Fall 2020 Outlook: Analyzing University Plans & Pain Points

By: Danielle Chazen

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Universities’ plans on how to approach the Fall 2020 semester seem to be continuously changing. Many universities and higher education leaders who had hoped to launch on-campus offerings are reversing course and now enlisting fully-online or hybrid approaches. For example, this week, Morgan State University and Santa Clara University joined the list of schools changing their initial plans to reopen.

On Friday, it was announced that 20% of Harvard freshmen have chosen to defer. According to Forbes, 40% of expected freshmen attending 4-year residential colleges are saying they are ‘likely’ or ‘highly likely’ to not attend this fall. 28% of returning students say they are not going back or haven’t decided yet.

Some schools, such as UNC, are exploring HyFlex models of delivery. They’re allowing some students to sit in classrooms while socially distanced with masks, while the remainder of the course’s students are joining via Zoom. In one classroom at UNC Chapel Hill, a masked professor held a class this week with six masked students and rolling chairs set several feet apart in a floor plan marked to deter anyone who might impulsively scoot next to a peer. Thirteen more students, unmasked, were linked in via Zoom and projected onto video screens.
a speaker speaking in front of a projected video conference call

Prior to the health crisis, HyFlex was being used by some institutions to provide personalized learning opportunities and various ways for students to learn so they are not forced to learn in a one approach for all environment. Due to the current situation, institutions are rather being forced to evaluate these various approaches.

Verbit held its second virtual summit, EduALL: Back To School Edition, to engage experts to share insights on how to approach this fall semester which is unlike any other. Speakers joined the event from Tufts University, Michigan State University, George Mason University, SUNY, Coastal Carolina University, Van Allen Strategies, Blackboard Collaborate and Coursera.
list of higher education professionals
Higher education professionals who attended were also asked to share their schools’ plans and challenges throughout the event via surveys throughout the sessions. Some interesting findings are featured below.

Does your institution have a clear plan for bringing back all or some students and staff in-person for the fall semester?

  • 70% – Yes
  • 10% – No
  • 10% – It’s day-by-day
  • 10% – Unsure

What is your university’s plan for the fall?

  • 88% – Hybrid: Remote & In-Person
  • 8% – 100% Online – Required format for faculty to follow
  • 4% –  Fully In-Person
  • No schools polled are enlisting fully online approaches with no required formats for faculty to follow. 

If you are teaching online*, did you receive additional support when designing your course for the fall? (*whether fully remote, hybrid or some other combination)

  • 87% – Yes, from my institution 
  • 13% – No
  • No schools answered that they are not yet receiving support, but envision additional support coming.

Concerns for students and the safety and well-being of all individuals involved in the higher-ed process were also central to the virtual event’s discussions.

Which of the following are you most concerned about going into the fall semester? (Select all that apply)

  • 50% are concerned with their living situation/remote work
  • 50% are concerned about their own health
  • 50% are concerned about other people’s health
  • 50% are concerned about social interaction
  • 40% are concerned about family
  • 30% are concerned if they can learn all the tools they need to teach
  • 30% are concerned about finances
  • 20% have ‘other’ concerns

In your opinion, what is the primary challenge facing higher-ed students learning online currently?

  • 64% – Technology issues (such as Wi-Fi)
  • 57% – ‘Zoom [or web conferencing] fatigue’
  • 57% – Lack of in-person dialogue and collaboration opportunities
  • 50% – Distractions and mental health struggles due to the pandemic overall
  • 43% – UDL & accessibility needs not being met 
  • 7% – Copy+paste of offline lectures to online environments
  • No individuals cited that none of the above are challenges.

Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning also were top-of-mind topics addressed at the event to see how instructors are preparing to meet these needs while teaching online and remotely. While tools, such as captions, were previously only thought of as aids to assist students with hearing impairments, now that they are being utilized to help all students learning remotely by providing an additional visual aid.

Are you captioning your recorded lectures?

  • 43% – Yes
  • 36% – Only with an accommodation request
  • 7% – I’d like to, but I don’t know how to caption
  • 7% – I’d like to, but I can’t afford it
  • 7% – No 

How are your faculty assessing their students?

  • 94% – Multiple methods of assessments
  • 6% – Multiple choice exams 
  • No respondents are only conducting essay exams or presentations.

Which stage would you say your institution is at currently? (with regard to its views and opportunities with regard to online learning)

  • Phase 1: Emergency / Substitute  – 9% 
  • Phase 2: Adaptation / Teaching Tool – 27%
  • Phase 3: Embrace / Design for Blended and integrated – 54%
  • Phase 4: Thrive / Leverage New Opportunities – 9%

When the decision was made in the spring to move learning to a remote delivery method, a “Continuity Plan” was put in place and what was taking place in education was “Continuity Learning”. The continuity plan is intended to be the stop gap approach to an unforeseen occurrence. As we move into the fall, students, faculty and parents are primed to move beyond Continuity Learning to this new approach with sound pedagogy. This shift is a significant lift for educational institutions that have been delivering education more traditionally prior.

As Kirsten Behling, Associate Dean, Student Accessibility and Academic Resources at Tufts University, stated during the summit, university leaders who instead look at this time frame as a period of opportunity will be the most successful. Higher-ed leaders who test and explore all of the personalized and exciting benefits that online learning offerings have to offer their students – with and without accessibility needs – will come out on top long-term.