US colleges urged to sharpen online teaching for next year

Improving remote learning may be smartest move universities can make, quality chief advises

May 25, 2020
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While publicly dangling possibilities and preparations for campus reopenings, US colleges must keep a serious internal focus on strengthening their remote learning options, their chief quality assurance advocate is warning.

US colleges appear to be making good progress towards online proficiency, said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. But the former chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system added in an interview: “This is an opportunity to develop. From my perspective, there are several things that need to be addressed as we’re going forward.”

A small but growing number of US colleges and universities have already acknowledged that they will spend at least part of the fall semester without their students on campus.

Yet even as medical professionals have expressed scepticism about the safety of holding large gatherings in coming months, the majority of institutions outwardly have been putting more emphasis on their ideas for reopening their campuses – with details of physical distancing and facilities disinfecting – than on their strategies for improving the online educational experience.

In a conference call with Mike Pence, the US vice-president, and Betsy DeVos, the US education secretary, several university presidents reportedly emphasised their hopes for legal protections in the likely event that their reopened campuses spread coronavirus infections.

Dr Eaton said of online options: “We don’t know for sure, but it’s starting to look like we’re going to need to be more reliant on that in the fall.”

For colleges, however, the urgency of resuming in-person instruction is clear. Many students have been demanding it and have been threatening to skip the autumn semester or to press for substantial tuition fee reductions if their only options are online. Institutions of all sizes have been warning of serious financial troubles if that happens, with hundreds already beginning to make salary or staffing cuts.

Yet establishing a high-quality online operation – covering the full range of academic and administrative needs – demands dedicated commitment, said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, whose 140,000-student operation is almost entirely remote.

“To do online well, and to mount a major effort, requires investment at the precise moment that they don’t have the resources,” said Dr LeBlanc, a leading expert who is being besieged by other institutions’ requests for advice.

One of the most serious threats to almost any US university under financial stress is the potential loss of accreditation, which the US Education Department requires for an institution’s students to be eligible for federal loans and grants.

The department has been waiving or extending many accreditation-related deadlines and requirements for in-person instruction, and the accrediting agencies whose judgement it officially recognises have been postponing inspection visits or conducting some aspects remotely.

But according to Dr Eaton, it is not clear how strictly accreditors will treat any online programmes that, by the autumn, remain little more than teachers talking to their students over Zoom or similar platforms.

Such questions are only beginning to be raised by accrediting agencies in their group discussions, said Dr Eaton, whose association serves as their umbrella advocacy organisation. “We’re just starting to get into this area,” she said.

Dr Eaton said she had no comment on the quality of online instruction in the current spring semester, when colleges and universities were quickly forced to shut campuses by the surprise spread of the coronavirus.

But by the fall, she said, “the academic experience needs to be a robust one – it needs to be fully engaged; it needs sophisticated platforms; it needs creativity in offerings; it needs in-depth counselling, advising, academic support for students.”

Dr LeBlanc said those institutions and students with the least resources would suffer the most in the transition. “One of the things we’re seeing with the pandemic is a very sharp light being cast on privilege and inequity,” he added. “And that’s certainly true of higher education right now.”

Nevertheless, some federal policies may be making that problem even worse. Congressional Democrats have been criticising Ms DeVos for actions that they claim include garnishing the wages of student loan borrowers during the pandemic, and directing institutional relief money towards colleges she favours, and away from those serving undocumented immigrants.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Colleges should hone virtual tools

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