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It’s difficult to imagine higher education facing a more intense set of challenges than what we are seeing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges will likely be felt for years to come, but fall 2020 will test many of the standards and structures that we have come to associate with higher education.
While no one can foresee what will happen in the fall, most colleges and universities are thinking through a range of options. These options tend to fall along a continuum, with everything being back to normal on one end and fully remote learning on the other. The former is mostly outside the control of most institutions and the latter an option that many would rather not choose, at least not yet. In between is where it gets complicated.
Here are 15 scenarios for the fall that we think schools will be considering.
In this scenario, the fall semester looks like any other fall semester. Residential students return to campus; commuting students participate in classes on campus as usual. All co-curricular and curricular activities pick up as usual. Life is back to normal, perhaps (hopefully) with some lessons learned from the upheaval of the spring about the importance of investments in teaching and learning support.
One possibility for the fall is that colleges and universities begin the semester later than usual, perhaps sometime in October or even early November, whenever the social distancing restrictions can accommodate students gathering together in classes on campus. Schools may choose to start online and then pick up face-to-face slightly later in the semester, or they may postpone the start of the semester until there is a vaccine, better testing or a clear turning point in our fight against the ongoing spread of COVID-19.
While under the previous scenario the fall semester would start late, it still assumes a fall semester would take place within the boundaries of the normal fall semester. In this scenario, the fall semester would be postponed until January 2021. From there, schools might choose to push back the spring semester to the summer, or push through a modified calendar to make spring and a much shorter summer session possible. This is a drastic step, but it is one that some colleges are actively considering as part of their fall planning.
How a student begins their college experience may be the best predictor of how their college experience will end. The ability of a student to persist through the rigors of college life is in part dependent on the quality of the support they receive in orienting to the independence and intensity of college-level work. Recognizing the importance of the first year and the first few weeks and months of the transition to college, this plan brings only first-year students to campus in the fall. First-year students learn in residential classes, while also participating in a full range of campus-based orientation and social-connecting exercises. Sophomores, juniors and seniors continue to learn remotely for the fall semester.
Like the first-year intensive model, this approach would identify select student populations for return to campus. In this model, a smaller population of graduate students might return to campus to continue studies and to help with research continuity. There are other ways of identifying student populations -- by school, by major, by class -- that could also be combined with curricular and administrative considerations such as class size and need for face-to-face interaction.
Many colleges and universities have extensive study abroad and gap year options. While study abroad will still likely be a challenge in the fall, one approach to creating a lower-density model for the fall would be to implement a broader-scale approach to gap year experiences. Students could propose project-based experiences that could be implemented and managed while social distancing rules are still in place. This model would depend heavily on whether options for students to make the gap year a meaningful experience are available given social distancing restrictions.
One approach option for fall is to reduce the number of courses being offered to limit on campus density and to prioritize support resources. Schools are considering a variety of ways of doing this, including focusing on core courses or signature experience courses, eliminating low-enrollment courses, and prioritizing courses that can be more easily adapted to multiple modalities. Courses that are not part of the targeted pool are taught online.
In a split curriculum scenario, courses are designed as either residential or online. Students who are able to come back to campus (up to the population in which social distancing rules can be enforced) can choose to enroll in either format. Requiring a defined proportion of enrollments to be in online courses for residential students may increase the number of students that can return to campus. This scenario has the advantage of simplifying the course-development process for faculty and the course-selection process for students, while also running the maximum number of residential courses possible while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
This scenario mimics what some colleges already do. Students would take one course at a time during much shorter (three or four weeks) sessions or blocks, run consecutively for the entire semester. The advantage, besides an interesting and intensive pedagogy, is flexibility. If something were to change in the situation related to the pandemic, such as a new second wave of infections, schools could more easily pivot to remote or face-to-face learning at breaks between blocks.
The block plan is a dramatic departure from the normal curricular structure at most schools. It would likely require a full rethinking of the curriculum, teaching practice and administrative processes. Moving to a more modular course model might be more attractive and more easily implementable within existing structures. Courses could be structured in a variety of ways that would be consistent with the mission and signature strengths of the institution. At one institution, students might take five course modules over seven and a half weeks and then switch to a different five courses. Or students might take a semester-long seminar in their major with shorter modules for electives and labs.
11. Students in Residence, Learning Virtually
Much like the model of Minerva Schools at KGI, this approach would bring students back to campus, perhaps at a slightly less dense rate, while still teaching courses in a virtual environment. Students would be able to take advantage of many co-curricular activities that were set up for effective social distancing, but classes, where the correct density of students sitting for long periods of time in a room is still a relative unknown, would be taught online.
In this model, similar to how many online and executive programs work now, students would come to campus for intensive face-to-face experiences and then return home to complete the semester online. Students would be brought to campus in iterative waves. This would allow for greater density control. Rich face-to-face pedagogical experiences with peers and faculty could be developed while still maintaining social distancing. The online part of the semester would be enhanced by student familiarity with each other.
The HyFlex model is perhaps the most flexible and for many will be the most attractive. It is also possibly one of the more difficult approaches for faculty. In this model, courses would be taught both face-to-face and online by the same instructor at the same time. Students could choose to return to campus or stay home. Those on campus could be assigned certain class slots when face-to-face is an option, allowing the schools greater control of social distancing in the classroom. This model tends to privilege synchronous learning, and to do it well often requires real-time in-class help (a TA or course assistant to manage the online students), an intentionally designed classroom and a great deal of patience from both the students and faculty.
Another approach that gives students and the university a great deal of flexibility is a modified tutorial model. In this model, students would take a common online lecture session. Faculty and or TAs would then meet with small groups of students in tutorials that would allow for social distancing to be employed. Unlike the HyFlex model, a modified tutorial model does not require additional in-class support to manage the technology. The disadvantage is that it asks more of a faculty member’s time to be dedicated to meeting with students.
15. Fully Remote
Perhaps the most obvious option for the fall is to continue doing what we’ve been doing this spring. Students would be taught in a virtual environment from wherever they happen to be. Successes from this spring could be carried over to the fall, and lessons learned could be employed. Co-curricular activities would be a challenge, but student groups and many activities could be carried forward online, if only temporarily.
These models are not all distinct, and many overlap. Each brings with it nuances and opportunities for modification and creative solutions unique to a specific campus. Many will require highly adaptable faculty committed to marrying synchronous and asynchronous learning in flexible, dynamic ways.
Additionally, all of these options may not be completely feasible at any one institution, but all may turn out to be necessary thought experiments as schools plan for the unknowns of the coming academic year.
What is clear with any of these models, though, is that support for teaching and learning, advising, student (not to mention faculty and staff) health and well-being, and coordination and logistics will need to be reinforced in all of these 15 scenarios. Adopting any (or any combination) of these scenarios for the fall will also require us to reimagine how we build a supportive learning community. None of this will be easy.
Over the next couple of weeks, we will be working to delve more deeply into as many of these scenarios as possible. Our goal is to synthesize these ideas and to make some recommendations in a concise digital-only book, tentatively titled The Low-Density University. We’d love to hear your feedback on scenarios we’ve missed or how your school is thinking about the scenarios above.