In Uncertain Times: Higher Ed (and Society) Need to Do Better

Mark M. Diacopoulos – PhD. Curriculum and Instruction. 

Assistant Professor, Dept. of Teaching and Leadership, Pittsburg State University
Mark has been an educator for over 25 years. He has taught in middle and high schools both in the US and UK. An early adopter of educational technology, he has worked as a Technology Specialist and Curriculum Specialist in social studies for a large district in Southeast Virginia. He earned his PhD. in Curriculum and Instruction in 2018 and is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Pittsburg State University in rural Kansas. As well as researching and writing about how to best teach future teachers, he also examines issues of professional identity, technology teaching and learning, critical friendship and communities of practice. Mark is also a devoted parent, a lifetime fan of Arsenal F.C., and a self-described “retired broken aikidoka”.

In uncertain times, one thing is certain – we need to do better for our students

I’m in my first year as an assistant professor, after over 25 years in the K-12 sector. I’ve never experienced anything like the situation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.  My university made the decision last week to close campus completely until at least April 7th, switch all instruction to a format that doesn’t require face to face communication, and to cancel all activities, sports, student organizations, and commencement for the rest of this semester. This was a carefully considered decision and was not the original solution. 
When it became apparent that COVID-19 would require social distancing, we decided to make all classes online, or at least avoid face to face classes. Campus would remain open as usual, meetings, office hours, student services would all continue as normal. For us this decision made a lot of sense. Our campus is in an area of high poverty in rural Kansas. Many of our students rely on work on campus and in the local community just to get by. Their main place of residence is on campus. For some students the library is their only access to a good computer and high-speed internet. Keeping our campus open as much as possible would go far to meet student’s needs. Moreover, maintaining a physical presence, keeping office hours, and advising for next semester, would do a lot for helping our student’s social emotional needs. 
However, as the emergency became more serious, the decision was made to close our campus completely.  This meant that our students had about four days to gather their belongings from halls of residence and return home. For some this is not a problem. For others, this is far from ideal. They are young adults, learning to establish their identities, and they are being asked to return to family situations which are unsupportive of their needs. In rural communities, not everyone has access to reliable high-speed internet, which means their chances of success with their coursework are diminished. We have students who rely on campus services for social and emotional wellbeing, and these are no longer available to them. It is a challenging situation and heartbreaking for instructors.

Moreover, it must be said, if our society cared more about young people, this decision would not have been as hard to make. Throughout the United States, it is our educational institutions that provide the support for young people which is lacking in the rest of society. We should not be the only places that show young people that we care, and it should not be so hard to make a necessary decision to close in the wake of a global pandemic.  
Yet there are still opportunities to show we care. As instructors, we can reach out to students through email and use our Learning Management Systems to leave encouraging messages and hold virtual meetings.  Switching to digital office hours provides more flexibility and accessibility for those students who were unable to meet face to face as their free time didn’t match ours. Advising has moved to a digital space, this still affords us the opportunities to get to know students and build relationships. In the meetings I have had so far, my students have been happy to videoconference and would like to meet more regularly. Perhaps the stress and fear of physically going to a professor’s office is lessened by the informality of video conferencing? 
As far as instruction is concerned, we have a chance to evaluate what truly matters in our courses. Just because we did something in our face to face classes, doesn’t mean it is a good idea in online environments. I’m currently working with a group of professors who are keen to trim the fat from their coursework and make assignments as meaningful as possible.  We get to ask ourselves if our practice was more about compliance than achievement? We can consider if a task needs to be summative or formative, or even if we need to keep it at all. Above all, we can bring these innovations back to our face to face classes when things return to normal, whatever and whenever that is. 
What is the new normal?
But with that said, the future new normal does not need to be the same as the old normal. We have an opportunity to really think about what it means to be at a university, and what we can do to support our students. 
Things that changed in the crisis, and should be considered in the future: 
Flexible working practices
It is quite evident that being on site is not always the best place for a professor to work. Those of us on tenure track already have a level of flexibility in our work, but we should do more to make our availability to students less centralized and rigid. Flexible office hours, online availability, or office hours held in the community could make us more accessible to our students. 
Flexible teaching practices
This applies to our students as well. If we can be flexible with attendance policies in the current emergency, we should reconsider our expectations of students too. Does every scheduled class have to be a face to face meeting? Maybe we should use face to face time to build community and relationships, to discuss and dive deep into topics, and leave the independent work for independent time. We should treat contact time with students as time which we cannot waste. 
Campus facilities

Our campus provides essential services for our students, from healthcare, to meals, to work, to laundry. That is in addition to facilities for learning: labs, computers, and internet.  We need to keep investing in our campus infrastructure and expand opportunities for the local community to make use of these facilities. 
Reconsider the cost of higher education
Many of my students work a full-time load, as well as maintain full time student status. They do this through necessity, not choice. They don’t have affordable healthcare, although our campus health center can provide basic needs.  Think how different this emergency would be if our students didn’t have to pay for their higher education, if they were not reliant on their jobs to get by. Imagine how less stressed they would be if they had access to affordable, or even free, healthcare during a global pandemic? Or, if they have to work, they do it through choice, rather than necessity. We accept that K-12 education should be free as part of our social contract, why not higher education? After all, it’s a meaningful, long-term investment in our nation’s future. 
Keeping students at the center of our decisions
For the short term, our focus is on helping our students make progress toward their degree. There are no sports, no activities, no distractions. Once things “return to normal” we should consider how every aspect of campus life supports this. Things we consider as normal, such as disproportional investment in sports teams and coaches, should be reconceptualized. Let’s have conversations about what we truly need to do to support the health and well-being of our students as we move forward. Issues of equity and accessibility need to be at the heart of these discussions. 
Society needs to adapt – we should do better in the future
One thing this pandemic has shown, is that our societal structures are not prepared to meet the challenges of the twenty first century. Doing things the same way we always have done is not flexible enough to meet the needs of our population. When the second richest country in the world has shortages of essentials in its stores, is unable to provide adequate testing for a new disease and closing businesses and schools leaves workers close to bankruptcy, or worse, then that country needs to reconsider its path. Educators at all levels have shown remarkable ingenuity in embracing change at short notice. Students have coped admirably with all the demands thrown at them. Their resilience has been outstanding. But it should not be this way. 
When this is all over, we seriously need to consider the social, emotional, and mental cost of continuing to do education in the same way we did before. If, as a society, we truly care about our young people, this is the chance for us all to change things for the better. I feel so bad for my students. They work so hard, and when this is over, they deserve better from everyone. 

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