Last month I asked our readers to contemplate whether or not we’re “on a road to nowhere” as we prepare for the fall and beyond. Today, I want to take a look at where we are on that road and consider what this journey may look like for the next several months.

So where are we on our “road to nowhere?” – considering options for fall.

It feels like every hour we learn that another large institution has decided to adopt a hybrid or online approach to learning for the fall. Just in the last month, according data collected by The Chronicle of Higher Education, we’ve moved from 64 percent of institutions planning to be completely on campus to 49% — that’s a 15% change over one month.

The differences among the types of institutions is also enlightening. Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i) now tracks and analyzes each institution’s decision about course modality for fall.

According to the analysis of that data by staff at The Chronicle of Higher Education there is a significant difference between the fall plans of universities and community colleges. The C2i data show that 25.3 percent of four-year institutions are planning to conduct the fall term primarily in person versus only 12 percent of two-year institutions.

But the largest difference comes when looking at plans for moving courses primarily online. At four-year institutions, 17.7 percent report plans to conduct the fall term primarily online versus 36 percent of two-year institutions. This table shows more of the data from C2i:

  Four year institutions Two year institutions
Modality To Be Determined 23% 35.5%
Other 7.5% 1.9%
Primarily online 17.7% 36.0%
Fully online with no students on campus 2.4% 3.8%
Fully online with some students on campus .9% .1%
Hybrid 19.7% 8.9%
Primarily in person 25.3% 12.0%
Fully in person 3.2% 1.1%

So why are so many four-year institutions adamant that students be on campus regardless of their course modality? I’ve written about the political pressures that public universities are facing in many states to resume campus operations and that clearly is at play here, especially as discussions of additional federal stimulus money is closely linking aid to the resumption of on campus life. Additionally, community colleges do not have to worry about expensive dormitories sitting empty or the loss of significant revenue when the football and basketball seasons are inevitably cancelled. And community colleges are used to doing online education. Columbia University’s Community College Research Center reports that 33 percent of all community colleges students enroll in at least one online class (20% are enrolled in some online and 13% are exclusively online). This is a slightly higher percentage than the 33 percent of all undergraduates.

So, what should the fall (and beyond) online environment look like?

As record unemployment continues, an increasing number of Americans will be in search of training and re-skilling. Those higher education institutions that offer certificates and other shorter-term credentials are in a position to see surges in enrollment as workers look to re-skill. Community colleges specifically are well positioned to see these enrollment surges this coming year as students that would normally enroll in a four-year institution decide to stay closer to home or decide that the loss of the traditional “college experience” isn’t worth paying the university’s higher tuition. Such students may turn to community colleges as a more economical option.

In my last post I suggested that we need to keep three basic tenets in mind as we respond to this unique crisis as distance educators.

  1. We must think more creatively about experiential learning.
  2. We must reevaluate what support looks like for both students and faculty.
  3. We must address equity.

Today, I have some notes for you on important elements of our current crisis plus some lessons learned from online education practitioners and researchers and some based on the experiences of our instructors in the field during this past Spring.

Before we talk about those tenets, I’d like to discuss an important element of our current crisis. Our current economic crisis is disproportionately impacting the Black and LatinX communities. Even under ideal economic conditions race impacts both employment and earnings regardless of education level. In 2019, Black workers with a baccalaureate degree faced a 3.4 percent unemployment rate compared to white workers’ 2.2 percent unemployment rate. But we are far from ideal with at least 30 million Americans (roughly one in five workers) collecting unemployment the week of July 2nd. And although the unemployment level for white Americans decreased to 12.4 percent from April, it rose for Black Americans (16.8%) and the Latinx population (17.6%). This unprecedented unemployment brings a surge in the number of Americans contemplating career changes and additional education with over a third of all Americans, regardless of race, reporting they would change careers if they lost their job.

Some notes on the current crisis

The pandemic is also impacting higher education enrollment, and that impact will likely continue for many years to come. A May 2020 survey conducted by Strada/Gallup found that Latinx and Black workers reported that they are likely to be enrolled in education or training in the coming months. At the same time, survey data shows that although the pandemic has forced students across racial groups to change or cancel their education plans, it has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx students (50% of Latinx students and 42% of Black students as opposed to 26% of white students).

Even those students still enrolled express concern over COVID-19’s impact on their lives with 77% of all students, including 84 percent of Black students and 81 percent of Latinx students, concerned about their ability to graduate on-time. And those that do remain enrolled will be in much greater need of funding and services. Over half of all students believe they will need more financial aid, over half believe they will need help finding a job upon graduation, and almost half of all students report the need for more academic support.

Some notes on our online education response

As online educators and leaders we need to have a frank discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of online education. Certainly, what we saw last spring was not the online education that we have dedicated our careers to. It lacked the deliberate design that we know is necessary for online education. That’s not to denigrate those faculty and students dedicated to continuing their education even in the midst of such disruption; it was a Herculean effort. But as the recent C2i shows, four-year and two-year institutions alike will be relying on online education in some fashion which means that we need to address the elephant in the room—online success rates.

