We Made It Through, but the Online Format is Not a Long-term Solution: Planning for the Future

With 2.5 more weeks of “crisis-schooling” for the kids, a summer class to prep, and numerous other tasks, it was necessary for me to push through and finish Spring 2020. I submitted final grades for all of my classes yesterday. The last gen. ed. assignment for the semester required students to briefly reflect and describe their experiences, including additional challenges they faced.

This short essay was very telling and I learned a great deal about my students’ feelings, activities, and obstacles since the midterm. Students expressed concerns over their parents and other family members — about the future of their family businesses, recent unemployment, and health. Three or four students had family members who had recovered from COVID-19 or had had it themselves. Other students worried about vulnerable parents or grandparents, fearing what would happen if they became sick. Many had become unemployed and struggled to buy food and other essentials. On the flip side, some students had significantly increased their hours, working 40-60 hours a week in addition to school.

Access to reliable technology was a significant hurdle for a large portion of the class. One student had left a laptop in the dorm and had to wait more than a week to get it back. Other students had no WiFi at home and had to drive elsewhere to use D2L or they had WiFi but connectivity was poor. Students also experienced multiple challenges at the same time — working on a farm, for example, with no internet at home.

Students faced other challenges as well, getting stuck far from home after visiting a friend on Spring break, dealing with canceled trips, performances, and training. Issues related to mental health were frequently brought up, in relation to isolation, a lack of purpose, and distancing from the world. Furthermore, many expressed their personal difficulties with online learning, explaining that they struggle with time management and understanding material in an online delivery.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t know about these hindrances until the day of the final. I had asked about challenges periodically throughout the semester, but few had piped up. In other words, students were not seeking excuses and exceptions in these reflections, just conveying their current realities.

Obviously we had to shift online this semester and for the summer. Beyond that, though, these reflections reinforced what I was already suspecting: the online format fundamentally does not work for many students. While my own university did an exceptional job with providing resources and support, our students do not have the widespread access and support to fully succeed. It is just not feasible for a student to juggle separating cattle and driving 40 minutes to complete school work or sharing a computer with multiple family members in the same household.

On April 30th, President McPhee announced that on-campus classes with resume next semester. Knowing our students’ challenges, I support this decision.

If we don’t at least try to have in-person classes, I wonder how many students would not return in Fall 2020. For those who did come back, how many would fail because of limitations outside of their control? Moreover, what classes cannot be taught effectively online?

For all colleges and universities that plan to resume in-person, the question is how do we do this? Obviously, cases may escalate and the in-person experience may not be feasible in a few months. However, we can still plan for the different possibilities and at some point, will reopen.

  • Increase the number of online courses by having faculty identify which ones can go online. It makes sense to offer more online courses for students that choose this format, knowing that they have the resources to make it work. Increasing online courses would also help vulnerable faculty members who cannot safely teach in-person at this time. There’s a difference between offering and mandating the online format.
  • Allow vulnerable faculty and staff to work from home.
  • Rethink class sizes, splitting up large lectures. Schedule classes in larger capacity rooms.
  • Hold faculty and student training sessions for online learning.
  • Encourage all instructors to create contingency plans for the semester and communicate them to students.
  • In preparation for another shutdown, identify students that are most likely to struggle and help them prepare for the shift to online learning.
  • Share guidelines across disciplines and universities for in-person and online classes in this new normal.

Today’s post is my reflection on my students’ experiences this semester. I felt for the ones struggling and those who stopping submitting assignments and taking exams. I did what I could to help my classes make it through the content, but it still did not feel like enough. Well, maybe for crisis mode/half term. However, it’s definitely not the default path for future semesters.

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