How do universities reopen in the fall? That is the urgent question at hand.
This is a difficult issue. Most schools seem to be still figuring it out and not saying too much. Cristina Paxson, president of Brown, wrote a powerful editorial for the New York Times. Robert Robbins, president of University of Arizona this week said the school was reopening in the fall and outlined some initial plans. Most schools have been very quiet to date.
Time is running out, so here are a few observations and ideas based on my experience as a teacher who has made the transition to the Zoom world, a marketer, and the father of a college student. I should note these are just my personal views; I have not been involved in planning discussions at my university.
Teaching in a virtual world really works. As an instructor, I find I can cover material, engage students, and host guest speakers. The quality of work I am getting from my students this quarter is notably better than usual.
While Zoom is fine for instruction, it doesn’t replace the campus experience. I think almost everyone who has tracked the transition would agree that a virtual world is not at all like the in person experience, from activities to social interactions.
A school that relies on Zoom will face a dark future because the value proposition won’t work. The are many free offerings online. Who is going to pay $70,000 or more each year to take some Zoom courses when they can learn the same thing in a book or in free online courses? A few universities have such strong brands that they could still justify the price. Most don’t.
I suspect the Zoom option is tempting for academic leaders. It is safe. The instruction works. Even better, university leaders can leave the decision to state leaders and public health officials.
This is a bad option. While many will say it will be “just for the fall,” that wouldn’t really be true. COVID 19 will be with us for a long time. There is no reason to believe there is a quick fix on the horizon or a silver bullet.
Instead of letting state leaders dictate the policy, university leaders should lead the discussion and proactively communicate how schools can reopen in a COVID world with reasonable risk. There are lots of different ideas to consider.
Schools will need to offer both in person and virtual classes. If someone has a medical condition that puts them at high risk, they might believe that a campus experience would simply be too risky. An older faculty member might not want to take the risk of teaching in person. If a student tests positive, they need to be able to quarantine and keep up virtually. Courses will need to be offered in two different formats.
The good news is that we now know how to teach on Zoom and it works. The bad news is that this might require more class sections, some in person and some on Zoom. A combined class session, with some students in person and others online, may not work too well.
Large classes – even the 65 person classes I’m used to teaching – will likely be considered too risky unless the room is enormous, and there aren’t many big rooms. So lecture classes will need to be Zooming. Other classes might have 15 or 20 students. Perhaps there should be a mix.
This means the demand for space will go up, along with the need for instruction.
Most universities follow a similar schedule when it comes to classes. On weekdays, the first class is at 8:30 or 9, with two morning classes, a break for lunch, two or three afternoon class, a break for dinner, and perhaps an evening class. Weekend classes are unusual.
It might be time to reconsider the schedule. Could classes start earlier? College students would not like it but, yes, classes could start at 7. Could there be classes during lunch and dinner? Of course. How about weekend classes? Certainly.
The more people with whom students interact, the more risk. One way to limit interaction is to group students into small cohorts that travel together. Perhaps a group of 25 students takes all their classes together, along with meals. If one person in the group tests positive, the entire group goes into quarantine for a while.
There is always the risk that students will host big parties. These are part of college life. Minimizing big gatherings is a good idea, but enforcement would be a challenge. I suspect most university presidents don’t want the school security officers spending their time breaking up student happy hours.
One idea is to enlist student monitors to remind people that the only way college continues is if people are responsible and the virus is somewhat controlled.
This isn’t a popular idea, but perhaps instructors need to step up. The financial challenges are huge, with many students needing more financial aid and a likely profound drop in the number of international students. Annual tuition increases may be a thing of the past. Could professors and university leaders accept a 20% pay cut for a little while? Perhaps. Could instructors teach more sections for a year without additional pay? Maybe.
Sports, clubs, music – all are key parts of the college experience. This is an important part of why people will pay all that tuition. The solution here, it seems to me, is to creatively approach the challenge. There may need to be a limit on how many people can watch a show or game. Perhaps sports teams should have longer seasons with fewer games.
The most important thing is that college leaders should communicate the scope of the crisis. If the Zoom world isn’t good for anyone and threatens the very existence of institutions, then this really is urgent.
Leaders need to explain the situation, and quickly. This is a looming disaster for higher education. We all need to sacrifice, do things differently, and work together to get through it. This includes instructors, students, coaches, parents and administrators.
We can accept the easy route and try unsuccessfully to muddle through with a hiring freeze and Zoom, or we can all embrace a completely different reality. In the long run, it all could end up improving the educational experience for everyone.
Let’s think fast and get going.
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