3 Small College Advantages in the Sudden COVID-19 Shift to Remote Education

Where money isn’t everything.

March 23, 2020

The voices of small colleges are seldom heard in public conversations about higher education. Faculty and staff of wealthy private and public flagship institutions have a bigger platform from which to share their experiences. There is less professional development money and fewer leadership roles at small colleges, resulting in less representation in volunteer leadership positions in professional associations.

There are times, however, when small colleges are at the forefront of higher ed practices. At these times, it is vital to listen to, and amplify, the voices of small-college educators.

Despite the conventional wisdom, small colleges are perhaps in a better position to successfully manage the required instantaneous pivot from residential to remote education than their larger (and perhaps wealthier) peers.

How could this be so? Don’t the advantages of scale and wealth put brand-name schools at an advantage when negotiating the rapid transition to remote education? Yes and no.

Colleges and universities with both large endowments and well-staffed IT departments and faculty development units can provide faculty with many more resources to support remote instruction than smaller and less wealthy schools.

There are three areas, however, where I see small colleges having a distinct advantage in the fast and total move to remote learning.

Small College Advantage No. 1: Small Classes

What is the biggest factor in determining if a remote course is successful? I’d say “presence.”

The best online learning is relational. Professors connecting with students as individual learners. Students knowing that their professors are interested in them as individual learners.

When it comes to achieving educator/learner connections in remote courses, the size of small colleges puts them at an advantage. They are small. Classes are mostly small.

The very thing that puts small colleges at risk -- their dependence on a limited number of tuition-paying students to pay the bills -- is an advantage when all teaching is remote.

Small College Advantage No. 2: Fewer Organizational Silos

A second advantage that small colleges have in rapidly transitioning from face-to-face to remote learning is the all-hands-on-deck nature of this work. Everyone needs to pitch in to help the professors and support the students. Job titles and established roles matter less in a time of crisis.

Faculty and staff at small colleges are accustomed to wearing many hats. They already do multiple jobs and therefore have a good understanding of how the teaching and learning enterprise works across their institutions.

It is easier to pivot a bunch of generalists than to shift a cadre of specialists.

Small College Advantage No. 3: Commoditized Digital Education Platforms

The third reason I think that some of the best rapid-remote education will occur at small colleges has to do with technology. Teaching and learning platforms have been commoditized, meaning that there are few differences across systems.

If a school has a learning management system, then they are basically good to go to teach remotely. Synchronous meeting/classroom platforms can get more expensive when integrated into a school’s authentication system, or when important features such as captions are enabled. Still, there are low-cost (and free) consumer alternatives.

I don’t want to minimize the cost of ed-tech platforms for teaching and learning, or the degree of difficulty in stitching together low-cost consumer alternatives. Having budget dollars to allocate to remote educational technologies makes this work easier.

It is also true, however, that the technologies and platforms that almost every college already uses for face-to-face instruction can be repurposed for remote learning.

If you are faculty or staff at a small college, can you tell us about your experience transitioning to remote education?


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