Boston-area universities planning for uncertain fall

According to the Boston Globe, the area’s major universities acknowledge that a normal fall semester might not be possible.

“If the virus is still around and we don’t have testing capacity, reopening becomes very, very difficult,” said Brown president Christina Paxson. “You always hope for the best and plan for the worst. It’s irresponsible not to plan for it.”

While September is still months away, universities with thousands of students, hundreds of faculty, and tens of millions of dollars in contracts have to get organized soon. In the coming weeks, they will have to start making budget plans and informing students and staff who have to make their own decisions about travel, renting apartments, and other logistics.

Easing faculty members’ minds as fears of lengthy closed campuses fester

The question is being asked all across the country: Will coronavirus again require all of us to teach off-campus in the fall? Or, in an even more unsettling option, will coronavirus close my college or university for the fall?

The answer: No one knows.

America’s 50 states’ governors and the president of the United States don’t agree on much, but they absolutely agree that the sooner America can put coronavirus to rest, the better. But absent a proven vaccine, which if identified and available within 12 to 18 months would be breathtakingly fast, to combat the virus, America can’t fully return to normal.

Therefore, higher education can’t return to normal. Or at least it can’t without recognizing the need to abruptly scale back to what we’re experiencing right now.

Yes, efforts will be made at some point to gradually re-open the country, and all of us in higher education would be thrilled if our institutions are open in time for a typical fall term.

Reality tells us that might not be possible.

I recently wrote about the need for honest and transparent leadership within higher education during the coronavirus crisis. Today, I want us to have an honest and transparent discussion about what another semester using modern technologies would mean for us.

I hope a calm and sober conversation helps you reflect on what you can do, and can be, if higher education continues to be disrupted in the fall.

First, you’re not an online instructor. Rather, you’re required to teach remotely because of coronavirus. This isn’t a creative play on words. Quality online education has a specific set of rather regimented requirements regarding pedagogy; anyone who has taught an online class will tell you that regimentation ensures a solid learning experience for our students.

This regimentation isn’t in play when you’re teaching remotely. Rather you’re taking your on ground class and moving it into a different modality. So, yes, this summer if your university offers you the chance to be trained in online teaching, take advantage of it. That training would allow you to teach online courses in the future. But completing such training won’t be required of you then, just as it isn’t now, if your on ground class needs to be transitioned to a different teaching mode.

Second, you won’t re-create the on ground classroom in a remote delivery modality, and that’s true even if you’re teaching synchronously. This builds on the first point. Sure, you ’ll take as much of the on ground course with you as you can, but you can’t take it all. As one example, a lengthy lecture in a classroom works, but a lengthy lecture delivered via video conference doesn’t. You can’t play off the faces, the body language, the inquisitive looks of the students who are in that classroom with you when you’re looking into a web camera. Their curiosity, even their boredom, sustains you. (Side note: More than one faculty member has grown frustrated after watching the recordings of their lectures, noting how often they use words such as “um” or seem to pause in unnatural places. Moment of truth: We do that in our classrooms, and no one notices. Don’t be hard on yourself right now, or ever. Be you!)

What are some of the best options for remote instruction? You will find a host of ideas and resources from various centers of teaching and learning. I’ve included five here: Boston College, Elon, Robert Morris, USC and Vanderbilt.

Third, your stress level often is significantly lower than your students’. Depending upon your particular family situation, you might have elderly parents, a spouse or young children also staying at home with you at the moment. And this living arrangement is likely to remain in place for the duration of the pandemic.

Each of those people require your attention to a greater or lesser degree every day. Right now, it might seem hard to find the space and the calm you need to work and to take care of yourself. But our students are more likely to be in more challenging family situations, and they also might lack the top-level Internet access they had on campus. If we’ve been following the national conversation in higher education over the past month, then we’re well aware of the messages our colleagues are receiving from students: They’ve lost family members to coronavirus; they don’t own a laptop to do their work; their bedroom is no longer theirs; food scarcity is evident. Be a calming and reassuring force for them; far too many of them need a rock of support right now, and they’ll continue to need that over the summer and into the fall.

Fourth, you’re a partner with thousands of colleagues across the country (and the world). The ideas they’ve shared on at least two Facebook groups, Pandemic Pedagogy and Higher Ed Learning Collective, provide opportunities for you to consider what you might incorporate into your remote class.

The challenges our peers face look very much the same from east to west, north to south: making technology do what we want it to do; creating assignments that are practical in this unsettled environment; addressing our students’ mental health concerns; coping with our own anxieties; identifying cheating; determining how flexible to be with grading; offering advice to each other, and more. In much the same way we want our students to know they’re not alone on some island as they complete this term, we need to know that we’re not alone as we provide instruction.

Beginning today and continuing right up to that moment when your president or chancellor announces how teaching will be delivered on your campus in the fall semester, you want to prepare the content for your classes, shut out the distraction, focus on taking care of you and your family, embrace the weird that comes with staying at home and find the opportunities that come from crisis.

A friend who teaches at Ohio University wrote the other day that he’s laying out three TENTATIVE (his capitalization) syllabi for the fall. The first: teaching an entire semester on ground. The second: teaching part of the semester on ground and part of the semester remotely. The third: teaching remotely for the entire term.

He realizes, however frustrated he might be, that he has no idea which syllabus he’ll use. But he’s embracing the unknown with the typical good cheer that defines him.

All of us need to do the same.