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.

Views and Reviews on the Elements of Good (Online) Courses

online learnerThe second half of the 2019-2020 school year was abnormal. It's hard to imagine a grade level where teaching and learning will return to what it was a year ago. The most obvious change has been around using online learning. This summer there have been many stories about schools K-20 making plans for this fall. Some of them announced that they will be primarily online. It's a hedge bet that the situation with COVID-19 will be improved and that there will be some classroom face time.

The three approaches schools have considered are 1) start the fall semester fully online  2) go back to "normal" physical classrooms with social distancing, masks and disinfecting 3) some hybrid of those two approaches.  

But schools also need to consider the "reviews" that are being made formally and informally about the online learning that happened in March through June 2020. Those reviews are coming formally by journalists and educators and informally by students and the parents of K-12 students.

K-12 parents have found themselves spending more time working with their children on schoolwork. That might make them appreciate how hard teachers work - or they might decide that online education is a waste of time. When you hear non-educators talk about the qualities of a good online course, they are often talking about the qualities of any good course.

College students' parents don't usually figure into the equation, but now I'm hearing parents say that they are reluctant to have their child go into a classroom and unwilling to pay $25-50,000 for an online curriculum. When parents are paying for school directly (rather than through taxes), they are more likely to feel they should have some control on how their money is being used.

Those qualities mentioned include:

  • The course is engaging and challenging.
  • It invites students to participate, motivates them to contribute and captures their interest and attention.
  • Open educational resources are prioritized over expensive textbooks
  • It is interactive - teacher to students and also student to student.
  • It is not just an information dump, but it does provide meaningful readings, lecture videos, and resources.
  • Students receive personalized feedback, support and guidance.
  • Students feel they are part of a learning community. 
  • It involves students in “doing” — not just watching, reading and writing papers.
  • And finally, this high-level combination of qualities - a course is informed by issues of equity and justice and takes into account social, political and cultural issues, including students’ backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances.

Looking at that list nothing jumps out as being ONLINE. If you do break out the responses teachers, students and parents gave that are online-specific, they fall under two categories: the availability of the technology; the preparation to use the technology.

The Chronicle did an article titled "In Their Own Words: Here’s What Professors, Chairs, and Deans Learned From Remote Courses This Spring." They looked for words that were most often used in the responses to their survey. One keyword they found in their responses was "flexible." Here are 3 of those responses:

“Be extremely flexible. Don’t expect complete guidance from the administrators; make your best guess as to what is going to be. Most importantly: By adopting many online-learning concepts and best practices in advance, I was prepared to go online at a moment’s notice. This helped immensely.

“Flexibility was key in the transition. I chose to be more lenient with students than I am in a traditional classroom. If we stay online I will once again become more rigid, but I feel this semester was exceptional for everyone, and it was critical to be understanding.”

“You have to be willing to learn to teach virtually and have compassion and empathy with your students. Learn to be flexible and challenge your teaching skills. Covid-19 has changed how we will teach in the future.”

They also found - unsurprisingly - that faculty need a lot more support to teach online than expected.

“Many faculty have resisted true development in pedagogy, but that’s unavoidable now.”

“As a faculty, we should have been more proficient in distance education before the move to online. This was a wake-up call for all of our faculty that we did not make this a priority.”

“Some faculty were really unprepared to work with technology."

“I was very impressed that our faculty who already teach online were willing to step up and help their colleagues who were unfamiliar with this modality.”

 

Contact Tracing for Misinformation

Since January 2020, COVID-19 has been the main topic of news. Despite attempts to keep health information accurate, misinformation has been put out from amateur and speculative sources all the way up to President Trump.

Facebook has been blamed along with other social media sites for allowing misinformation to spread. himself. Many websites from traditional media to social media have been trying to connect people to accurate information from health experts and keep harmful misinformation from spreading. It is a difficult task, even with the best technology, to monitor millions of users creating content every second and even more often reposting other information.

Facebook has said that they have directed over 2 billion people to resources from the World Health Organization in their "COVID-19 Information Center" and via pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram with over 350 million people clicking through to learn more.

When a piece of content is rated false by fact-checkers, they reduce its distribution and show warning labels with more context, and they can use similarity detection methods to identify duplicates of debunked stories. 

I heard on an episode of the Make Me Smart podcast that Rep. Adam Schiff (not a Facebook fan) asked other tech giants (Google, YouTube, Twitter) to follow Facebook's example by contacting users who’ve interacted with misinformation. 

This is a kind of contact tracing for misinformation. In public health contact tracing, staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious. The public health staff then warn these exposed individuals (contacts) of their potential exposure as rapidly and sensitively as possible.

In public health or online protecting patient/poster and contacts is important. Generally in health situations contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection but are not told the identity of the person who may have exposed them.

YouTube announced it would add informational panels with information from its fact-checkers to videos in the US, an expansion of a program it launched in India and Brazil last year.

Twitter introduced its COVID-19 content policies earlier this month, which require users to remove tweets with content that includes misinformation about coronavirus treatments or misleading content meant to look like it’s from authorities and recently updated their policy to encompass tweets that may “incite people to action and cause widespread panic, social unrest or large-scale disorder,” such as burning 5G towers.