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Most college and university administrators and faculty members are desperate for their campuses to be open in the fall, believing that the in-person experience is essential to what they do.

But the reality is that campuses may well remain closed to students in the fall, and colleges and universities should focus their attention on making a fully virtual experience the best it can possibly be.

That’s the message of a report published today by the research firm Eduventures, days after the head of the California State University system said its 23 institutions would almost certainly start the fall semester virtually -- the most visible such announcement yet, with many more colleges announcing they are planning to open.

The Eduventures report, written by the organization’s lead researcher, Richard Garrett, hardly roots for colleges to remain shuttered to students this fall. It cites the difficulties the campus shutdowns have imposed on many students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, and acknowledges as legitimate the doubts of many college professors and administrators that “any form of remote learning can truly emulate the college experience.”

As evidence of that sentiment, it cites a comment posted on an Inside Higher Ed article last month that described the nature of this spring’s emergency situation, despite yeoman's work by faculty and staff members, and concluded, “If it is not possible to resume in-person instruction in fall, the only responsible course of action would be to cancel the semester and close the colleges.”

Nonetheless, Eduventures “takes seriously the prospect of a fully remote fall semester for some or many schools,” given the “vagaries” and scientific realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widely varying health and political landscapes in different regions of the country.

If campuses are unable to open physically in the fall -- and therefore less able to deliver on what Garrett calls the “higher education fundamentals” of “learning communities, diversity of ideas, human formation,” can canceling the semester and closing the colleges really be the right answer? “Surely the right move is not to give up, postpone or settle, but to recreate those fundamentals in new ways,” the report states.

It adds, “If fall 2020 can’t happen on campus, we need to find a way for it to happen, vibrant and unchecked, online.”

In an interview, Garrett said he understands the tendency of many people at traditional colleges to assume that without the campus, "we can't function." But the "essence of higher education is not defined by these physical objects," Garrett said. "It can persist between engaged faculty, staff and students. We just have to reimagine how."

How to Do It

That's the report's goal. And like many things, it starts with mind-set, Garrett argues. He urges faculty members to take a growth rather than fixed mind-set and for a positive rather than negative attitude about online instruction.

“If presidents, faculty, and staff -- and students -- approach a remote fall term with the attitude that online learning is inherently substandard and no amount of imagination or effort will change that, then the result will either be a poor facsimile of a student experience or no higher education at all until the pandemic has passed,” he writes. “Neither scenario, in terms of school mission, student well-being and mobility, institutional finances, or national fortitude, is a welcome one.”

Instead, "institutional leaders need to find a way to convey a vision for the fall semester that increases student enthusiasm, deepens faculty loyalty, and galvanizes support staff. In extremis, higher education is not defined by buildings, desks, and chairs. If it is then the pandemic will win, and higher education will be bowed."

More practically, the report explores the three major areas it says undergraduates care about: academics, extracurricular activities and social life.

Regarding instruction and academics, the solution isn't about flashy technology purchases, Eduventures argues. Core elements of a virtual instructional model for the fall would include the flipped classroom, a mix of live group interactions and asynchronous discussions between those live sessions (to "avoid instructor burnout" and ensure pedagogic variety), and peer-driven elements. It also calls for greater dependence on predeveloped instructional materials (freely available open educational resources, pre-existing course libraries such as those developed by massive open online course providers and greater use of digital labs, practicums and field trips.

He also suggests that campus administrators and instructors may need a "new compact" on a more centralized and systematized approach to course development, rather than leaving the building of courses up to each faculty member's own preferences on structure and format. That may make many faculty members bristle, but "it is definitely necessary" in a moment like this, Garrett said.

The Importance of the Nonacademic Experience

Many colleges and universities have some experience providing online learning, but mostly with a focus on adult learners, who have less (if any) need for most of what happens outside the classroom on a residential undergraduate campus.

If four-year colleges continue to find themselves shuttered in the fall, and they hope to keep many 18-year-olds as students, they're going to have to figure out a way to meaningfully deliver (or at least enable) the extracurricular and social experiences that "for many traditional students are why they enroll," Garrett said. "If colleges ignore that glue and just focus on narrow academics, they turn the traditional college experience into the adult learner experience," and that's not what they want.

Some elements are easier than others to replicate. Athletics "is a tough one," the report states, as "team sports are impossible to move online." But arts and culture, politics, religious life, and volunteering are all possible to create versions of and windows into. The report singles out Neumann University, in Pennsylvania, as one institution that is "creating a visually engaging online presence mid-pandemic," with a webpage that ties together student stories and wellness resources.

Institutions won't be able to reproduce the "casual conversations, meetings in the hallway, late-night philosophizing, parties, themed housing" that are core to many colleges' campus lives, the report states. But technologies can help institutions not just connect students but identify and reach out to students "who appear isolated," Eduventures says.

Colleges can create electronic "buddy systems" that start structured conversations from which more natural online socializing might grow, build opt-in discussion groups on certain topics or "socialize suggestions, templates and examples and then get out of the way," the report states.

Like many observers, Garrett believes much is at stake in how colleges respond this fall. Students will expect a meaningful educational experience in whatever form they receive it, in person or virtually, but given the poor job market and limited travel opportunities, current and incoming students will be more rather than less inclined to "stick with their enrollment plans," he said.

But "colleges need to be a guide to students, newcomers and current, as they make decisions between now and the fall; talking up re-opening plans but also being up-front (and positive) about Plan B," the report concludes. "The online toolkit, in the hands of committed leaders, students, faculty, and staff, can build the resilience and know-how to keep college alive and kicking. This is not about schools finally acceding to the prophets of techno-disruption; this is about medium-term survival, values intact, for long-term prosperity."

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