How the line between online and face-to-face instruction is blurring

'The new normal is not going to allow us to ever go back to two separate experiences'

How this spring’s campus closures change how higher education delivers instruction may depend on a college’s size and geographic location.

At University of Massachusetts Boston, IT leaders are experimenting with an immersive reality platform called Open Campus. The platform allows students, staff and faculty working remotely to use avatars to interact on a virtual campus, said Ray Lefebvre, vice chancellor and CIO.

“This is a time to reinvent higher education,” Lefebvre said during an online panel discussion Thursday about how IT leaders are planning for fall 2020. “Think back to the brick-and-mortar stores that didn’t pay attention to Amazon. We have to be agile and innovative, and if we’re going to stay remote, we have to have a way to connect with students.”

At Allan Hancock College in central California, face-to-face instruction remains the “whole business model” for the school’s large population of first-generation students, said President and Superintendent Kevin Walthers.

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“Our whole way of doing business is the complete opposite of what you should do in a pandemic,” Walthers said. “Our goal is to get people into small spaces to have conversations and interact with each other.”

Colleges reopen with ‘distributed campuses’

Allan Hancock College will remain fully online for the fall semester. It is located in an agricultural area where many students live in multi-generational households. Walthers and his team didn’t want to the run risk of a student getting infected on campus and spreading COVID-19 to elderly relatives at home.

Many of these students also don’t have internet service at home. The college is planning to partner with a private company to expand service on the city of Santa Maria’s fiber network. The college would pay to extend service to students’ homes at a discounted rate, which would in turn give the company access to more customers, Walthers said.

The college is also working with a local school district to put WiFi beacons on school buses that would park throughout the community.

While almost all students have cell phones, the devices are not sufficient for online instruction. “If you’ve only got a minimal data plan, watching one Zoom class will eat up all your data,” Walthers says.

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The pandemic experience will likely convince more colleges and universities to develop a “distributed campus” where students and faculty can connect no matter where they are in the world, said Matt Willmore, senior director at app developer Modo Labs and formerly the MobileND program manager at University of Notre Dame.

This type of system will particularly appeal to students who won’t be comfortable returning to campus in the fall, Willmore says.

“No matter where you are as a student, you have tools like the LMS, apps and virtual communities to bridge the experience,” he says. “You can start fall semester online and come to school in spring—it’s not two separate college experiences.”

Online learning’s big moment

At the University of Central Florida, one of the nation’s largest campuses, administrators are developing flex models for courses that will be delivered face-to-fae and online at the same time, said Ryan Seilhamer, the assistant director of mobile strategy & innovation.

The campus of 70,000 students will be at about 30% capacity in the fall, and first-year students and sophomores will comprise the majority of the students invited into face-to-face courses, Seilhamer said.

The university will also continue to offer professional development sessions to help faculty and instructors perfect their techniques for online learning, he said.

“We’re going to have to have better training and a better understanding of how to be a good teacher using video,” Seilhamer says. “It’s not just saying I can do a lecture through video and that’s it.”

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While students may be eager to return to campus, administrators may allow more staff to work from home even after campuses reopen,  said Walthers, the president at Allan Hancock College.

“I think we will see more flexibility with the workforce,” he said. “We’ve seen really solid staff members making sure all the work is getting done and still be able to be at home.”

Ultimately, the lines between face-to-face instruction and online learning will blur as colleges and universities emerge from the pandemic, said Lefebvre, of UMass Boston.

“The new normal is not going to allow us to ever go back to two separate experiences,” he said. “It’s for us as educators to wake up to the strength of technology and what it can bring to bear, and to start to rethink our business models.”

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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