Aug 03 2020

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Preparing for the Unknown

COVID-19 upended higher education in a way that increasingly looks irreversible. How can colleges and universities move forward?

We may not know exactly what lies ahead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a plan. That’s the message from Justin Harding, senior director for instructional design and new media for Arizona State University’s EdPlus, an enterprise program focused on the design and delivery of scalable digital teaching and learning.

Just like colleges and universities everywhere, Harding says, ASU was caught off guard by the coronavirus and the sudden need for programs to shift to remote learning. Today, however, months after the crisis began — and with months of experience to inform future decisions — the institution is charting a path forward. “I think we’re trying to see this as an opportunity,” Harding says. “It’s a chance to make changes to enhance the learning experience.”

It’s also a challenge facing colleges and universities around the nation, with many fearful of a potential decline in enrollment and tuition dollars. In a report released in May by consulting firm McKinsey, 21 percent of students reported changing their first-choice schools, with 26 percent of those citing fear of being too near a COVID-19 hotspot. In the same report, only 23 percent of student respondents felt confident they could achieve a quality education through remote classes, and only 19 percent felt confident a remote environment could help them build the relationships they need. For higher education institutions, it’s raised a critical question: How can they provide a learning experience that simultaneously provides students with the education they expect while also keeping them safe from illness?

Remote Learning 101: How to Do Better

Harding and the EdPlus team are tasked with supporting digital learning at ASU, including its popular online degree program, he says. In the early days of the pandemic, as the necessity of switching to remote learning became clear, Harding and EdPlus joined forces with the institution’s technology office to ensure the smoothest transition possible. “Our role was to take the resources and knowledge we had from more than a decade of developing online courses and to share it with those faculty and staff whose experience was mostly based in the traditional classroom environment,” he says.

Toward that end, Harding and his colleagues ­produced a catalog of webinars “on everything from ‘this is how you Zoom’ to how to create active-learning experiences in the online space,” he says. Instructors were taught how to use ASU’s learning management system to communicate course announcements, assignments and exams, and they were introduced to platforms like Slack, where instant messaging and content sharing could substitute for in-person discussions. Within days, subjects as varied as computer science and ornithology, previously taught through lectures and labs, were being delivered using digital tools, and students in need had their pick of critical resources, from laptops and hotspots to free digital textbooks.

All in all, Harding says, the ASU community did incredibly well riding out the spring semester under such difficult circumstances. The question for the university now, he says, is what to do next?

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how data analytics will help campuses reopen safely.

“We made it through the first phase by creating these digitally enabled courses,” Harding says. “So how can wenow leverage that experience into
something that’s going to pay off in the long term?”

Front and center in the discussion, Harding says, is that the COVID-19 crisis has shown there is more than one way to go to college. Now, even after the pandemic fades away and the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, learners will expect an education that bends to fit their lives — or even the next global emergency.

“Students are going to want to have options and to be able to choose how they interact” with educational content and classmates and instructors, he says. “Flexibility is going to be key, and one of the ways I think we can offer it is through continued integration of technology into all aspects of education.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to promote online access with hotspots, laptops, and planning.

Higher Ed is Preparing for Changes Ahead

If Harding sounds cautiously optimistic about navigating the road ahead for higher ed, he’s not alone. While college and university leaders largely agree that education will never be the same following COVID-19, most also believe their institutions can survive it. Their strategy, they say, will include more remote instruction, not only as a tool for weathering future emergencies, but also as a way to expand their reach. Moreover, it will involve applying lessons learned and making tough changes to the educational system to address the serious shortcomings that the novel coronavirus laid bare.

“When this began in the spring, no one could have anticipated that higher education as we knew it would be upended in this way,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Moving forward, however, that’s no longer true. Consequently, institutions that don’t adapt accordingly will have no excuse for their failure.

Jennifer Lindon, president and CEO, Hazard Community and Technical College
Now, we’re preparing, and we do have a plan. We can find success. It can be done.”

Jennifer Lindon president and CEO, Hazard Community and Technical College

“If, in the fall, you go back to the way things were,” she says, “you lose your credibility in terms of your claiming that you’re serving the best interests of your students.”

The way Pasquerella sees it, the overnight pivot colleges and universities made to remote learning demonstrated how technology can be used to deliver curricula in new and effective ways. But, she continues, it also exposed socioeconomic disparities among students, including the fact that many face food and shelter insecurities. Likewise, it revealed the related “digital divide” between students who have access to computers and high-speed internet and those who don’t.

“As we move into the fall, we need to focus on breaking down the barriers that remain in the way of the most underserved students,” Pasquerella says. That work, she adds, must proceed quickly, and so must the short-term decision-making around issues related to the pandemic itself.

“Institutions need to ask whether they have the capacity to become mini healthcare systems,” Pasquerella says. “If they’re planning to offer classes on campus, will they give students masks and offer virus testing? Are they going to set up isolation units?”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to increase college success for underserved students.

Hopes for the Future of Higher Ed

One higher-ed leader who is asking such questions is Jennifer Lindon, president and CEO of Hazard Community and Technical College. With five campuses in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, HCTC offers programs in nearly three dozen areas, from business administration systems to heavy equipment operations. When students return, Lindon says, social distancing, personal protective equipment, and temperature and health checks will all be part of the new reality. Meanwhile, courses that were traditionally taught entirely face to face will include online and remote learning components.

“We’ve offered online learning for quite some time, so we’ll obviously continue to do that moving forward,” Lindon says. “The big difference is going to be with our standard on-campus coursework, and especially with the hands-on training that we do where we’d typically have labs or clinical portions.”

Because those courses don’t easily translate to a digital format, their instructors will rely on a multipronged approach that blends in-class instruction and remote learning. For its nursing and cosmetology programs, for example, HCTC has purchased simulation software that students can use on their personal computers. Students will still be required to get hands-on experience to complete their degrees and certifications, “but this will give them the flexibility to finish some of the work at home when that’s the only option,” Lindon explains.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to prepare for campus readiness while cutting costs.

Even as Lindon and others at HCTC put the finishing touches on their remote learning strategy, they recognize that they’re simultaneously up against forces that are largely out of their control. Last spring, for instance, at the height of the pandemic, Eastern Kentucky was hit by a series of storms that caused many to lose power for more than a week and left much of the region susceptible to flooding.

“There are a lot of different things that could happen — natural disasters — that could prevent you from coming on campus,” she says. With that in mind, HCTC made the decision to invest in the technologies faculty and staff need to effectively work from home. They’re also purchasing devices for their students, including Google Chromebooks and Microsoft Surface Pros.

“I think, before last spring, there were a lot of people who thought remote work and remote learning weren’t realistic for higher ed,” Lindon says, “They thought that you couldn’t be successful if you offered those things.”

In the wake of the coronavirus, however, it seems clear that, at least in some cases, institutions can go remote — even when they’re caught mostly unprepared. “Now, we’re preparing, and we do have a plan,” Lindon says. “We can find success. It can be done.”

Illustration by LJ Davids