When colleges expanded spring breaks and then closed campuses for the remainder of the spring term, they felt that this response would get them past the coronavirus crisis. They hoped that campuses would reopen, if not normally in September, at least in a general approximation of normal. Now, that expectation is being questioned. Many colleges are beginning to plan for students to return to campus no earlier than January 2021.
I was recently talking with the economics department chair at a small, highly selective college in New England. She expressed real fear of a failure to reopen her campus in September. She remarked, “How can we expect students and their parents to pay our premium tuition for generic online courses?” Her concern is appropriate. But the semester must go on! And few colleges will be able to financially weather mass exoduses from their fall semester. Small colleges should be planning for a remote AY2021 from two perspectives—first, colleges must precisely articulate their current value proposition; and second, colleges must find pedagogical strategies that allow them to approximate that value proposition during this time of virtual engagement.
The Value Proposition of the Small College
Small colleges are not homogeneous, and each defines itself, its goals, and its value proposition in a different way. There are, however, three overarching elements of the small college value proposition—interaction with faculty members, interaction with fellow students, and “hands-on” experiences that occur outside of the classroom.
Interactions with Faculty Members
Students come to a small college expecting to have close and personal relationships with faculty members. These relationships develop in small discussion-oriented classes, but they are nurtured and grown in a variety of out-of-class settings. They involve conversations with faculty members about the relevance of their fields to current events, seeing a movie or speaker on campus on a professor’s recommendation that stretches the student’s understanding of the world, or being invited to a professor’s home to present final projects in a small lower-division course. There are also research collaborations that result in students’ first conference presentations or publications. These kinds of relationships and the access that students have to tenured and tenure-track faculty members are key selling points of the small college.
Interactions with Fellow Students
Students also come to small colleges expecting to have close and personal relationships with a group of diverse and bright students. They expect interactions in a variety of out-of-class settings with individuals who are both like and unlike themselves. They are seeking out the diversity that might not have typified their high schools and an intellectual curiosity and rigor that pervades those student-to-student relationships. They fully realize that they will learn as much from their fellow students as they will from their professors.
Experiences Outside of the Classroom
Not only do small college students expect high quality close and personal relationships with faculty members and their fellow students but they also expect stimulating and up-close experiences outside of the curriculum. Speaker series where students have an opportunity to interact in small groups with important thinkers from around the country and the world are a hallmark of the small college experience. Similarly, academic and special interest groups provide such experiences. Activity groups such as maker spaces and student-managed investment funds are also good examples of these kinds of experiences.
Identifying Your Value Proposition
As you plan for a virtual fall semester (or a virtual AY2021), you must focus on the core values of studying at your college. Hopefully, this is not a new discussion on your campus. In all likelihood, you have a strategic plan that highlights your values and mission. What I’m talking about, however, goes beyond that. What are the key curricular elements cutting across all majors and programs that distinguish your college? What is the “thumbprint” that you seek to put on each of your graduates? What do your recent graduates say are the most important elements of their college experience with you? You need to be having a campus-wide conversation about your value proposition as you begin to plan for the fall. Identify three to five core elements and then use these as you try to design a plan for a virtual fall or AY 2021.
Unfortunately, if you are going to emphasize a small number of key core elements of the experience at your college, you are going to have to deemphasize other elements—elements that are important but just not as important. For example, you might cut the number and diversity of course offerings in the fall to free up resources to devote to elements of the core values. You may identify courses more suited to remote learning that can be moved from the spring to the fall semester but at a cost of disrupting traditional sequencing. These will be difficult decisions, but they should be temporary and be identified through serious discussions within the college and departments.
