6 Steps to Prepare for an Online Fall Semester

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Image: James Yang for The Chronicle

By John Villasenor

The profound changes to American higher education in recent weeks will pale in comparison to what will occur if the Covid-19 pandemic makes it impossible for colleges to resume campus-based education in the fall. Yet there has been little public discussion about what that might mean for students, their families, and colleges. That needs to change. Colleges need to lead an open and honest dialogue with their communities to plan for the possibility that it will not yet be safe by late August or early September for students to once again crowd dormitories and classrooms.

Here are some steps colleges should take to help prepare for fall 2020 and beyond:

Survey students now to find out how many would decline to participate in an online-only fall 2020 academic term. In March, students were uprooted with no advance warning. At semester-based institutions, the cessation of in-person instruction occurred midway through an academic term. At colleges that use the quarter system, the transition took place only a few weeks before the start of spring quarter. Under both types of academic calendars, students had no real choice but to continue their studies online.

For the fall, students will know in advance whether instruction will be online. That knowledge will give them options. Many will elect to sit out the fall term rather than spend many thousands of dollars for a fall academic experience centered on watching videos on a laptop. The fraction of students who defer their studies will be particularly high among incoming first-year students, who will elect to pursue a gap year in far greater numbers than in normal times.

Asking students now what they would do in the fall if campuses remain closed will give colleges critical data regarding enrollment, impacting everything from tuition revenue to class offerings to assignment of teaching assistants. If fall enrollments are going to plummet, colleges need to know that as soon as possible in order to start planning accordingly.

Rethink large lecture courses if fall instruction is online. The disadvantages of large classes, which impede opportunities for students to interact with an instructor and one another, are particularly acute online. Longtime providers of online education know this well. Conversely, an entire generation of current college students is now learning that it can be pretty boring to be one of several hundred people simultaneously watching a Zoom lecture.

If instruction remains online-only in the fall, colleges should rethink the traditional lower-division course model of large, professor-led, twice-weekly, synchronous (i.e., with students participating in real time) lectures accompanied by once-a-week, smaller, TA-led discussion section meetings. When all interactions are online, a better approach would be to ditch the large, synchronous lectures altogether.

One alternative is to pair asynchronous (i.e., without real-time interaction) lectures with a significantly enhanced set of supplemental, TA-led, small-group, synchronous sessions. Alternatively, synchronous lectures can be used if class sizes are capped at no more than about 30 students, thereby enabling students to be active participants in each class meeting. Either approach would require a significant restructuring of many courses.

Leverage teaching resources and expertise across colleges. Despite the similarity in content of many courses across offerings in different colleges (e.g., introductory courses in topics such as economics, calculus, physics, history), traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of intercollege collaboration in developing teaching materials. If instruction remains online-only in the fall, colleges won’t be able to afford that sort of inefficiency. College departments should start now to identify opportunities for collaborations that would draw on the collective wisdom and labor of faculty members from multiple institutions who are teaching similar courses. This would lessen the burden of migrating teaching materials and techniques to an online format.

Plan for a multiyear impact. If colleges are forced to maintain online-only instruction in the fall and to defer reopening their campuses to in-person instruction to January 2021, the impact will be felt for years. College leaders should start thinking now about how to manage and potentially adjust spring-2021 (and beyond) course offerings, course sequencing, and degree requirements to avoid saddling students with graduation delays and the accompanying direct and indirect financial costs. In addition, colleges should anticipate a smaller-than-normal entering first-year class in fall 2020 (and thus a larger-than-normal enrollment a year later) and devise strategies to help mitigate the resulting stresses on admission rates and classroom and dorm capacity for first-year students entering in fall 2021 and beyond.

Be transparent and engage the student and family communities. While many college administrators are no doubt thinking about contingencies for fall and beyond, those discussions aren’t generally public. But students and parents have a right to know what options are on the table. They should have a voice as colleges deliberate and make decisions that will impact them for years to come.

When it comes to equity, walk the walk. Colleges talk a lot about equity. The Covid-19 crisis provides an opportunity to walk the walk. Will colleges be willing to dip into their endowments and boost their financial-aid offerings to help the many students from families with suddenly worsened financial circumstances? Will they avoid mass staff furloughs? Will they provide some sort of financial cushion for contingent faculty, who are the gig workers of higher education and who play such a vital role in educating students? If fall instruction remains online-only, will colleges offer reduced tuition for what is clearly a reduced experience? If they ask TAs to shoulder a greater set of responsibilities for undergraduate-student instruction, will they increase TA compensation accordingly?

Of course, it’s still reasonable to hope that, come late August, college campuses will once again become thriving academic and residential communities. But as cancellations move further into summer — the Olympics were scheduled to take place only a few weeks earlier than many fall move-in dates — colleges need a plan for what they will do if campuses need to remain closed this fall. It’s a plan we can hope they won’t need but that they can’t afford not to have.

John Villasenor is a professor of electrical engineering, law, and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is also the co-director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law, and Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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