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COVID-19 Provides Lessons for Arkansas’ UniversitiesLock Icon

5 min read

W. Joseph King doesn’t think that the coronavirus pandemic will necessarily change the meaning of going to college.

The Lyon College president expects students to return to the traditional model of on-campus learning, but he thinks his faculty in Batesville will become more accepting of online instruction.

Last month, the Batesville college and other universities scrambled to move their academic courses online so students could finish the current semester.

King hopes that by the fall semester, students will be back on campus. But the experience will have made professors more comfortable with online offerings, and they will incorporate that new comfort and knowledge into the classroom, he said.

Other higher education administrators agreed.

“More and more faculty who in the past maybe were resistant to using online tools or maybe sort of had a negative view of the possibilities of teaching online may start to employ online techniques in their classrooms,” said Michael Moore, chief academic and operating officer for eVersity, the state’s first online-only university. He also is the vice president for academic affairs for the University of Arkansas System.

Houston Davis, president of the University of Central Arkansas, expects more courses to be enhanced with online materials as well as face-to-face instruction.

The move to online also “has been an extreme way to show the importance of having an academic continuity plan in place,” Davis said. “I think that this probably sets us up in the future” in the case of snow or a disaster.

He said he foresees UCA expanding its online course offerings or offering classes to adults who need them to complete their degree.

“I think that some good will come from this, that we’ll certainly have a lot more faculty and a lot more staff that are comfortable in that [online] space,” Davis said.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to say what other impacts might last for colleges, said Bill Smith, associate vice chancellor for marketing and communications at Arkansas State University.

“These are unprecedented times, and Arkansas State’s students, faculty, and staff are working diligently to adjust,” Smith said in a statement to Arkansas Business last week.

“It’s too early to speculate about the long-term changes these events may cause because we here in Arkansas are just starting to see the direct impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Colleges also are expecting their budgets to take a hit as a result of the outbreak.

King, Lyon’s president, said last week that he didn’t have estimates for the cost of moving all the classes online. Lyon has expanded its network capacity, and if it needs services or other items, “we’re prepared to purchase those as we go,” he said.

King said Lyon might have to charge students a one-time fee because of the transition to online.

“The reality is, it didn’t come without cost,” he said.

Lyon and UCA are working to provide room-and-board refunds to the students who were sent home with only a few weeks left in the semester. As of early last week, plans for the refunds were being worked out.

“We’re going to try to be as equitable as possible for everybody involved,” King said. “While that kind of creates a budget hole, we’re much more focused on the fall and getting things back to normal.”

Preparing to Shift Online

EVersity and other online universities spend weeks building online courses, said Moore. Instructors also are put through weeks of training on communicating with students and interacting with them, he said.

Arkansas colleges and universities had to make that online change in a few weeks.

UCA had completed 11 weeks of the 15-week semester when the shift to online took place. “I think that that probably helped with our faculty and our students because … there really was a good, strong relationship that had formed within those classes,” Davis said. “It would have been very difficult to have pivoted if that were maybe Week 3 of the term.”

He said that in mid- to late February, UCA’s provost and academic deans and its Center for Teaching Excellence started preparing professors for the chance that the spring semester would be finished online. In addition, 300 of the 2,700 courses that UCA offered for the spring semester were already online.

Lyon also had been doing prep work to convert its courses to online. It had offered summer school classes online, so “we kind of had the tools in place,” King said.

Still, “it’s going to be probably a rough four-and-a-half weeks as far as problems,” he said. “You know all the things that happen when you try and have a video conference.”

And some courses are more difficult to shift to online than others, such as a science lab.

“Not every major is going to be impacted exactly the same way,” Moore said. King said the “labs and those sorts of things will just have to make do.”

There are “very good resources online” that offer simulations or videos for lab classes, King said. “So we’ll fill in with that,” he said. “It’s certainly not something we’d want to do on a normal basis.”

But he expects everything to work out because two-thirds of the semester had been completed before the online switch. Finals will be online, and he doesn’t see a problem there. “We have an honor code, so we don’t have any worry about doing finals remotely,” he said.

As for the commencement, it’s “up in the air,” King said. “We’ll have it eventually. We just may have to postpone it to the end of the summer.”

Returning to School

Once the public health emergency ends, “I think you’ll end up with brick-and-mortar schools going back to being brick and mortar, because that’s what they do best,” eVersity’s Moore said. “And that’s what students want.”

Most of the traditional college students are between the ages of 18 and 22 and aren’t going to college just to take classes. “They want to live on or near campus because of all the other things that come along with the campus environment,” Moore said. “They want to live away from home. They want to enjoy hanging out in the quad.

“That doesn’t happen for the 100% online student,” he said.

King said one of the few positives of the coronavirus pandemic is that Lyon, with the online tools, maintained ties with students after they moved home.

“So I think we’re doing our job as a residential college,” King said. “But none of us would really want to be doing it this way if we had any other options.”

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