This isn’t a blogpost about the debate over the quality of some of the research on online student success rates—there are others who know the literature much better than I do. But that debate doesn’t change the fact that in a number of cases we see lower success rates for Black and LatinX students. For example, in 2006/2007 the completion rate in California Community College online classes was 14 percent lower than face-to-face completion rates. That gap was much greater than their white peers. Completion was 17.9 percent lower than face-to-face students for Black students in online courses and 15.9 percent for LatinX students compared to 13.6 percent for white students. The good news is that when you pay attention to those numbers you can change what’s happening. By the 2016-17 academic year, those completion gaps were shrinking with only a 4 percent gap in completion compared to face-to-face students and the success rate was up for all students. One of the lessons: deliberate design and paying attention to the data can move the needle for Black and LatinX students.

An important piece of moving that needle is something that I don’t think we talk that much about—deliberately building a digital community for all students both inside and outside of courses.

Lessons Learned

Lesson 1: Consider the types of assignments you are making and the logistics of completing those assignments.

Recent student surveys are telling. Large numbers of students were unsatisfied with their academic experience last spring. The EY-Parthenon survey reported that students’ top “dislike” was “lower quality/less engaging teaching experience.” Ironically, an IthakaSR survey found that the hardest assignments for students to complete remotely were collaborative assignments.

Lesson 2: Be aware that access to technology is not enough to help students remain academically engaged. Students still need the time and place for that engagement.

Perhaps one of the most significant student success factors in the online environment is access to technology (which roughly ¾ of students who responded to a survey from Skyline College on remote learning reported they had) AND  a quiet place to study and work. The Skyline survey found that only 47 percent of students had a quiet place to work. As the survey administrator said, “Many students commented about not being able to keep up with the academic workload due to living in close quarters with family members and other pandemic related distractions.” Living quarters have, indeed, become a major indicator of a student’s ability to remain academically engaged. Economically secure students do not have to worry about food or housing.


Lesson 3: Be explicit in your directions and remember that students may be as new at navigating the online environment as you are.

Additionally, just as faculty need to be mentored as they move into teaching fully online and hybrid courses, so do students new to distance education. Faculty should take into consideration that students are new at navigating the pace, structure, and teaching and learning techniques involved with online courses, and it can be overwhelming. Instructors need to be more explicit in their guidance of the course, and institutions should consider developing an online student mentoring program that pairs seasoned online learners with new learners.

Lesson 4: Make sure students know that mental health support is available and how to access it. And remember that some of our students most in need will have difficulty accessing it and may need other, less formal support.

Non-academic elements of attended a college or university are just as important as the academic ones. Our students are in crisis as they try to manage lives that may feel out of control. Post-traditional students are juggling being both a student in their own online classes while acting as a teacher for their children’s remote instruction. LGBTQI students may find themselves in living with family members who they have not come out to. Other students may find themselves in crowded homes with multiple generations, potentially even in the role of caretaker. Students are clearly stressed. As the Top Hat student survey indicates, 52 percent of the students surveyed described feeling anxious and 38 percent reported that they are worried.

Lesson 5: Make sure that students have access to all of your campus resources and know how to locate and use them. Just as importantly, make sure that all faculty and staff are well-versed in the services that are offered and can direct students to the appropriate resources.

Students in crisis may also need different types of support. For example, the 52 percent of students who have experienced changes in their family income may need to access additional financial aid. Or the 50 percent of students who are worried about being able to find a job upon graduation may need more career planning services than the institution normally provides. Or perhaps increased academic advising will be needed for those students who are concerned that they are no longer on track to graduate. Institutions must make sure that all campus support services are fully available to all, especially online students.

Lesson 6: Institutions should, at the minimum, make sure all faculty and staff know what resources are available to them. Even better, institutions should provide staff and faculty with training that helps them recognize, understand, and help students in distress.

Finally, we should be mindful of deliberately working towards building a caring and compassionate community of support for students, faculty, and staff. In this community the traditional boundaries of jobs and services may erode as the institution takes a more holistic approach to helping students. This could mean that institutions will need to train all faculty and staff on both campus resources as well as trauma informed advising practices. In a supportive community everyone has the responsibility to proactively work with students to diminish their isolation.

In the last post I suggested that we might not be on a road to nowhere, but we still didn’t know where we are actually going. Although the situation is ever evolving in ways that might impact our destination, I think I see glimpses of where we could be. We could be heading to a place where the boundaries between our academic and non-academic campus communities are erased. Perhaps we’ll create a holistic community that is energized and united around the desire to meet student needs with compassion. We could be heading to a place where all aspects of the institution are truly centered on the needs of its students. This could be our bridge to what comes next for higher education, as long as we don’t get lost along the way.

To paraphrase David Bryne:

We’re on a road to somewhere
Let’s walk by my side
Taking that ride to somewhere
We’ll take that ride
I’m feeling okay this morning
And you know
We’re on the road to paradise
Here we go, here we go

Van Davis

Chief Strategy Officer, WCET

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