Arkansas colleges are planning for a return to the in-person classes that students want this fall, but they’re hedging their bets by preparing for another quick switch to online-only learning if the pandemic rages again.
Four educators told Arkansas Business their schools are offering “hybrid” classes — classes with both in-person and online elements — to accomplish this.
Calling the COVID-19 situation “fluid,” Melissa Taverner of Lyon College in Batesville is looking at the hybrid option even though the college has traditionally had few online offerings. She is Lyon’s provost and dean of faculty.
The University of Central Arkansas in Conway is also setting up hybrid classes in case it has to, once again, temporarily end face-to-face instruction for public health reasons, said Provost and Executive Vice President Patricia Poulter.
She said UCA is being proactive in its planning rather than reactive, as it had to be when COVID-19 struck Arkansas in March.
Hybrid classes may also help schools adhere to the physical distancing that has become the norm and been recommended by both the Arkansas Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
UCA, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia are considering a rotating schedule in which half of a class would be physically present in a classroom one day while the other half would join virtually. Then the two halves would swap for the next class day, and so on.
The educators said that one lasting impact of COVID-19 on higher education is that more faculty are comfortable teaching online classes than they were, although the practice was already growing. Students are also more comfortable taking them.
That means that the educators expect to see an expansion of their established online programs.
Students, however, still want in-person classes, said Thilla Sivakumaran, executive director of global engagement and outreach at A-State. Students, she said, have “done a great job of just using the online environment, but, obviously, if you chose to come to an on-campus program, you want to be on campus,” he said.
“Obviously, SAU was always going to be primarily a face-to-face university,” said David Lanoue, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SAU. “That’s really what we’re here for, is to serve our community and to serve our students and to provide them with the environment that they like. The world is going to be primarily face-to-face, but we’ve had a strong online component and I think it’s gotten even stronger now.”
Online and hybrid classes offer flexibility, he said. “It gives us flexibility for our students and faculty who are concerned about their health,” Lanoue said. “And it gives us flexibility for students who have, you know, full-time jobs or family responsibilities, where maybe they can’t take mostly a face-to-face schedule, but they can take an online class here and there. And that kind of helps them make the jigsaw puzzle of their life work.”
UCA’s Poulter said going online-only this spring allowed faculty that hadn’t considered teaching online before to realize that they can engage students differently that way.
For example, she said, some students who were never comfortable speaking up in a physical classroom have felt more comfortable participating in discussions in a virtual setting.
“So I think that the pedagogy, when somebody switches to online, they can start thinking about their teaching in ways they just haven’t thought of, and it makes us all better teachers, whether it’s a face-to-face class or online because you step back and you really think about how you engage people,” Poulter said.
She believes that, going forward, there will be more fully online and hybrid classes, as well as virtual labs. “What I think a lot of us knew, but this confirmed, is the ways that technology and online resources can supplement a lot of experiences,” Poulter said.
Lanoue also expects to see a “greater mix” of online and hybrid classes at SAU this fall.
“We actually moved, pretty decisively, a couple years ago to strengthen the quality of our online programs,” Lanoue said. “It turned out to be very fortuitous that we asked all faculty teaching online to go through our training. It’s something called ‘quality matters.’ It’s training in best practices, essentially, in online education.”
SAU also hired a director of online learning last fall.
A-State had hired two instructional designers before the pandemic because its online offerings were already growing. A-State had transitioned from old to new software as well, and Lyon had a network upgrade a few years ago.
UCA has had a Center for Teaching Excellence, which offers its faculty access to “instructional designers,” or consultants who can review existing online courses or online courses that haven’t been launched yet and work with teachers to improve them as needed.
All of the schools, with the exception of Lyon, use Blackboard as their online learning management system. Lyon uses Schoology instead, and A-State uses Zoom and Webex in addition to Blackboard.
UCA’s Poulter said the Blackboard suite of products offers many useful tools to educators. “The faculty member can become really as sophisticated as they wish or as kind of just as traditional as they wish within that,” she said.
Fall 2020 Plans
Having a plan and a backup plan is important, Maria Markham, Arkansas’ director of higher education, said.
“I think that, personally, the institutions that are still saying we don’t know what we’re going to do [this fall] is a terrible look. It doesn’t breed a lot of confidence in students. And I think that the Arkansas institutions have handled it much more wisely than some that I’ve heard from,” Markham said. “Everybody has come out and said, ‘Our plan is to be back on campus, face-to-face courses as scheduled. But, if something changes, we’ve got all of these contingency plans to continue operations.’”
She said that in-person classes are still driving student enrollment. “A lot of what you pay for at a university is exposure to faculty interaction, the in-class experience. But it’s also all of those intangibles that you get on campus with the leadership opportunities and the networking and the opportunity for growth. You can get some of that online, but you don’t get the other things as well,” Markham said.
While migrating to online-only classes in the spring semester worked out well, that’s not what students wanted, expected or paid for, she said. “So the best we can do is try to get back to normal in the fall, then have some really robust quality online plans for if we have to pivot. And I think students need to know that’s what the plan is. Otherwise, they may make other decisions on what they want to do,” Markham said.