections that students forge among themselves, and with their professors. “How can we use Zoom and Canvas and Slack and Google Meet to create a small consortium of students who move through the course together?” she asks. “We’re not there yet. But a few of us are beating that drum.”
How much better than the remote spring is an online fall likely to be? Creating connections among students, and between professors and students, may be the trickiest aspect of online learning, and the most important. Students this spring say they miss their professors and classmates, and many find online versions of their courses unengaging. The physical distance between students and instructors, and the inability of technology to convey the body language we rely on to read one another’s moods and thoughts, creates an immediate barrier to intimacy and free-flowing discussion.
Robin DeRosa, director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, says she’s been asking faculty members and administrators to keep those concerns at the front of their minds. “Students are generally looking for connection, learning, and a sense of purpose,” she says. “It’s not about building a flashy new course that we can show off. It’s about figuring out what was most important and working best in your course before, and using a different environment to connect with those things.”
DeRosa’s campus, she says, is looking at a variety of options, including HyFlex, the hybrid teaching model; shorter terms; and ways the internet could actually enhance learning, such as helping students connect with mentors or do community-based work online.
She has already decided to shift her senior seminar in interdisciplinary studies to the HyFlex model this fall. Brian J. Beatty, an associate professor at San Francisco State University who created HyFlex, says it’s a particularly effective choice during the pandemic. If a student is feeling sick — or needs to take care of family members — she could study from home for a few weeks, then return to class.
Small residential colleges, whose appeal is based on an immersive and communal educational experience, may have the steepest hills to climb, should teaching remain online in the fall.
Michael Reder, director of the center for teaching and learning at Connecticut College, which expects to make a decision about the fall semester by June, says that professors have been working overtime this spring to maintain connections with their students. In addition to running live classes, they hold extended office hours, check in with students by phone, meet with small groups of students during their classes, and assign group work among classmates.
“I feel as if in most ways we are continuing to deliver the personalized education we always have,” he says. “Then there’s also the support we offer in terms of academic resources: student counseling services, tutoring, peer advisers. All of that is still happening. It’s happening virtually, but that is still happening.”
Should the college need to remain online in the fall, he says, it could continue to offer the high-touch environment that families expect. “I am totally confident because I see it happening now.”
Given that most colleges have limited capacity to train faculty members to design and teach online courses, some are turning to outside organizations for help. Gunder’s group, the Online Learning Consortium, for example, offers a variety of training programs, including some that prepare faculty members to teach blended courses, those that have both in-person and online components.
Deb Adair, executive director of Quality Matters, says her nonprofit organization is busier than ever, helping individuals and institutions improve their online teaching. Quality Matters has created a shorter version of its flagship program focused on designing and teaching an online course.
Adair has taught online herself with real success, she says. “I have had deeper and more broad interactions with my students than I ever did when I was in the classroom,” she says. “You have a lot of options and tools online, but you have to rethink how you’re going to achieve the same goals.”
Still, she’s pessimistic about most colleges’ ability to make the transition online, at scale, for the fall. To do so, she says, they must prepare both students and instructors. They need to make sure technology is accessible. They also need to think about how they’re going to engage and assess students. And they need to think about the additional supports, like tutoring, that surround the classroom. All of that is an extremely heavy lift, even with outside support.
Another group, the Association of College and University Educators, which has worked with more than 100 campuses to offer an effective-teaching-practices program, is about to unveil an effective-online-teaching-practices program. It recently signed a deal to train and credential more than 1,500 faculty members in state systems in California, Missouri, New York, and Texas.
Tricia Russ, the group’s executive director of partnerships, says the pandemic has revealed how little training instructors typically receive on how to teach, whether online or in person. “Every day on most campuses, there is someone who is a discipline expert put into a classroom with zero preparation to teach,” she says. “This helps us remember that.”
The City University of New York has signed up to put 300 of its instructors through the group’s professional-development program. That’s in addition to training up to 1,000 instructors through CUNY’s School of Professional Studies to teach online this summer, says José Luis Cruz, the system’s executive vice chancellor and university provost. While he worries that social-distancing requirements, along with the health concerns of professors and students, will affect budgets and course offerings in the fall, Cruz says he sees forward momentum.
“I feel very confident that the summer experience will be better than the spring,” he says, “and the fall experience will be better than summer.”
Beth McMurtrie writes about technology’s influence on teaching and the future of learning. Follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie, or email her at [email protected].