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With a future that remains unclear, one thing that will surely come out of this pandemic is an increase in hybrid courses. In order to prepare for this change, institutions need to re-evaluate their current system and adapt it to best serve underrepresented groups since they are the ones who need it most. This is the chance to reinvent everything–don’t let it go to waste. In this interview, Eric Heiser discusses the impact of remote learning on career and technical colleges, the resulting economic impacts and what needs to change in higher education to better prepare for future disasters.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the shift to remote learning been for people in the technical and career programs?
Eric Heiser (EH): It’s been better than anyone could have imagined. The speed at which everything happened shows what a sense of urgency can do for innovation. My faculty have been such an incredibly resilient bunch. They’ve figured out ways to deliver everything from nursing clinicals to culinary courses in a virtual environment. A lot of it has to do with this idea that there’s nothing else to do–this is our only option.
The wrong answer would have been for us to throw up our hands, say we can’t do anything and give everyone incompletes. Luckily, we didn’t have any of that. Our folks were willing to step up to the plate. By and large, students just want to see that we care and that we’re going to be there for them in a different way than we have in the past. Once they see that, they are willing to accept what’s happening.
Evo: How do you think new student knowledge assessments like pass/fail, will impact the firm belief in seat-hour based assessment and credentialing that has characterized higher ed?
EH: Never let a good crisis go to waste. If this is what it takes to get folks from a policy standpoint off the credit hour–this idea that time equals learning–then let’s use the good that comes out of it. It’s allowing us to advocate for competency-based education and of mastery of learning. This is not going away. This is not cheapening education. This is a different way for us to prove that our students are mastering the material without regard to time and space. Those elements are exactly what was taken away from us by the pandemic.
This crisis has very quickly put us in a place that we’ve been asking to be in for seven or eight years. Worrying about outcomes as opposed to time. Things are changing and however we come back or whatever that looks like, we need to be prepared for something like this to happen again.
Evo: Which innovations and tools that were introduced to promote and support this shift do you think will be adopted into a new normal?
EH: By removing the element of time from learning, there’s likely an appetite to learn the material. I can’t give away grades, but I also have to grade a way I haven’t before. In the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste, we’re trying something new and seeing where it takes us. It’s better than sitting on my hands. When we talk about valid, reliable, authentic assessment, that can’t be done without some sort of competency-based system or direct assessment system with which the students are engaging.
It may be a different form of how we get material to students, but again, that resiliency points to trying something different. It’s time for us to be shaken up and questioned. What we’ve been doing for the past 200 years isn’t working anymore—especially now.
Evo: How should technical and community colleges be preparing for what will likely be a significant increase in demand?
EH: Right now, we’re looking into summer, and we’ll likely dip in enrollment because of the way everything unfolded. We’ve had to continue this remote learning modality, so now we’re using it as a ramp up as we move into fall. Nobody knows what fall will look like, and if they say they do, they’re probably fooling themselves. This is a recession caused by a pandemic, not an economically based recession, which is something we’re used to. When the economy starts heading downhill and people start losing their jobs, our enrollment usually increases. Unfortunately, we take a cut in state funding because there’s less money to go around. However, now there’s this convergence of factors that have forced us into a recession likely worse than The Great Depression.
From the way we’re approaching it, community and technical colleges will be the ones to handle this the best because we have to be responsive. Our main focus will be to quickly get folks back into the workforce. A lot of careers are shifting, so we’re really focusing on what we feel are the programs most insulated from anything that can happen going forward. For example, in healthcare, we know that we are in dire need of healthcare workers. We’re at the point where we need to get these people into this environment as quickly as possible that we’re going to forgo the gold standard of testing before we let them in.
It shows you how much things have quickly changed. This is on us, the community and technical colleges, to say which programs are the most “protected” from training and retraining and moving students along in them as fast as we can. It’s on us to explore prior learning and make sure we get these folks in credit for the 20 years that they spent learning. That’s going to require working with them to develop a portfolio to show what they’ve done. How does it translate to the coursework they need to complete?
It’s going to move into short-term certificates as well. We need to make sure we get people into a better career than what they had. It’s not about throwing something together and putting them in a dead-end job. We only have one chance to reinvent how we do training. The unfortunate part is that the script is still being written.