A Virtual Experience That Emphasizes the Core Values of Your College
When your college has identified this set of core elements, each faculty and staff member and each administrator should begin examining his or her job and functions in light of these elements. They should be asking themselves how they can promote these values within a college that is relying on virtual interactions. Keep in mind that maintaining flexibility in the upcoming year will be critical. We do not know how the various operations of the college will be affected by the coronavirus. Beloit College increased their flexibility for next year by breaking each semester into two terms thereby reducing the number of classes that a student is taking or a professor is teaching at any one point in time. Colorado College’s nine one-course terms a year looks much more applicable to the general college community than it ever has. In a crisis or recession, both cash and flexibility are king.
To illustrate how a small college might develop a core values-driven virtual experience, I will look specifically at the three areas of classroom instruction, faculty-student and student-student interactions, and co-curricular activities that I identified earlier; but these same concepts apply to each and every function of the college.
In the dash to deliver face-to-face courses remotely, many faculty members and colleges have focused on trying to use Zoom or similar platforms to recreate the typical face-to-face classroom environment. While this was a good interim strategy, it will not work for the fall. It does not conform to best practices of online learning nor does it emphasize the core elements of your college’s value proposition. There are numerous online instructional strategies and tools which can be very useful in developing effective online courses. Many of these highly touted tools, however, will not map onto your college’s core elements and would not be the best way to deliver your courses remotely. (1) Identify tools that do map onto your core elements and develop the support mechanisms for faculty members to integrate them into their courses. Don’t try to develop great online courses that would be part of a great online degree program—that’s not you. Develop courses that use some of the great online tools to accomplish your specific core objectives in a remote delivery format.
For example, this is a time to think about high impact practices as they relate to your core teaching values. In many respects, the COVID-19 crisis provides a unique opportunity for a small college to emphasize these practices in ways that a large university cannot. Consider two high impact practices: learning communities and writing-intensive courses. From a
learning community perspective, should you increase the pairing of courses, especially freshman courses, or block the entire fall semester for groups of freshmen? While this would decrease choice and flexibility, it could increase connectivity and interaction. A writing-intensive course is ideally suited to a virtual environment. Consider how you might use student journals in virtually every course. Put students in pairs or groups to critique writing assignments. Use this as an opportunity to emphasize free-writing and rewriting as critical elements of effective writing.
In contrast to what has happened this semester, asynchronous interactions (not synchronous ones) should be the starting point in the design of a remote learning course. Synchronous activities should follow asynchronous instruction and be highly interactive. “Flipped classrooms” should now be the normal format for class-wide or small group synchronous video. Synchronous video should also be used for individual and group problem sessions and one-on-one conferences between students and faculty members.
Keep asking these two questions: (1) what are the core teaching value propositions for your school and (2) how can you deliver them virtually?
To maintain your comparative advantage, instruction must be engaging and interactive, as well as of high quality. In general, instruction should feel like the experience of the small classrooms that dominated your campus in the past. Keep asking these two questions: (1) what are the core teaching value propositions for your school and (2) how can you deliver them virtually? Clearly, there are individual differences between faculty members and between subject areas with respect to pedagogical styles. Each faculty member will have to adapt to the college’s core value proposition in determining how to teach a remote course just as he or she does when teaching a face-to-face course.
Everything that I have said about maximizing the effectiveness of virtual instruction needs to be tempered, however, with considerations of accessibility. It has become clear in this crisis that the digital divide is real and pervasive on college campuses. Small colleges with the means to do so are stocking up on Chromebooks and hotspots to provide students with limited access to high-speed internet connections and devices beyond smartphones. This will mitigate the biggest parts of the divide. But it will not allow small schools to simulate the benefits of being on a small residential campus that is dedicated to making learning as accessible as it can possibly be. If students are not on campus in the fall, they are outside of the protective bubble that the small college provides. It is critical that student services be part of this planning process, identifying the ways that core values apply to all student services and identifying how they can maintain those values in a virtual environment. If your campus does not have a “one-stop” office that helps students (and, for that matter, faculty members who are trying to assist students negotiate the various offices) to solve problems, this is the time to set one up.
