Until a few weeks ago, COVID-19 was a distant problem that many discounted as superfluous to their life; it is a global catastrophe. No one today questions the relevancy of COVID-19 to their local community. The surge of articles, blogs, and news announcements are disorienting and often troubling. The virus has impacted every sector of the economy, social life, and human experience. This article focuses on COVID-19’s impact on higher education and proposes ways forward for students and educators.
Universities and Colleges have relied upon online education as a secondary means of transmitting content and content practice, but now, and for the foreseeable future, it has become the primary medium. Institutions organize their materials in an LMS such as Canvas or Blackboard, but faculty familiarity with LMS ranges from novice to expert. This discrepancy produces wide-ranging results for both institutions and students.
Typically, institutions shift to an online format for pragmatic reasons such as a larger student body, asynchronous teaching, and student-professor accountability. I work at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as an Instructional Designer and our institution has online learning for pragmatic reasons. I believe our institution, like a few others, designs online-courses that align with best practices. There is a shift towards teaching online that focuses on the practice and implementation of teaching online. Educators and institutions thought they had years before they needed to implement these measures, but COVID-19 has shown that we need best practices now!
As is now well reported, COVID-19 has caused many institutions to shut their doors physically to their students and faculty (and most staff). Four results of this decision are significant for students and educators.
First, online classes have become the standard format for all instruction, not just distance learning.
Second, on-campus classes have been rushed to an online format either through Zoom or an LMS conference function. This has resulted in poor pedagogy which the institutions, faculty, and students accepted as an emergency result. Many professors and students are not accustomed to an online format, but were forced to shift in a matter of weeks or even days.
Third, students and administrators have given grace during this unprecedented season, but if the shift continues into the Summer and Fall then students and administrators will expect a higher quality of pedagogy than has been possible initially, as they should. If an institution does not prepare their faculty for the transition, then many students learning at home may question finishing their new online degree at their current institution.
Fourth, the impact on adjuncts has yet to be formalized, but many adjuncts are well equipped for an online format. The greatest concern for adjuncts will be whether the institutions will offer more contracts this Summer and Fall. I have heard a few outlying adjuncts voice that their institutions have denied contracts for the Summer, but there have been no massive cuts as of yet. If social distancing continues into the Fall, institutions may reevaluate contracts and positions. Institutions that do not have an online department should immediately begin reformulating their budget to address the potential crisis. Perhaps this will open up a new positions for adjuncts to fill. In an ideal scenario, the fallout from the pandemic will move the ball into the adjuncts’ court bringing them greater leverage and prominence in academia, reversing the current depressing trajectory in higher education for adjuncting educators.
Across the board campus visits have been canceled due to lockdowns. Prospective students now must make their decisions virtually for the Spring or Fall. I have noticed a handful of institutions shifting quickly in the midst of the crisis, such as Southern Seminary in Louisville. They crafted a video experience that tours their campus.
The way forward for institutions during this crisis will be a clear representation of their campus, services, and facilities. The value and draw of an in-person visit are gone for until further notice. The value of an institution’s website during the next year will sky-rocket. If an institution has not invested in displaying a holistic experience of their school digitally then prospective students will be less likely to apply. Schools should consider virtual visits as an option. This will mean hiring for skilled content creators will increase, and such positions will remain instrumental for any institutions success going forward.
Historically, admission counselors met with students on campus to assist each student’s success, but the crisis has forced counselors to meet online. Counselors will now need to coordinate with college students in a plurality of formats. One of the greatest dangers for many institutions is failing to respond appropriately during this crisis. Students will go home and will not know how to navigate the next couple of months. If an institution does not step in to assist their students’ academic, psychological, and physiological needs, they may very well find their students quietly leaving their institution in the Fall. Institutions must prove to the students that they have their best interest at heart, or they will take their tuition elsewhere. Administrators must address their students with tact and grace during this unprecedented time.
One of greatest concerns with the virus is the impact on the overall budget because of decline in enrollment, empty dorms, unneeded meal plans, and cancelled events. Smaller institutions that have failed to join online education will face hard economic pressure if social distancing remains until the Fall. Businesses and families are already feeling the economic uncertainty that looms over the next calendar year. In 2008 the US faced a similar economic situation, but many avoided the economic crisis through pursuing higher education. It is unclear whether upcoming students will make the same decision, because society has highlighted student debt to financial payout for the last ten years. Schools must be prepared to lose students from less-affluent backgrounds; families may have to make the difficult decision to remove their students from schooling for the sake of family survival.
The college students that I have spoken with appear optimistic about the future. Many were disappointed with the decision to leave their dorms and the possible cancelation of their summer plans to travel abroad. Our institution promised to reimburse students for various fees, which lifted the spirits of many. This is not the case at every institution, though, as many are currently petitioning and fighting for reimbursement. I was encouraged that our students saw this as an opportunity to serve their local church and bolster flailing ministries in their hometowns. The coronavirus has provided the opportunity for students to assist their local communities during this time of crisis.
One of the saddest realities that I have seen was canceling graduation. Students have worked very hard to get to this point but there does not appear a viable solution. Some intuitions will offer graduation in December while others will simply cancel. As a student myself, I hope institutions navigate graduation with care because students and faculty have invested a lot in each of these students. These students are your future alumni who will represent your school. They will tell others how you handled these precious moments.
I am Ph.D. student in my dissertation phase who sees the virus causing an economic crisis which is leading institutions to a hiring freeze, as reported by Karen Kelsky. I have already begun to see institutions reacting very differently. Some are extending professor tenure while others are eliminating adjunct positions. Ph.D. students who are looking to enter the academic job market should realize that the market will be saturated but also leery with economic hardships. My encouragement to you is to entrust your future to a faithful God!
One of the shining lights resulting from the crisis has been the open access of databases, ebooks, and other online learning formats. The academic community has rallied together to release information that for the longest has been hidden behind paywalls. My hope is that this act of good favor will continue post-coronavirus. The level of access has surged and leveled the playing field for many academics. Time will tell how long this will last.
Nicholas Majors is an Instructional Designer at MBTS and Coeditor at JBTS, and a PhD Candidate in Old Testament.