Students at dozens of colleges, including Columbia, Drexel, Northwestern, and Temple Universities, and the Universities of California and of Florida, are seeking refunds for inadequate educational offerings in the spring.
We survived the spring by moving our classes online in a manner that no one could imagine was possible. I am worried, though, that many colleges will not survive the fall without focusing on one of the most important issues from a student perspective — quality virtual education. Students are demanding something different than “remote instruction,” and we need to make major changes for them. The clock is not on our side.
The general model for the spring was remote instruction, where the faculty delivered its traditional content but did so via the internet. While students have cooperated with this transition, it is becoming increasingly clear that they will not be satisfied with this model for the long term or even just the fall. In fact, 16 percent have said that such a situation would lead them to defer for a semester or even the year, according to a survey by Art & Science Group. Why? In addition to the obvious on-campus benefits of personal networking, social interactions, and the entire community experience, students justifiably say that the quality of the online classroom experience is not equal. They believe virtual instruction lacks careful design, interactions, feedback, faculty comfortable with the technology, and adequate challenges and expectations (yes, even students want those). Other factors are the challenging IT infrastructure at some universities and the lack of access to technology among low-income students. And many of the one million international students find time-zone issues problematic, as well as the regulations that limit earning academic credit while abroad.
Universities hope to avoid a repeat of the spring/summer remote instruction, given signs that students will react with lower enrollments and demands for lower tuition. That is why so many colleges are publicly planning a return of students to campus come August — up to 68 percent according to a Chronicle survey of colleges’ plans for the fall and of chief financial officers by ABC Insights. Others call that approach short-sighted given the health risk to students, employees, and their families. Regardless of your stated position or baseline projection, you should plan, immediately and aggressively, for 100-percent online education as your starting point. Only then can you be as prepared as possible for that outcome and avoid the chaos that may ensue if you wait until late in the summer to develop and execute a strategy for the fall.