Eduventures recently hosted a webinar, Planning in the Dark: Presidential Perspectives on Reimagining the Undergraduate Experience for Fall 2020, that featured three university presidents who spent the last few months standing up remote education in response to COVID-19. Now, in the midst of planning realistic and sustainable educational continuity plans for the rest of 2020, Helen Drinan, president of Simmons University (one of 2U’s longest standing partners), Chris Domes, president of Neumann University, and Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak State College, shared the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the fall.
Helen Drinan, President of Simmons University
As the effects of the pandemic have played out in Boston and around the world, Simmons University has worked urgently to chart a sustainable path forward. In doing so, the university ultimately decided that they needed a way to ensure students continue their educational journey, regardless of what the fall may bring. That’s why at the beginning of May, Simmons announced its plans to offer a fully online and reimagined undergraduate option for all new and returning students in partnership with 2U.
“What students experienced this spring was not online education, it was simply having ‘remote access’ to educational experiences that were not intentionally designed for digital delivery,” Helen said. “A first-class OPM like 2U rethinks the way a course is delivered for a virtual format, as opposed to converting the on-the-ground format to online. They look at virtual technology and how it can facilitate different, and much more productive, options for engagement.”
By expanding its online undergraduate program, Simmons will also be able to make its high-quality education more accessible and affordable to those who otherwise would be unable to participate in Simmons’ traditional on campus undergraduate experience. This includes adult learners who’ve had their educations interrupted.
When asked how Simmons faculty has reacted to this plan, Helen said they are rallying around the university’s efforts to convert the undergrad curriculum to a virtual format. They see it as an enriching experience and exciting opportunity for students to engage in a very different way.
Helen also took a beat to comment on the power of online education overall, stating that if universities hesitate to expand their markets and go beyond traditional recruiting for brick-and-mortar programs, they will be left behind.
“High-quality online education is a long-term interest and solution for Simmons, not just a short-term plan or one-year operation in response to the pandemic.”
Aside from their plan to offer an entirely online undergraduate experience, Simmons is considering the feasibility of bringing their undergraduates back to campus. The university is focused on making students’ college experience worth their time, despite the radical physical constraints Simmons would have to implement. Simmons is also exploring the possibility of only welcoming a select number of students on campus, prioritizing first-year students as well as those who need access to spaces like laboratories or studios to complete specific academic requirements.
Chris Domes, President of Neumann University
Neumann University’s plan for this fall is to move to a hybrid model, which will allow students to have learning experiences in both virtual and physical classrooms with 15 people or less. The university’s intention is to help its students maintain an in-person experience, but also leverage and utilize an online classroom where needed. In this case, all Neumann students will be able to return in person—but the campus will be structured to meet social distancing requirements. Chris said they are finding ways to lower the density on campus and ensure the classroom environment fits the CDC and state regulations.
“The online experience we offered this spring was actually viewed very positively by students, so we're confident we can adapt to an online format that still delivers best quality instruction,” he added. “But we feel offering a hybrid experience is important, as we've heard from students that they do not want a fully online experience.”
To ensure quality, Chris said that Neumann is training its faculty members through an organization that provides a quality assurance system for online and blended learning. The university has also invested in instructional designers to help develop their online pedagogy.
When asked about Neumann’s approach to tuition with this hybrid model, Chris said the university has decided to freeze it at the 2019 level. It was already affordably priced at just over $30,000, he said.
“Approximately 50 percent of our students are first generation, and 40 percent are students of color, so we have always been sensitive about affordability and access to great educational opportunities,” Chris commented. “With this hybrid model, we're working hard to balance the needs of students, affordability, as well as the health and safety of the campus community.”
Ed Klonoski, President of Charter Oak State College
As a fully online institution, Charter Oak State College’s instructional format and mission was largely unaffected by the pandemic. But as an advisor to local Connecticut universities, Ed said he has seen many schools pursuing the hybrid option like Neumann.
“My proposal was for universities to do what Simmons is doing: invest in and improve online offerings and discount the price—but I didn't win that argument,” Ed added. “I will say, schools like Simmons that do a great job of going online without compromising quality will soon become competitors to my institution. And I believe other universities that go down this path will only come out stronger.”
Ed mentioned many schools in his local university system have large residential populations and have not dabbled in online instruction at all. Their remote learning experiences were supposedly not perceived well this spring. He believes this may be why they’re hesitant to pursue fully online experiences this fall.
“There is so much energy going into trying to make the physical classrooms, dorms, and student activities work, that the investment in online education is being neglected in a lot of cases.” Ed said. “Many universities are striving to stay fully open from August until Thanksgiving and hoping they don't need to close again.”
The institutions that are fully residential are struggling financially, Ed added. Providing a "coming of age" experience amid COVID is really hard, so there is a large assumption of losses at each institution.
“There’s not a lot of hope that states will be able to do much to help,” Ed said. “If colleges knew money was coming in, I feel they would be more inspired to build a quality online experience option and reduce tuition.”
As the world continues to navigate the uncertain future of the pandemic, higher education leaders have been challenged to consider many possible scenarios for school operations to continue in the fall. It’s clear that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” option for laying the groundwork for the fall semester. But regardless of which path higher education leaders choose, each of them remains focused on and committed to what matters most: preserving the safety of their students, faculty, and the larger campus community and granting them the quality academic experience they expect and deserve.
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