Distance education has been a buzzword in the field of higher education for decades now. While some colleges and universities across the country have embraced the trend wholeheartedly, others have been resistant to the idea. And then there are countless schools fall somewhere in between these two extremes. COVID-19 has upended this long-time debate, though, and the face of higher education may never be the same.
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Some critics of online higher education argue that the movement never caught on completely because it’s a poor substitute for a “real” college education. When the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the nation, though, universities had no choice but to move to online classes. While some schools and professors seem to be taking the transition in relative stride, others are more apprehensive.
The pandemic doesn’t discriminate between schools who embrace distance ed and those who prefer more traditional means of instruction, though. With residence halls vacated and campus facilities repurposed as field hospitals, students and teachers alike must make do with what’s available, ready or not. Fortunately, educational technology has made significant strides in recent years, so the existing resources aren’t too shabby.
Still, there are certain classes that are better left for in-person instruction. Courses like welding, dental hygiene, and nursing, for instance, require hands-on learning experiences that are impossible to replicate online. For career and technical education students and professors, however, the show must go on and it must be performed virtually, at least for now.
What Will Post-Pandemic Higher Education Look Like?
COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it, and higher education certainly hasn’t gone untouched. What the aftermath of the storm will look like remains to be seen. What we know so far, though, is that college students and their professors are currently embarking on an experiment the likes of which we’ve never seen. As scary as it all is, for those interested in teaching and learning, it’s also quite exciting.
Renowned college professors and university scholars across the nation are about to dig deep to find out just how far distance technology can really take us. Classes that were once regarded as “unfit” for online learning have been taken there anyway, for better or for worse. Meanwhile, we all wait with bated breath for the results of this unprecedented development in higher education.
In this article, we’ll feature some of the colleges and universities that have taken extraordinary (and sometimes unusual) steps to make distance education work for their students.
Case Western University
Case Western University medical students are using augmented reality to adjust to online classes. The university sent approximately 200 HoloLens units to students in order to prepare them for virtual learning during the pandemic. The wearable devices create hologram-like images that students can engage with during “hands-on” learning activities. In some classes, the devices are even replacing the use of cadavers.
No matter how big a proponent you are for online learning, it’s hard to deny the unique challenges that some types of classes pose for a virtual environment. One such class—a choir ensemble class at Kalamazoo College—is learning to make music together while apart. Associate professor of music Chris Ludwa has taken to recording himself conducting a piece and then sending the video to his students who then record themselves singing along to his conducting. To create the ensemble, the tracks and videos are edited and mastered. Ludwa says the experience has been rewarding and teaches students individual accountability. He even went so far as to say that a virtual element may be added to the course even after the pandemic passes.
Bronx, New York
A professor at Fordham University has taken to rapping on Zoom in order to keep his students engaged and put them at ease. His performance wasn’t just a random act of clownery, though—Mark Naison teaches a music history course at the university and has done so for over a decade. With just days to transition his class to online learning due to the impending pandemic, Naison came up with the idea for a rap song. The decision was made in part to alleviate his students’ anxieties about the new class format, and the reason for it. Students said the videos made them laugh and definitely kept their attention.
City Colleges of Chicago
Like most schools of higher education across the nation, City Colleges of Chicago was blindsided by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing closure of school facilities. The institution may have been more prepared than others, though, thanks to its $44 million investment in digital infrastructure made prior to the coronavirus outbreak. With the tools already in place, the transition to online learning has been relatively smooth for City Colleges students and faculty.
Still, there was the problem of student resources. A significant portion of the school’s student body experienced financial difficulties before the pandemic, and those issues are only exacerbated now. To help remedy the situation, the colleges have sent out over a thousand personal computers for students to use for distance learning. For career education courses, the school has even shipped out mannequins and other hands-on resources to enhance learning.
Indiana University is thinking outside of the box, and even outside its own university, to help everyone transition to distance learning. The school’s Higher Ed Learning Collective was formed in response to the pressing need for online teaching and learning resources, thanks to Covid-19. The initiative began as a Facebook group for educators and administrators but has since expanded to other social media platforms. It also has an official website. While the main purpose of the collective is to share pedagogical resources and strategies, there’s also an emphasis on wellbeing and self-care—something we could all use a little bit more of in these challenging times.
Great Basin College
For many lecture-style classes normally taught in college classrooms across the country, the transition to online education has been relatively seamless. While there are certainly some wrinkles that professors and students alike have had to iron out, a lecture delivered in a classroom isn’t too far removed from one delivered on Zoom.
What are instructors to do when mastery of a subject requires hands-on learning, though? An art professor at Great Basin College is demonstrating the answer to this question as she prepares to teach jewelry-making during a global pandemic. Gail Rappa has been both resourceful and calculated in her planning. She scrambled to create kits for her students to take with them before they were forced off-campus due to the coronavirus. Then, Rappa began adapting her lessons to circumstances she knew would be less than ideal—circumstances that would likely include a lack of necessary tools and plenty of distractions.
For Rappa and other educators like her, there is a silver lining, though. As they prepare to take their classes online, art educators around the globe are coming together via virtual platforms to share resources and compare strategies. It’s an exercise that provides not only professional development but a sense of comradery as well. Right now, those are two things instructors need the most to brave this new world of teaching and learning.
Truckee Meadows Community College
Another art instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College was also able to make take-home kits for more than 60 of her students, despite having just a two-day notice prior to classes being canceled due to COVID-19. Rossitza Todorova was recovering from back surgery when the pandemic shut down schools across the country. Anticipating the closures, she was able to give her students some forewarning. Now that she’s live-streaming classes on a regular basis, she realizes that her role goes beyond simply teaching art: “I can check in with students, make sure they’re not too alone, with the anxiety mounting.”
University of California-Berkeley
At the University of California-Berkeley, graduate student instructors played a critical role in helping professors transition to online learning mid-semester. In the school’s Department of Chemistry, these GSIs took turns photographing and filming experiments that would have been performed in nine different lab classes had the coronavirus not halted university classes. They then transferred the results into a PowerPoint presentation for students to download from home.
One instructor at UC-Berkeley is trying to find ways to accommodate students who are dealing with the stressors of moving back home while simultaneously keeping on top of their studies. Michelle Douskey, an introductory chemistry professor, became painfully aware of some of her students’ personal struggles after asking that they participate in an anonymous survey. Though she doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, Douskey is reaching out to colleagues for advice and modeling life balance and self-care for her students—two things they likely didn’t expect to learn in Chemistry 101.
A cursory look at how students and professors are handling the sudden shift to online learning is at once jarring and uplifting. These are people whose studies and careers have been suddenly disrupted, so the apprehension and weariness shows. Tenured instructors from Ivy-League universities are hurrying to declutter their home offices while bumbling over the technology necessary to live-stream a lecture. On the other end of the screen, students are shushing their younger siblings and throwing on clean hoodies before logging on to their new-fangled learning platforms.
And even so, there’s something truly inspiring about all of this hullabaloo. Perhaps it’s the collective persistence of a community who, faced with the challenge of a lifetime, refuses to give up on the goal of learning something new. And whatever the outcome of this massive educational experiment, that resilience won’t soon be forgotten.
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