Lots of Flexibility in Reopening Colleges

The decisions to reopen schools K-12 and colleges have been difficult ones.
 
As the spring 2020 semester was ending, two-thirds of colleges had announced that they would hold in-person classes this fall. That was according to data presented by The Chronicle who teamed up with Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i) to present the reopening models of nearly 3,000 institutions.

As of their latest data, there are only 3.9% of the reporting schools fully in-person. Another 23% are the rather confusingly termed "Primarily In-Person" - which sounds like hybrid but that's another category taking up 21%. 

chart

chart via chronicle.com

Clearly, the 66% of schools last May who expected to be in-person in some form haven't reopened in that form. In fact, I'd call almost every category shown here hybrid/blended/HyFlex (the terms are getting blurred) in some form.  34% selected "primarily online" as their status which does not mean hybrid. Many schools are putting some courses back in labs, lecture halls, or classrooms with some restrictions, while other courses are fully online and others are meeting half in-person and half online (the classic hybrid). So, a school's approach to reopening might be a hybrid of several totally different approaches.

Flexibility - a key element these days.

Higher Education Responds to COVID-19

empty lecture hallThe coronavirus has been an unexpected disruptor to education around the globe. In March 2020, most institutions K-20 started canceling in-person classes and moving to online-only instruction. The pandemic is also disrupting things on campuses outside classrooms and labs. Admissions and enrollment, athletics, and many social and campus community activities have been halted or severely altered. Financial instability from unexpected costs and reductions in revenue touch on all aspects of school operations.  

This summer the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) began posting information about what it is seeing happening in higher education in response to COVID-19.  (There is also a K-12 responses page.)

Many responses from the spring no longer apply to this fall. The situation continues to develop. The immediate problems in March and the short-term solutions implemented have become long-term challenges. NCSL is obviously concerned with legislation enacted because of the pandemic. Bills to ensure students receive refunds for room and board expenses, pause the collection of payments on state held student loans, and in some cases to require higher education institutions to develop and expand emergency preparedness and response plans. Like the colleges, legislators must have strategies to address funding and appropriations for public colleges and universities.  

The NCSL site has a lot of information and I will summarize some that seem pertinent here. Any report from the spring semester or summer plans is likely to have been changed. Every school probably had several possible plans for fall 2020 but there was hope early on that we might return to something like normal classes or at least a hybrid approach. But we saw reversals in in-person classes almost immediately in September with some schools switching back to being almost completely or completely online.

The 3 plans that almost every school were preparing:
In-Person Instruction (with social distancing and precautions)
Hybrid-HyFlex Model or Limiting Students on Campus
Moving to Online-Only Instruction

A good number of colleges planned one of those things over the summer, perhaps even implemented the plan, but have already moved to another option.

Concerns and Issues:

  • The quality of online-only classes for instruction, particularly for students who are already academically struggling
  • Helping students who might lack access to an internet connection, including opening university libraries on a limited basis and distributing mobile hotspots to students.
  • Reconsidering grading systems to try and accommodate and support students in transition.
  • Under "unexpected expenses" we find pro-rated refunds issued to students for room and board (tuition refunds demanded by many students have not materialized)
  • Sanitizing dormitories, classroom, and facilities
  • A variety of technology costs associated with moving to online courses. 
  • Hiring freezes for faculty and pay cuts or furloughs for staff.
  • Adjunct and part-time faculty make up more than 40% of faculty nationwide have issues with generally lacking paid sick leave and health insurance from their college.  
  • Postponed campus tours and admissions events and a decline in admissions visit requests.
  • Limited access to college dorms, dining halls, and work-study programs
  • Closures impact current and future students’ ability to receive and manage financial aid.  
  • Dealing with more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. (2019, who make up about 6% of the total higher education student population.
  • Collegiate athletics is not at the top of most faculty concerns but it affects college budgets (including income) and student financial aid through scholarships.

Many of these issues were thought to be (or hoped to be) short-term concerns but have become long-term items.

The MOOC Revival

online learner
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

I have been writing a lot about MOOCs since 2012. (Do I still need to explain that a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course?) That was (as dubbed by The New York Times) the “year of the MOOC.” 

This year, the Times was saying that though MOOCs were "near-death" the COVID-19 crisis has put them back into the "trending" category. Their article is headlined "Remember the MOOCs? After Near-Death, They’re Booming."

Though MOOCs existed prior to 2012, the emergence of online learning networks was something new. While many colleges initially viewed these free online courses as a threat to their tuition systems, within a year many of the most elite colleges began to offer them. It was more than "if you can't beat the, join them." Schools, faculty and students (often on their own) discovered the value of not only MOOCs but online learning in general.

