In spring 2020, when universities went online due to COVID-19, few of them expected to be online in the fall as well.
After a failed reopening of schools, courses again went online. Davidson College in North Carolina launched a College Crisis Initiative to determine how “colleges and universities innovate in a crisis mindset” and found that
- 1,001 institutions resumed primarily online,
- 301 are online-only, and
- 622 are hybrid
Though online teaching has dominated the college semester, not all teachers are equally skilled at it. Professors, teaching assistants, and adjuncts all range in age. Younger faculty and staff members are generally more comfortable with new technology. Older faculty and staff are less acquainted with Zoom, proctoring software, and online lecturing.
The difference in tech-savviness can cause major learning inequalities. If one professor isn’t good at teaching a foreign language online compared to another professor, for example, some students will have a leg up. The inconsistency leads to students getting different levels of quality in their education.
For some students, the loss of in-person lab time and learning has dramatically harmed their education.
The interactive labs seem more like video games, said Paige Barrett, a junior at NC State studying life sciences. Her online lab portal cost her $50 to access, and it “looked like it was made by a second-grader,” she said.
Students are paying for state-of-the-art education, but for quickly built online classes, they’re sometimes getting teaching assistants who are overwhelmed as they try to make up for the university’s shortcomings.
When NC State switched to online classes for the fall, Leah Hauser, a junior in the Art and Design program, lost access to studio space, the textiles spinning lab, laser cutters, and wood shops. That made it difficult for her to become a better artist and learn design skills. Yet Hauser still pays full tuition.
Though Hauser noted that her professors tried to get students access to facilities and supplies, leaders in the Art and Design program didn’t have a backup plan in case in-person classes didn’t last, even though this was promised by the school over the summer.
Students in the natural sciences face similar problems. A student who wished to remain anonymous is a junior studying anatomy and has lost access to skeletal models. For in-person classes, students touch and manipulate skeletal models to understand how they work.
During the unit on bones and muscle attachment sites, she tried renting a skeletal model to study. The library, however, refused to let students look at the models—even if they stayed in the library. The study resources are there, but students cannot access them. She took matters into her own hands and bought a skeletal model, which was $160. Not all students, however, can afford to buy materials that the university refuses to make available.Leaders seem to look a month or two ahead, not a year.
“When you choose to and build certain courses for virtual learning, you don’t lose anything,” Todd Roberts, the chancellor of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, said in a recent BOG meeting. “The challenge is when you are forced to make certain courses virtual—specifically lab courses, as there is a little bit of a challenge [of] not being able to have students in a lab hands-on.” Students experience that challenge first-hand, which makes it harder for them to understand and learn.
Yet, despite varying degrees of class quality, students don’t get a tuition discount.
The New York Times notes that families and students are still paying the same price for their education despite going online. “Schools face rising demands for tuition rebates, increased aid and leaves of absence as students ask if college is becoming ‘glorified Skype,’” reporter Shawn Hubler wrote.
Institutions should be accountable to their students, and colleges have a responsibility to deliver high-quality instruction, even when it’s over “glorified Skype.”
To help students help each other, some UNC campuses have tried to connect students and make sure they’re getting all that they can from online college.
One way to connect students is with learning communities. UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stated in a UNC Board of Governors meeting that the learning communities developing online connect students to resources on campus and help them succeed. Learning communities form among students who enroll in the same course.
North Carolina State University leaders have noticed a similar pattern and went a step further. Mid-semester, they released an app to help students stay connected to campus staff, professors, and their peers. Called GPS Mobile, it lets students contact advisors and access campus resources for career planning, student activities, academic programs and support, and transportation and safety.
Within the app, students can also schedule virtual appointments, join study groups, and check their class registration and financial aid information, among other services. While helpful, students would benefit more if NC State had planned ahead and had it ready at the start of the semester. It’s also a bit redundant, as all the tools can be found on other NCSU websites.
The pattern of colleges playing catch-up to COVID-19 gives the impression that their plans are made at the last minute. Leaders seem to look a month or two ahead, not a year.
The pandemic has forced many changes within higher ed and outside it. Students cannot be made perfectly whole, just as millions of people have lost their jobs and seen their future plans go up in smoke. But that does not mean university leaders should not be held accountable for mistakes or not adapting to the needs of students.
To give students a quality education, campus leaders need to listen to their problems and find better solutions than they have offered so far.
Megan Zogby is a Martin Center intern.