Crisis Meets Opportunity: Retaining Online and Hybrid Successes When Returning to the Higher Education Classroom
November 19–20, 2021
The following conference proceeding discusses how successes from teaching fully online during the COVID-19 pandemic need to be utilized as professors return to the classroom. The presenters discussed how instructors can use the experiences gained during the pandemic to create engaging learning experiences for students as higher education scheduling returns to a new normal. Some of these successes include using new technologies for communication and instruction, designing alternative assessments, and adding more inclusive practices. Furthermore, the presenters considered the overall changing higher education landscape as they shared their personal experiences transitioning from teaching in a face-to-face setting to going fully remote and back again. The four main areas of focus addressed the changes made over the past two years and what instruction looks like back on campus, how online instruction can be improved with implementation of course design strategies and new technologies, how to persuade resistant professors to adopt the new model, and how to address technology equity issues.
Higher education institutions can and should continue to offer a range of courses to meet the needs of all learners, which requires utilizing best practices that were acquired during the pandemic. Campuses are now offering online, in-person, and blended courses. As of this writing, the pandemic continues to impact all facets of everyday life, including higher education. Colleges and universities have to continue to be prepared to adapt. Many considerations have had to be accounted for, including transitions to different learning environments, social distancing requirements, and other COVID-related rules and restrictions (Beatty, 2020). Brooks and Gierdowski (2021) suggest investing in the design, development, and implementation of hybrid course models as well as the individuals (designers, staff, and instructors) who support them. In fact, hybrid courses should no longer be viewed as exceptions or secondary to face-to-face courses; they should be considered the “new normal.” This is what campuses look like now in 2022.
The pandemic forced professors to look closely at their courses and their methods of delivery and become more proficient with technology. As many instructors needed to adjust their instruction during the switch to emergency remote teaching (ERT), they were compelled to look at the way their courses were aligned and how the materials were made accessible to all students (Ezra et al., 2021). During the Spring 2020 semester, many instructors recognized the importance of using strong instructional design techniques that correlated to how students accessed, participated in, and showed what they had learned (Fulgencio & Asino, 2021). Many of the revised ERT courses were updated to meet online teaching and learning standards and structured in a way that fosters student engagement through learner-focused instruction. These deep dives into and subsequent reflection on each course may improve student learning outcomes in the years to come. Colleges and universities have increased their spending on technology and the expectation is that professors are using these new tools in their classrooms. There is one caveat to this technological upscaling: professors need training and support to learn not only how to use the new equipment, but also how to use it to improve the curriculum and the learning that students achieve.
Professors are returning to classrooms better equipped to teach their students than ever before. The reason for this is that the pandemic forced professors to adapt to teaching in a fully online and virtual environment. It was not an easy transition and there were many struggles along the way, including learning how to use and deploy new technology. However, despite challenges, new techniques and skills were mastered. Professors figured out how to be effective instructors and deliver high quality lessons, while still meeting standards and goals set forth by their institutions (Ali, 2020). Professors should not forget what they learned, but rather they should utilize their new skills where appropriate, even in face-to-face settings.
However, there is now a cohort of professors who prefer to revert back to how they taught before the pandemic. This desire to return to the “old ways” is understandable, but instructors should work to evolve with new platforms and best practices. These resistant professors should be provided the necessary workshops and training to continue to teach online. Furthermore, professors would seem especially adaptable now to new technologically advanced classrooms because they proved themselves so during the pandemic. There is some truth to this logic, but it is not as simple as providing the right tools and expecting all parties to figure them out. Just as it did during the pandemic, extensive training needs to take place. Colleges and universities need to invest in training their faculty to be proficient in all these new technological areas. This venture takes time. Reasonable goals need to be established for how long it will take to fully incorporate and infuse new technologies into the actual teaching that will occur.
Families with low income and wealth often have low socioeconomic status. Such conditions may trigger digital equity issues for our students, including poor internet connections, poor equipment, inadequate technology access, and inadequate technology resources (Erza et al., 2021). Digital disparities, or the digital divide, existed before the COVID-19 pandemic (Correia, 2020). However, these disparities have come to the forefront of education during the crisis that began in March 2020.
When higher education institutions closed during the pandemic, many students were faced with huge obstacles. In a study conducted by Brooks and Gierdowski (2021), 36% of respondents reported that they always, very often, or sometimes struggled to find an internet connection that supported their academic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixteen percent of students in rural areas very often or always struggled to find an internet connection suitable to complete their required academic coursework, while 3% of students without computers relied on their cell phones to access classroom resources. Also, living in an area without a strong mobile internet signal caused digital equity issues. Twenty-three percent of respondents stated that they had to leave their homes in search of strong Wi-Fi connections.
One way to address technology equity issues is to engage families and empower communities. Tech Goes Home is a non-profit organization in Boston, Massachusetts, that provides low-income families with low-cost laptops, internet, and training for work, leisure, and learning. Students will not only receive a computer to use in their home, but also have tech-savvy parents who can assist and support them with school work (Reich, 2019). Another way to address socioeconomic equity is to establish a hotspot lending program. For example, an extension-led pilot project in Oklahoma addressed this issue by establishing a hotspot lending program in four rural libraries. Through the program, librarians allowed citizens to connect to the internet by providing cellular-based hotspots that connect to a user’s smartphone, tablet, or laptop (Whitacre, 2019). Finally, for those students who cannot afford to purchase expensive course textbooks and materials, Open Educational Resources (OERs) are a great option. OERs are teaching, learning, and research materials that have been released under an open license, at no cost to the user. OERs provide educators with free access to resources that can be used and distributed for personalized instruction in fully online or face-to-face courses (Tang, 2020). Additionally, a study conducted by Tillinghast (2020) indicated that OERs have the potential for increasing student engagement. This is how equity issues must proactively be addressed.
The pandemic has presented the higher education community a unique opportunity to make great strides in being up to date with the latest and best technology. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, certain areas need to be prioritized to ensure the best transition to the new teaching and learning environment. First, all stakeholders need to recognize and understand what instruction looks like in this new educational landscape. Second, all individuals should identify how to harness the power of new technological tools to make teaching and learning as effective as possible. Third, resistant professors need to be supported through the transition using training and workshops. Finally, the higher education community must address equity issues to make sure that all students are given equal access and opportunity to learn in this new environment. With these priorities in mind, positive benefits can come from retaining the successes that have been achieved during the pandemic.
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