The Times article is negative on the impact of that MOOC revolution saying that "the reality didn’t live up to the dizzying hype." I agree that the hype was truly hype. It was too much. My wife and I wrote a chapter for the book Macro-Level Learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Strategies and Predictions for the Future and we titled it "Evolution and Revolution." The title was not meant as a question. Much of the discussion in 2012 was about the revolutionary nature of MOOCs, but we viewed them through the lens of 2015 and saw them as more evolutionary.  

Fast forward to 2020 - the "year of the pandemic" - and we see schools from kindergarten to graduate schools forced to use online learning in some way. A revolution? No. Again, an evolution that should have started for schools a decade ago but clearly has not for many of them who fond themselves unprepared in march 2020 to go fully online.

MOOCs have changed. My many posts here have shown that the open part of mOoc has become far less open both in the ability to reuse the materials and in the no-cost aspect. Companies have been formed around offering MOOC-like courses, certificates and degrees. 

The biggest criticism of MOOCs was probably that most learners (not always traditional students) never completed the courses. Completion rates in free courses of about 10% certainly sounded like a failure. Making students pay even a small fee or offering credit improved that percentage but not enough to make observers feel the revolution had succeeded.

I never worried about the completion rates because my research and my own experiences teaching and as a learner in these courses made it clear than the majority of students in them never intended to complete all of the coursework. They were there to get what they wanted to learn and get out. They didn't need to take a freshman year of requirements and prerequisites or gain admission to Stanford in order to take a course on artificial intelligence from Stanford. 

Of course, as the Times article points out, MOOCs kept going without all the hype. They evolved, and in some ways so did online learning because of them. Platforms and for-profit companies emerged and certificates, fully online MOOCish degrees, and nanodegress were offered. 

With the spotlight off them, MOOCs were able to evolve into different species - free, for-profit, accredited, for lifelong learning, massive, small, skills training, corporate, for K-12, etc. 

Sheltering and working and learning from home has given another boost to that second "O" in moOc. The providers like Coursera have signed up 10 million new users since mid-March, and edX and Udacity have seen similar surges. And that doesn't even take into account the less-visible use of big (such as Khan Academy) and small grassroots use of these courses by teachers and students.

My wife and I are now writing a journal article for this fall about online learning as a solution for some crises in higher education. 2020 has definitely a time of both crisis and opportunity for online learning. I hope the hype doesn't return to the MOOC. It did not serve it well in the past.

If you have any thoughts on the current state of MOOCs and online learning, contact me.

Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

Jeff Selingo's new book - Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions - will be out September 15 and he has been doing a number of virtual events around the topics in the book. Here are three that are coming up this week. 

There's no doubt that the past 6 months have changed much of the admissions process for high school students and for college admissions officers. Will we ever return to the admission process of the past?

  • For parents of high schoolers: On Monday at 8 p.m. ET, I’ll be hosting another discussion on college admissions in the COVID era – this one focused on how to conduct the virtual college search when admissions representatives aren’t visiting high schools and campus tours are canceled. More details and register here.
  • For college officials: On Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll be in conversation with one of the leading accreditors as well as two academic leaders in online learning about how to assess students in remote instruction this fall. More details and register here.  
  • For parents and counselors: On Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET, I’ll be joining Education Consultant Katy Dunn of PrepMatters for a town hall on admissions. Join us to hear more about the book and what I’ve learned from admissions officials in recent months. Register here.

The book as described online:

"From award-winning higher education journalist and New York Times bestselling author Jeffrey Selingo comes a revealing look from inside the admissions office—one that identifies surprising strategies that will aid in the college search.

Getting into a top-ranked college has never seemed more impossible, with acceptance rates at some elite universities dipping into the single digits. In Who Gets In and Why, journalist and higher education expert Jeffrey Selingo dispels entrenched notions of how to compete and win at the admissions game, and reveals that teenagers and parents have much to gain by broadening their notion of what qualifies as a “good college.” Hint: it’s not all about the sticker on the car window.

Selingo, who was embedded in three different admissions offices—a selective private university, a leading liberal arts college, and a flagship public campus—closely observed gatekeepers as they made their often agonizing and sometimes life-changing decisions. He also followed select students and their parents, and he traveled around the country meeting with high school counselors, marketers, behind-the-scenes consultants, and college rankers.

While many have long believed that admissions is merit-based, rewarding the best students, Who Gets In and Why presents a more complicated truth, showing that “who gets in” is frequently more about the college’s agenda than the applicant. In a world where thousands of equally qualified students vie for a fixed number of spots at elite institutions, admissions officers often make split-second decisions based on a variety of factors—like diversity, money, and, ultimately, whether a student will enroll if accepted.

One of the most insightful books ever about “getting in” and what higher education has become, Who Gets In and Why not only provides an usually intimate look at how admissions decisions get made, but guides prospective students on how to honestly assess their strengths and match with the schools that will best serve their interests."