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On campus or online? Looking ahead to the coming academic year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Universities and colleges are forming contingency plans for a number of scenarios for the coming academic year
  • These range from a return to campus in September to a continuation of online delivery through to January and everything in between, including blending programmes and more selective campus openings

These are the weeks that will determine the shape of the coming academic year for universities and colleges across the northern hemisphere. Will campuses re-open in September? Or will higher education institutions continue to rely on online delivery for the fall semester with an eye to bringing students and staff back to campus in January?

Those two scenarios are now the bookends for a number of contingency plans currently in development by institutions across North America, Europe, and beyond as the pandemic continues through this quarter.

Nobody wants to say it out loud just yet but the prospects for business as usual on higher ed campuses this September are more in doubt with every passing month. “How do you decide if it will be safe to bring students back to campus for the fall when there’s no reliable prediction of what course the disease will take?” said Lee Gardner in a recent item for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Wait too long for clarity to emerge, and you’re scrambling. Act too soon, and you might miss the chance — albeit perhaps a slim one — for an ordinary move-in day. What happens if the virus is contained this summer, then roars back in the fall?”

Some institutions have already adopted a revised calendar for the coming academic year to better deal with this range of possibilities. Earlier this month, the University of Aberdeen became the first UK institution to announce a delayed start date. Its academic year is now scheduled to begin on 21 September (rather than 7 September). The university advises as well that, “We will soon be asking our staff to begin to prepare for the 2020/21 session by planning for online provision, which will be available to students who cannot travel to campus, or which will replace face-to-face teaching in the event of continued restrictions in September 2020.”

In the US, Beloit College has already announced a new structure for its fall semester. The Wisconsin liberal arts college will offer two seven-week “mods” this fall, rather than a single 14-week semester. “We believe that the flexibility of the modular approach allows you to plan now for your fall semester with an expectation of less disruption to your educational experience whether it is happening on-campus or off-campus,” President Scott Bierman said in a letter to students. “At this point, we have not made any decisions about extending modules into the spring semester.”

In Canada, University of Waterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur said in a recent statement to his campus community that, “Like every university, college and school in the country none of us can predict with confidence what the situation will be in September…For now, we must build full plans for the Fall term to happen at a distance. This means building on what we are learning as we complete Winter term and prepare for Spring term at a distance. We must continue to redesign courses and perhaps adjust program elements or sequencing so that students can continue to demonstrate learning in new ways.”

These early moves highlight the various scenarios institutions are considering for the fall, and the need for university and college leaders to preserve as much flexibility as possible. A survey of US colleges conducted earlier this month by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) found that nearly six in ten responding colleges (58%) are “considering or have already decided” to remain fully online for fall 2020. Almost three quarters of respondents (73%) said that they are “considering increasing, or have increased” the number of online courses available.

This last point underscores the further work going on in many institutions to better support online learning. The abrupt shift to online over the last two months allowed many students to finish their academic years but not without challenges, including a more limited class selection, a loss of experiential learning, and a recognition in many quarters that further investments would be required to improve the student experience. “The kind of remote learning that most campuses delivered on the fly during this spring’s crisis may have been sufficient for the moment,” notes Inside Higher Ed. “But it was not nearly as good as the instruction most colleges normally deliver in person or that’s available to students in many high-quality online programmes…Delivering higher-quality online or virtual instruction by the fall will take a huge amount of planning and work – and it should start soon.”

For some institutions, this sets up a pressing requirement to quickly and more substantially adapt their course catalogues for online delivery. For others, and especially those that rely heavily on lab work and other experiential learning, it may spur new cross-institution collaborations to deliver a wider range of online courses. Not that that is not already a challenging scenario, but many institutions will now be making these choices while faced with a number of escalating financial pressures arising from cancelled summer programmes, projected domestic and international enrolment shortfalls, and expected cuts in public funding for the year ahead.

Universities and colleges will accordingly pursue every opportunity to restore some level of on-campus programming and services this fall. Or, failing that, to provide a compelling online offer to bridge students through until in-person learning can safely resume. To say the least, the stakes are high with the enrolment base, and even the survival of some institutions, hanging in the balance.

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