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Higher Education During a Pandemic (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | Higher Education during a Pandemic (Part 2)
Changes made in response to the COVID-19 crisis will erode the traditional model of post-secondary education and likely result in a far more equitable and compassionate learning model.

In March 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic invaded, and education turned on a dime, moving to distance education to comply with social distancing rules. Although some faculty and students already engaged in online education, everyone else moved at an amazing speed to provide all learning at a distance. Educators quickly converted lessons designed for the classroom, while others abandoned whole instructional areas to address later during future face-to-face classes. At the onset of the pandemic, we were ill-prepared to abandon traditional modes of instruction and established curriculum, and lacked well-accepted, mainstream processes to recognize, evaluate, and credential what students know.

Some students are adapting to distance learning more easily than others, and some are not adapting at all. The number of students who have dropped or failed and the extent to which planned curriculum was or was not met are yet unknown. The close of the 2020 academic year will precipitate larger equity gaps between students than already existed, separating students by who does or does not have access to the necessary technology, the environments and support to learn at a distance, and adequate instructional materials to meet expected learning outcomes. Massive learning gaps and increases in non-completers have and will continue to occur nationwide. These issues are still to be assessed.

Processes and policies were challenged at the onset. Prior to the pandemic, when students didn’t follow a pre-determined linear pathway to gain credentials and obtain employment, the prevailing view was that the individual caused their own lack of education, regardless of the reason behind it. That person bore the associated negative stigma and punitive consequences when life got in their way of getting an education or obtaining work in the expected time frame. Policies and procedures were designed to support those moving forward and eliminated those who didn’t ‘cut the mustard.’

Now our entire society faces the same reality – dealing with individual and/or family illness and death, pausing or stopping education, losing work, and experiencing economic distress has interrupted the ‘normal’ flow of education. Compassionate, institutions quickly made many policy changes to prevent students from losing their standing. These changes took into account how to help everyone be successful, regardless of their circumstances. In many ways, these policies may now be more equitable.

Curriculum underwent rapid revamping. Faced with the lack of time to convert classes fully to distance formats, and with distracted students having to address serious and immediate concerns, many faculty zeroed in on the most important concepts they could deliver in remaining semester and within the formats available to them. Outside educational resources were used to augment what could be done. Additional curricular and distance-relevant pedagogy redesigns are underway for the subsequent terms in anticipation of prolonged social distancing. The circumstances naturally are focusing faculty on the essential competencies of their courses that still provide their intended curricular outcomes to better serve and prepare students in these unusual circumstances.

To bring the current semester to a close, many questions are being asked: How do we know what students have learned since January? What learning really took place after the closing of campuses? Do we require students to come back and remediate or complete any intended outcomes not met? How do we handle required hands-on learning experiences now missed? Do we credit completed courses and degrees as normal? Do we mark the episode on transcripts to highlight this historical event?

At the core of these questions lies even more fundamental ones: How do we trust learning that doesn’t take place in an environment of our own control? How can we assess learning from other sources? What role do competencies play in recognizing and validating learning? Does curriculum have to follow linear pathways? Can we provide incremental credentials as students progress through their education journeys? How do we now define a quality credential? How has the equity of learning been further impacted? What will education look like in a post-pandemic society?

The blueprint for postsecondary educational change is already sketched out  through efforts that have been underway for the last two decades. However, the unprecedented speed at which education universally changed within a few short weeks—a testament to its capacity for change–is leading many to surmise that these changes will fundamentally shift education forever.


This article is the second segment in a three-part series. To read part 1, click here. 


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