The COVID-19 pandemic is having virally disruptive impacts on traditional brick and mortar academic campuses – and with no assured relief any time soon.
As with businesses, universities across the U.S. have also been forced to shut down their campuses. Many officials have yet to decide whether their institutions will be able to reopen in the fall.
Responsive policies and arrangements must address inevitable certainty that COVID-19 positive students will be identified in a college building, residence hall, or other facility.
Each institution must warn and inform applicants and their parents that such risks exist, along with assurances that reasonable protections and emergency countermeasures have been established.
Over at least the next six to 18 months, universities and colleges of all sizes must prepare for a painful period of adjustment as the country struggles to get the virus under control.
For example, they will have to retrofit classrooms, residences and dining halls to allow students to return safely, just as cities must prepare their transit systems and office buildings.
Contingency plans will also need to be put in place to prepare for the very real possibility that a viral outbreak will reoccur during the fall-spring academic schedule after non-resident on-site students have arrived from other domestic and international origins.
Such circumstances will discourage many current students from returning, and likely even more otherwise prospective new ones, from applying.
Students and their families will increasingly wonder whether a particular on-site program is valuable enough to warrant the costs when the same course offerings and credentials – sometimes even better ones – can be accessed online from anywhere.
Competitive universities and colleges must ponder and respond to these questions as well – and many are. Most already offer accredited distance programs. Harvard and Stanford, for example, offer graduate level degree-granting programs that are accessible entirely online.
Although for-profit universities have been the quickest to adopt and exploit Internet technology to offer online degrees, the majority of public colleges now offer some academic programs completely online as well. Popular fields of remote study include business, criminal justice, health sciences, engineering, and computer science.
Recent COVID-19 building closures at the University of Houston have “introduced” me to the necessity of finishing up this semester with my graduate-level space architecture students using Zoom, telephone, and emails.
And it has actually worked out surprisingly well.
One of the unique advantages was that unlike being limited to on-site attendees at their final project presentation reviews, a much expanded audience included several NASA and other aerospace professionals from other locales. Some reviewing jury participants connected in from Japan, France and Australia.
One graduating thesis project was presented from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and two others were Zoomed in from separate locations in Canada.
Nevertheless, while duly recognizing present necessities and benefits of online communication, I wish to soon reestablish the very special sort of interpersonal bond, understanding and discourse with my students that comes only with physically being with them.
Small group and individual conversations about their lives, ideas, aspirations, challenges, and progress are very gratifying to me, just as I believe they are helpful to them.
Remote options also deny students (and faculty) access to sophisticated research laboratories, project fabrication workshops, and other common-use facilities.
There are undoubtedly countless instances, however, where remote electronic communications are perfectly adequate. Distance learning has been broadly adopted, for example, as the training and education method of choice among busy working professionals.
Remote teaching programs and methods can be custom-designed and tailored to various needs and circumstances.
Briefly summarized, there are three general models.
In “synchronous distance learning,” the simplest, all learners participate jointly in class lectures at the same scheduled time.
“Asynchronous distance learning” is the traditional model used by most online colleges and universities seeking to provide more flexible and convenient opportunities to access course materials whenever they want, without fixed-schedule limitations.
Many higher education institutions combine asynchronous with synchronous methods. Such “blended” or “flipped” programs are gaining special popularity for project-based experiences by enabling students to digest content at their own pace, and to use classroom time to attack difficult problems.
A flipped course, for example, might have students read over textbook pages, and then take an online quiz before class. This frees class time to participate in peer discussion groups and perform small-team tasks before receiving personalized face-to-face video collaboration with the instructor and other classmates.
As noted by Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur and former Nebraska governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerry in a May 5 Wall Street Journal piece, “Higher Ed’s Coronavirus Opportunity,” the entire purpose of a college education has come into question in recent years.
Mazur and Kerry observe, “Almost all universities are treating the sudden forced movement online as a temporary problem. The question is not how they could adapt and innovate, but how to return to normal as quickly as possible.”
I, for one, would very much like to return to that “normal” as well.
Perhaps sadly, possibly in many ways for the better, that old normal is now history.
Higher-education administrators and practitioners must seize upon this period of coronavirus upheaval and uncertainty as an incentive to apply and optimize benefits of virtual classrooms at every level to make learning more effective — both off campus or on.
Our only real choice now is to lead higher education — all education — into the future.
This article originally appeared at NewsMax