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Get Ahead of the Curve: Preparations for a Successful Fall Semester Must Start Now

The EvoLLLution | Get Ahead of the Curve: Preparations for a Successful Fall Semester Must Start Now
As higher ed institutions attempt to plan for the fall semester—amid uncertainty and continuous change—it is critical for their instructors to plan for engaging online courses immediately.

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves from an urgent public health crisis to an economic catastrophe, higher education institutions are bracing for long-term impact while working around the clock to continue delivering instruction.

Among faculty and institutional leaders, the collective conversation thus far has been largely focused on moving courses to online delivery this term–and understandably so. But what first felt like a crisis of emergency course design is going to very quickly become a course completion crisis. And we need to be ready.

Instructors nationwide are still reeling from the shock of moving classes online, and for many higher ed professionals, the last thing that anyone wants to think about now is planning for the fall semester. But as the full picture of the pandemic continues to emerge, medical professionals are predicting the ongoing presence of COVID-19 and a possible resurgence of the disease in fall 2020, leading a growing number of institutions to consider pre-emptively cancelling in-person instruction until the end of the calendar year.

The truth is that higher ed institutions simply cannot afford to “wait and see.” We must plan for the worst now, so that if the “worst” becomes reality, our students don’t suffer as the collateral damage for our delay. Every day matters in our efforts to get ahead of the online learning curve.

This emergency transition to online course delivery is not the same as intentional online course design. The dedicated instructors working hard to salvage the spring 2020 semester would, no doubt, be the first to call out the shortcomings and dangers of a “cobbled-together” online pedagogy. Today, most instructors have little choice but to port their in-person class pedagogy to digital delivery mechanisms, without the capacity to reassess course goals and how to best achieve them in a new medium. In-person lectures are being translated directly into synchronous Zoom lectures, despite some well-known drawbacks around accessing (and securing) those platforms.

As we look ahead, both to the rest of the semester and the fall term, instructors should consider strategies that can make online courses effective now — and improve the digital readiness of courses that are still slated for face-to-face delivery, in the increasingly likely event that they move online. That means finding strategies that have the greatest impact on long-term student success, without requiring an enormous investment of instructor time and effort to implement.

Building an effective online community for every class is one of the biggest things that instructors can plan for to safeguard their fall semester. A growing body of research suggests that the development of a well-integrated and intentional online community is critical to keeping students motivated online and delivering strong online course completion rates.

Consider the work done by Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategy and innovation at the University of North Texas, who has been working closely with instructors to prepare for the months ahead. Last year, Fein’s team conducted research on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in shaping online discussion in order to better understand how specific tools can influence the effectiveness of online discussion, building community and supporting student outcomes. The early results of the study suggested that AI platforms implemented with a focus on student inquiry were most effective at helping instructors realize the benefits of discussion in their classrooms.

In the wake of the pandemic, institutions like Mesa Community College (part of the Maricopa District) have tapped into a similar platform to support faculty in the switch to distance learning. Brian Dille, a political science instructor at Mesa, is using that approach to plan for all-online course delivery in the fall.

According to Dille, discussion platforms have enabled Mesa instructors to double down on online engagement mid-semester in ways that both ease the transition for students and lay the foundation for upcoming terms. It can also have other, unexpected benefits. As he put it, “The deeper reflection and synthesis students can bring to a conversation is often lost in a traditional classroom setting but can flower on an online discussion board. Instructors may find that student interaction actually increases in moving a course online.”

For the growing number of students who are balancing work and family commitments in addition to their studies, online discussion also has the advantage of being asynchronous and requiring lower bandwidth. That means students can participate in the conversation when they have time, giving them flexibility to work, or care for children and sick family members. Unlike video chats, it also allows students to access the conversation using assistive technology, and is easier to use even with lower-speed internet connections.

Perhaps most importantly, research suggests that one of the strongest drivers of improved course outcomes as a result of online discussion seems to be exposure to, and interaction with, highly engaged peers. When students are able to interact frequently in discussion with their peers, there is evidence that they will perform better in the course overall.

The months ahead are going to be challenging for everyone; even more so for students. As it becomes increasingly likely that the fall will also include some degree of remote learning, it will be essential for instructors and institutions to consider strategies that not only make online courses more effective but also help keep students motivated during a time of unprecedented uncertainty.