Faculty-Student and Student-to-Student Interactions
Clearly, the most significant loss in the shift to virtual learning is the campus community. Students are used to and benefit significantly from the informal interactions that take place on a regular basis in hallways, athletic centers, cafeterias, and dorms. How can you approximate these interactions virtually? The most obvious vehicles for promoting such interactions are the various groups and co-curricular activities that are already in place. Schools should double-down on their investment in activities that can thrive in a virtual environment such as the student newspaper, student literary and research publications, student-managed investment funds, and academic clubs within the various disciplines. Now is the time to increase faculty member involvement in these organizations and to increase the frequency of meetings and publications. Tremendous opportunities exist to tap alumni and partners from the corporate and institutional world for virtual speaker programs. Similarly, the informal virtual meetings of these groups will help to promote student-to-student and student-faculty contact.
Of course, these activities are typically seen by faculty members as part of the oft-neglected “service” elements of responsibility. Increasing faculty involvement in these activities may be critical to making the virtual environment work, but how do you incentivize increased involvement when faculty members are scrambling to teach with an unfamiliar pedagogy (remote learning) and to keep their disrupted research programs on track? This will demand a creative collaboration between faculty members and administrators; and it emphasizes the importance of reaching a campus-wide agreement on the core elements of the college’s value proposition. It also emphasizes the importance of focusing on a relatively small number of core elements. This is not the time to try to be all things to all people, but this is an area where the culture of a small college can still create a different experience from the large university.
A Campus-Wide Strategy
It is also critical for the campus as a whole to maintain a connection. For many schools an important part of this connection is athletics. Athletic programs can adapt to a virtual environment as well—possibly more effectively at a small college. Virtual yoga and spinning sessions are ubiquitous in this crisis—make full use of this opportunity to promote both the physical health of the campus community and interpersonal connections. Athletic teams can conduct virtual fitness sessions and tap alumni athletes to conduct sessions on a wide range of topics of interest. E-sport competitions are ideal for this environment and promoting or creating such events may be an effective strategy for building student involvement. Competitions within your athletic conference or against your key rival could become exciting. Who knows, virtual chess tournaments and the like might even be a useful venue.
This may be the time for the return of the weekly convocation hosted by the president and featuring prominent speakers on issues of specific and general concern. Furthermore, hearing panels of faculty members representing diverse disciplines and their perspectives on the issues that we face in this crisis is both a way of advancing learning (truly interdisciplinary learning) within a confined environment but also a way to maintain and build community. Use such convocations as well to create venues for smaller groups of students to interact with speakers and faculty panelists. Students, faculty, and staff members alike will be looking to understand how the core values of the college are being maintained and to know what will happen as the college comes out of the crisis to advance those values in a changed college and world. Discussion board forums of a variety of designs can be used to carry forward these discussions.
If students are not able to return to campuses in the fall and/or spring, the challenge of justifying the tuition of a small college in a virtual teaching environment will be gigantic. At the end of the day, however, small colleges have a significant comparative advantage that has allowed them to thrive in an extremely competitive higher education environment. It is critical that you articulate that comparative advantage and let it drive your planning as we operate virtually and find a “new normal.” I fully believe small colleges can be creative in the face of these challenges. It will not be easy. It will not be inexpensive. Now is the time to invest and to plan for maintaining and enhancing your comparative advantage.
This is part of a series of blog posts meant to outline strategies for dealing with the mid-term and long-term implications of the Coronavirus crisis and our changing higher education environment. Let us know what questions and challenges you have about the future either by leaving a comment below or by contacting our principal consultants directly.
Our next blog will focus on planning and budgeting post-COVID-19:
1) I am trying to draw a distinction between online and remotely delivered courses. Over the past 25 years, educational institutions have developed numerous approaches to delivering programs and courses through the internet. Delivery techniques have been honed and research proves that these courses can be every bit as effective as traditional face-to-face courses. However, you are trying to convert neither your courses nor your programs into an online format. You are trying, during the course of this crisis, to deliver the best approximation of your traditional courses and their unique benefits remotely.
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