Thursday, May 7, 2020

Considering the Fall: Many Options, Few Good Ones

This piece delineates 15 options for the next academic year.  Some seem impossible, some seem awful, and some might be possible.  I am not an expert, but, unlike other areas I stray, I have some stakes in this one. 
1. Back to Normal
2. A Late Start
The big question is whether moving the start of the term back a month or two is going to make much of a difference.  Maybe in places where there is extensive testing so that we have lots of confidence about the curves and where we are at, but I can't help but be skeptical that moving from September to November is going to change the risks to students, staff and faculty.

3. Moving Fall to Spring
This makes a bit more sense--moving the entire school year back four months may make a difference, again if the testing, tracing, and all that starts to pick up.  This might be possible in states/provinces with more modest outbreaks that have quickly flattened out. 
4. First-Year Intensive
"How a student begins their college experience may be the best predictor of how their college experience will end ... this plan brings only first-year students to campus in the fall."  Um, hmmm, will such students then take care not to hang out with their grandparents, with their older faculty, etc?  Also, how many dead Freshman is too much?  This reduces the number of folks on campus by something like 75%.  So, more space in dorms, more space in lecture halls, more space in dining halls.  I am sure the newbies would not violate restrictions regarding distancing, nope, not at all.  As someone who was residential coordinator back in the day, I am confident that these students would respect any and all regulations.  Insert sarcasm emoji here.
5. Graduate Students Only
This makes much more sense as one of the keys of social distancing is smaller groups.  Most grad classes are smaller than 50, so this would help limit the spread.  Likewise, large social gatherings are less important for graduate students.  They can happen, of course, but grad students are not quite part of the fraternity, large party, big sports life-style.  One of the challenges of most of the other models is that separating students in the classroom is very much just the tip of the iceberg.  Grad students tend to be self-isolating much of the time, so this has some potential. Plus labs for the hard sciences and access to technology are so much more indispensable for graduate training.
6. Structured Gap Year
Hey, give us money to keep the lights on while you guys ... do some stuff.  We can call it experiential learning.  While we can debate whether students should pay full tuition for online classes, this approach is much shakier.  And given that the students can't do that other stuff--travel, work--during a pandemic, the gap year will be "what did I learn on the internet today."
So, nope.
7. Targeted Curriculum
"One approach option for fall is to reduce the number of courses being offered to limit on campus density and to prioritize support resources."  The only way this makes sense to me is: lab courses on campus and reduce the role of labs in first and second year classes.  Otherwise, what is the point?
8. Split Curriculum
"In a split curriculum scenario, courses are designed as either residential or online. Students who are able to come back to campus (up to the population in which social distancing rules can be enforced) can choose to enroll in either format. Requiring a defined proportion of enrollments to be in online courses for residential students may increase the number of students that can return to campus."
Anything that brings back a significant number of students brings huge risks since they will not social distance while on campus.  So, sure, this could address the problem of big classes, but I am pretty sure the simulation I saw a few weeks ago was not premised on big classes.
9. A Block Plan
"Students would take one course at a time during much shorter (three or four weeks) sessions or blocks, run consecutively for the entire semester. The advantage, besides an interesting and intensive pedagogy, is flexibility."
This would take such a dramatic change that it could only start next winter.  To build online classes is hard, to build real, short term, intensive classes is also hard.  Asking profs to do both?  Jeez.  I get the point here, but this is a heap of innovation in a short term.
10. Modularity
It confuses me, moving on..
11. Students in Residence, Learning Virtually
Hey, if the students get sick while hanging out with each other, it ain't on us approach.  No.
12. A Low-Residency Model
"Students would come to campus for intensive face-to-face experiences and then return home to complete the semester online."  Um, travel bad. 
13. A HyFlex model
"The HyFlex model is perhaps the most flexible and for many will be the most attractive. It is also possibly one of the more difficult approaches for faculty. In this model, courses would be taught both face-to-face and online by the same instructor at the same time. Students could choose to return to campus or stay home. Those on campus could be assigned certain class slots when face-to-face is an option, allowing the schools greater control of social distancing in the classroom. This model tends to privilege synchronous learning, and to do it well often requires real-time in-class help (a TA or course assistant to manage the online students), an intentionally designed classroom and a great deal of patience from both the students and faculty."
How does this suck, let me count the ways:
a) Doubles faculty effort
b) Synchronous learning is very problematic given that students who stay at home could be spread across the galaxy planet.
c) Does not address the "dorms [called residences in Canada] are the new prisons/eldercare/meatpacking plants" problem.
d) Note that whole patience thing... not a strength of faculty nor students.

14. A Modified Tutorial Model
"Students would take a common online lecture session. Faculty and or TAs would then meet with small groups of students in tutorials that would allow for social distancing to be employed."
Again, the focus here is on how to teach smaller groups, ignoring the plague potential that is the college campus, classes or no classes.

15. Fully Remote
Until we get a vaccine, much better treatment, or real testing/tracing, this is the world we are living in.  Damned near anything else poses too much risks to students, to staff, to faculty. 

What is missing from all of this:
Whatever we do will need to be flexible since we will have at-risk faculty, at-risk staff, and at-risk students.  With diminished budgets, will universities be able to ramp up health support--for those who get the virus and for those suffering from mental health problems that are exacerbated by the pandemic?

Oh, and liability concerns--places are now getting sued for providing lesser education amid the pandemic.  How about places that open up and then have mini-epidemics?  Will the threat of that deter opening?  While the US dynamic right now is awful--Republicans seeking to give protection to firms which ultimately coerce workers into risking their lives, some thought about liability for universities is required if we want them to open.

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