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Failure is Not an Option

The EvoLLLution | Failure is Not an Option
As everyone—students, faculty and staff—has had to demonstrate tremendous flexibility to accommodate the extraordinary circumstances of learning in a time of pandemic, it is vital that institutions reflect that flexibility by withholding letter grades for now in favor of a “pass” or “incomplete”.

Prior to COVID-19, technology wasn’t widespread enough for online education to even be an option for any health-related closures until, at the earliest, the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Prior to that, any schools whose campuses couldn’t stay open just closed. We might have been able to go on  for a few days to a few weeks, but nothing can compare to our current situation of campus closures and needing to switch entirely to online teaching and learning.

We moved to online education very rapidly for two distinct, and not entirely opposing, reasons . One is a conscious, self-defined clean perspective, full of laurels and intellectual collegial banter about moving teaching and learning forward despite our current circumstances. Damn the torpedoes, we care about the students’ learning, and this virus cannot defeat the sanctity of post-secondary education. The academic high ground.  The other reason we moved to online education at breakneck speed for the money, not the student. It’s an ugly reality for many schools today: enrollments are down, finances are critical, and they’re already cut to the bone. Remove an entire term’s tuition from a budget established last year and more than a few school doors will shut for good with others crippled for the foreseeable future. Please understand I’m not arguing this point but using it to highlight the importance of what has to happen next for our students.  No one taking an online class this term should receive a failing grade.

Having earned my entire MBA at Walden University online, at a time in my life when any other way would have been impossible, I am a huge proponent of online education–an evangelist for it.  I was taught online, I’ve taught online, and I believe as technology continues to progress, what we call online will become the standard medium for education around the world. We’re not there yet, but we’re not far off either. Numerous studies over the years have shown that online education can be as academically rigorous as that done in the classroom, if not more so. Of course, there are institutions, courses and teachers that have given online education a bad reputation within the industry, but those same institutions, courses and teachers also likely deliver poor classroom instruction. They are consistent. The delivery medium is arguably the least important factor in determining the quality of instruction. Internet or in-person, are the students engaged?

Online education is comprised of four elements: teacher, student, curriculum and technology. When all of those elements are fully functional, learning will take place. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s the case. We’ve taken students who initially enrolled for a classroom course and thrust them into the online world with little to no preparation. We’ve done the same to faculty who taught classroom courses. We’ve taken courses designed for the classroom and quickly “adapted” them for online delivery. Three of the four basic elements required for successful online education are somewhat questionable, not to mention other challenges like students who do not have Internet access where they live (could be financial or lack of service). Everyone has done their best, above and beyond the call of duty, to get everything up to speed for online education. You’ve done an amazing job–-truly commendable. Thank you. My point is what all our points should be about–the students.

For advanced learners, online classes are terrific. They performed well before this nightmare, and I’m sure those students are doing great right now. They aren’t the ones we need to worry about. Studies at Harvard and Stanford have shown that struggling students are more likely to do poorly in online classes than their peers with higher GPAs. In their most current model, online courses can be tough, especially for the students who have not had adequate preparation. These students’ outcomes are worse than they would have been had these same students taken in-person courses. After failing a class, these students are much likelier  to withdraw from college.

We have to recognize and address:

1) Not all courses lend themselves to online education.

2) Not every course that was “adapted” for online instruction would meet best practices under normal circumstances

3) The level of instruction for new online teachers probably didn’t follow the same non-COVID-19 process of thoroughly learning the technology and more importantly the pedagogy for online instruction

4) Some of our students would struggle with online learning regardless if everything else was perfect.

Academically challenged students need a classroom and face-to-face interaction with their teachers (not one through Zoom). Of course, there are exceptions to both groups, but policies should never be established around the exceptions. The educational authorities have given us tremendous flexibility to respond to the crisis, and we need to do the same now with our students. Any student who had enrolled in a classroom class, who does poorly online, should be given an Incomplete “I” at the very least to be made-up when they have the option to return to the classroom.

When the nation moved to online teaching overnight, our institutions, state and federal educational agencies, and the accrediting bodies all made it known that they were going to become as flexible as possible to help us accomplish this never-before-attempted high-wire act (no net). The missing part to this flexibility is a unified decision about awarding “I” for any failing grades this term. Another conversation going around is to not award any failing grades, period, this term–-all students pass. Radical? We’re in radical times. If there is going to be an error on our part, it should be on the behalf of fighting for our students. Anything less and we fail them.

Do not fail a student who didn’t sign up for an online class, taught by a teacher who didn’t sign up to teach that class online, when it wasn’t designed to be an online class in the first place. To hold them to the same grading process we’ve always done would be an unacceptable, arrogant, unethical, indefensible and unforgivable position to take. Either an “I” or “P” option must be given to all.



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