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How to Make the Academic Enterprise More Resilient

Sustainability is as important in the academic world as in the natural environment.

April 7, 2020
 
 

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

COVID-19 will not be the last disruption that higher education will encounter. There’s every reason to think that many other disruptions lie ahead.

Next time, we need to be better prepared. That will require us to create more resilient institutions, a point that Michael Feldstein suggests in a recent blog post.

How can we make our institutions better able to cope with the disasters that inevitably lie ahead? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Every class should have a robust online component.

No one can tell a faculty member or department what to do, but I think it has become clear that even nominally face-to-face classes should become hybrid courses, with a substantial and substantive online presence.

That online component might include readings, chunked lectures, guest presentations, tutorials and opportunities for supplemental instruction and student-led study groups.

2. We need to make sure our students are better prepared for what the future brings.

Currently, too many students do not have access to a laptop or a broadband connection. There is reason to think that as many as 20 percent of our students do not have reliable access to the tools that they need. Our institutions need to devise strategies to ensure that all students do have these essential resources.

3. All student services should be hybrid, too.

All our offices should offer online as well as in-person access to tutoring, group consultations, advising, assistance with financial aid and career services.

4. We’ve tried remote learning, now we need to think more seriously about creating carefully architected, highly interactive digital learning environments.

We need to move beyond digitized lectures, narrated PowerPoint presentations and webinars and produce courses that are more state-of-the-art. These might include online experiences that involve high-impact practices; personalized, adaptive learning pathways; and an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.

This will require hiring staff who can create and recommend the digital tools that faculty need.

5. Instructors and departments should think about backup plans before disaster strikes.

There will be times when labs are closed. What about lab kits? What about digital simulations? What about high-quality instructional videos that show labs in session? What about approaches that give students access to lab-generated data?

6. We must not water down the educational experience.

With only a week or two to prepare, faculty did the best they could to place existing courses online. The end result, I think it is fair to say, is great unevenness.

We can do better -- and we should.

Perhaps this will require licensing proctoring software to allow students to take high-stakes exams remotely. Perhaps we need to better teach our students how to do rigorous online research in particular disciplines. Perhaps it involves assigning students unconventional projects that can be done remotely -- for example, annotating texts, contributing to an online encyclopedia or creating a digital story.

7. We need to train more faculty to be able to undertake high-quality digital teaching.

We need to create more opportunities for training and make sure these are sufficiently incentivized to encourage individual faculty to take part.

We could incentivize faculty to redesign the courses using backward design and evidence-based teaching practices and incorporate not just OER readings but digital tools, sophisticated simulations and interactives, and online tutorials, along with frequent low-stakes assessments.

Much of the talk about sustainability focuses, quite understandably, on the natural environment. But faculty and administrators should also look at the sustainability of our own academic environment. A first step is to design courses from the outset that are flexible, adaptable and resilient.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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