As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the world, the higher education sector has been busy making plans to reduce the impact of the virus on upcoming semesters. This is especially so in the northern hemisphere, where many students usually begin the academic year in August and September (the "fall" or autumn semester).
With no clear indication as to how things will be by then, many institutions are already working toward optimizing online learning for the fall semester or looking towards hybrid options. Others are confident students will return to on-campus activities, either on time or later. Whatever direction the semester takes, it is highly likely that fall semester 2020 will be different from 2019.
Switch the Semester Online in Advance, or Wait?
A survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that more than half of America's colleges are considering remaining fully online for the fall semester or reducing in-person courses. The report found that 65 per cent are considering increasing the number of online courses available for the Fall semester. Another survey found that the vast majority of colleges are not yet considering altering the traditional structure of the semester calendar. Less than 20 per cent of colleges are expecting to add shorter courses of less than 16 weeks.
High-quality online learning
If classes continue to be taught online, expectations of increased quality may occur as students become used to the format after the initial emergency transition. This means that course convenors must find ways to improve their delivery, work out any problems and optimize programs in the next few months before the Fall intake.
Remote learning rather than "online" instruction One way to reimagine the Fall semester is to not to simply think of it one-dimensionally as "online" learning but instead as remote learning. The "remote learning" that students have experienced has involved lectures streamed via Zoom or other video conferencing software. However, courses for the Fall semester should be built with virtual delivery in mind, keeping consistent with course design, delivering meaningful online training and integrating student support beyond the standard Zoom-and-chat-room method. By adding more interactive elements, and promoting interaction in classes, a lot of changes can be made to improve the standard of delivery. Still, it remains to be seen how quickly the learning curve will improve by September, as educators juggle a plethora of tasks.
This can be achieved through a number of methods from Insider Higher Ed:
- Providing a high-touch experience, where faculty members communicate with students in many different ways, including weekly check-ins via Zoom, a group messaging app, email chain, forums, or other methods.
- Multimedia should be used to communicate in more meaningful ways. Instead of simply writing out instructions in an outline, lecturers could record audio or video clips explaining the tasks in more detail.
- Course convenors could create virtual clubs to mimic those that would typically be part of the on-campus experience. This could include virtual discussion groups facilitated via Facebook or online forums.
- Faculty should listen to student feedback about expectations and course workload and adapt where appropriate.
- Program directors should understand that there may be some circumstances where learning is different than on campus and where students need a flexible approach that accommodates their struggles in real-time.
Create hybrid solutions for overseas students
For some courses that rely heavily on student involvement in activities like STEM or the creative arts, course convenors could consider offering a hybrid semester. This could see the first half of the semester remaining online, with the second half of the semester integrating in-person activities in small groups as physical restrictions potentially begin to go back to normal.
Provide additional flexibility for international students
The ongoing global coronavirus pandemic does not only affect domestic students but also international students. Logistical problems such as campus closures, course cancellations and, most significantly, travel bans, are predicted to cause a decrease in international students to universities in the US, England and across Europe.
Of the number of international students who typically study abroad during the Fall semester, students from China make up the greatest percentage with 662,100 Chinese students studying overseas in 2018, with the most substantial proportion going to the United States. The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA) reported that the epidemic had caused 40 to 60 per cent of Chinese students to be directly blocked from attending college overseas by issues such as difficulties with applications and visas. While this may see students having to postpone their study plans for this year, the report identified that studying abroad is a long-term goal for students and that the overall trend of international study will not change.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the government has made a series of announcements relaxing visa requirements for international students, including temporarily allowing students to renew or change their visas without having to return to their home country. For future students, the UK government has also allowed universities to self-assess English-language competence, which will help handle the intake of students from countries like China.
To help international students, suggestions of hybrid learning options have been welcomed by many educators. While many international students may not be able to attend classes in person, there is still the option of participating in classes online. By allowing students to commence or continue their studies remotely while physical restrictions are in place and then eventually transition them back to campus when able, this can be a useful aid in attempting to stabilize international numbers for now.
In countries such as the United States, the success of these efforts will also rely heavily on visa laws and accreditation options over the coming months. Thus far, the United States Department of Education has allowed colleges the flexibility to cover coronavirus-related learning until June 1st. The extent to which the Department continues to allow COVID-related arrangements remains to be seen. During these times, staying up to date with official advisories and law changes is a vital part of working within international higher education at this time.
Stay open to change & be ready for the future
Facing so many unpredictable factors as we head into the second half of 2020, your institution can significantly benefit by using this period to improve remote learning infrastructure and delivery, as well as by learning how to quickly develop and implement emergency changes in the face of a crisis.
By being flexible and agile as an organization, your university will be able to help ensure students can pursue their education in times of crisis, no matter what the future brings. A factor of monumental importance when it comes to your students, and the wider community a large.
As such, we applaud your efforts, and look forward to a bright future for the higher education industry!