Evo: As a community college, how do you create access to a diverse array of students at the scale that we’re going to have to over the next six to eight months?
EH: Here’s the simple and hardest part of that answer: it won’t happen if the institution doesn’t do it deliberately. You better focus on those underserved, underrepresented populations that aren’t even hanging by a thread anymore. They are in such a precarious position that even in the little things like gas and rent are unaccounted for. Institutions need to take a cold hard look at themselves and see if they’re set up to serve the underserved populations that are most vulnerable in their community. If they aren’t, then what will they do to get themselves there?
Not only will we have this mass influx of students, but the services that they need aren’t going to invent themselves. The good news is that we know what those students need, especially those in situations in which roadblocks keep getting put up. We know how to take them down, but it doesn’t happen magically. It needs to be deliberate, and there are steps in order to assure it. If you’re doing everything you can to serve the most marginalized, underrepresented and at-risk populations, you’ll serve everyone well. If you look at the easy wins, you’ll miss out on a segment of the population who needs you most.
Evo: How does the funding mechanism for colleges need to change?
EH: It’s frustrating that it took a pandemic for us to get here. But, the fact that half of the funding given to colleges and universities is required to be used for student support and relief means thatthe federal government was listening to the right people. The hierarchy knocked out the first level of the pyramid. but looking at how we’ve funded the CARES Act, they’ve barely scratched the surface.
Now is the time to start looking at some type of benefit program. At Central Ohio Technical College, we have a million dollars’ worth of scholarships available in the summer and fall. It won’t just cover tuition costs but also help with living expenses and other expenses unrelated to education. In fact, they are all interrelated because you can’t disconnect one from the other, but it’s not a straight tuition or academic benefit. That’s important because we need to help underrepresented groups by building the bridge for them to reach out to us. It’s great that college is free, but what will they do for the rest of their time there? It’s time to get radical and rethink the whole funding structure for community colleges in general.
Funding gets cut during a recession, which is inverse to how things should happen, but that’s traditionally how it’s gone. Even if congress created a $2.5 trillion bail-out act to prop up our economy, we’d have to find it in ourselves to get funding for higher education because it’s been broken for a long time.
Evo: How can high quality online learning approaches be adapted and scaled to create access for adults looking to up-scale and rescale in six to eight months?
EH: From a fundamental side, they’re going to have to build the plane as they fly it. I say that with caution. Some schools may say they offer online programs when really all they did was put their material online. It wasn’t organized in any coherent matter nor was it truly vetted and worked through with an instructional and assessment designer. We may not have the same luxuries anymore, but the fundamentals need to be there. The design of a course needs to be true, even if it means working from the end and building it backwards.
That backward design is a garbage-in, garbage-out model. If you build garbage, that’s what it’s going to put out. But even if you have to build it on the fly, you can still do things right without sacrificing the student experience or your students’ success. No one thought we’d be here, and we’ve been dealt a crappy hand, but we have got to play with it. We need to be willing to question the ways in which we’ve always done things. That goes for online learning, design and development as well, but we absolutely cannot sacrifice quality.
As we make these decisions, we can’t compromise–we have to get it right. It starts with having valid and reliable assessment. There are a few different right answers to how we build those. Size, scale and scope can become overwhelming when you think about everything that needs to happen. In my own institution, we were not very good from an online perspective because of a lack of technical know-how. We had started having conversations about how to get better. At the end of all of this, we’re going to see a lot more hybrid courses.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the work that colleges and government bodies need to put in to prepare for that retraining effort in the case of a recession?
EH: I would make a plea first for the funding side of things. Now is not the time for institutions to have to rely on tuition hikes because they’ve lost funding from the state and feds. I would caution our lawmakers and policy makers to see how that is a recipe for disaster. There’s a lot of gridlock going on right now, but they came together pretty quickly and got the CARES act out with speed and focus that should now be shifting toward fixing our funding model.
For community and technical colleges specifically, this is another moment for us to shine. It’s time to help our communities stand back up. In the end, we should be able to look back at this and know that we did everything we could to support our students. We’re there for them, and we’re all the better for it.
The pandemic is new, but propping up communities in different economic and natural disasters is not new to community and technical colleges. They know and support their communities. The way in which we have to fight is new, but it’s yet another spot for us to step into and shine in.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 15, 2020.
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