In February, the University of Massachusetts Boston reported the first case of COVID-19 in the state. Like all campuses, a month later, the public university shut down, sent students living in its brand new dorms packing and migrated courses online.
For the first time, political scientist Erin O’Brien found herself teaching remotely — on the fly.
“I learned I far prefer the classroom model. I think my skepticism of online learning is on point,” she said.
Still, O’Brien says the campus community came together — on Zoom, of course — and her students did learn.
“I'm pretty rigid in the classroom,” she explained. “But I designed it so that they could either be live at the lectures and discussion or if they weren't, I recorded those and posted them online.”
In these early days of summer, college professors and administrators are scrambling to design virtual courses and continue the bulk of their teaching online, hoping to be better prepared this time. A lot of these plans are in flux, but one thing is clear: The pandemic is highlighting deep gaps between the wealthiest colleges and the others.
Most public universities and tuition-dependent, cash-strapped private colleges can’t afford stockpiles of tests and PPE and miles of Plexiglas to teach even some students safely in classrooms, while others learn online. Some schools, like Boston University and UMass Lowell, are already furloughing and laying off some employees. More cuts are widely expected in the months ahead.
So, with no end in sight to this pandemic, UMass Boston and other colleges are exploring how to reboot their programs in the fall. The approaches vary a lot. A handful acknowledge they’re planning to hold classes exclusively online, like UMass Boston. A majority, including UMass Amherst, Brandeis and Northeastern, say they intend to welcome at least some students back to campus, although that might be out of their control. States implementing 14-day quarantines for people coming from out of state is complicating plans to bring students back for the fall.
In a May survey by the research organization College Pulse of more than 5,000 full-time undergraduate students, more than 90 percent said they should pay less in tuition if schools are only offering online classes. At the same time, some higher ed thought leaders see this disruption as an opportunity to reconsider online learning.
“The world went from 1 or 2 or 3 percent learning online to 100 percent learning online. The whole world turned on a dime,” said Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of edX, Harvard and MIT’s online learning venture.
The two colleges have been innovating in online learning for nearly a decade, with more than 150 university and business partners. In April, 5 million new unique learners came to edX, a third of them for professional certificates to upskill in their current jobs.
“We saw a huge interest from not just our university partners, but also from universities and colleges and schools all over the world that were looking for resources as they went online,” he said, adding that moving to a blended model of learning — a combination of in-person and online — was always the right move.
Agarwal said the pandemic has accelerated that transition for students and professors.
“A significant percentage of them are saying, ‘This is not half bad,’" he said. "A lot of the opposition has lowered.”
Agarwal points to a survey of college presidents out this week that finds 80 percent are likely to consider a mix of in-person and online teaching for the long-term.
“I think that the new normal is going to be blended,” he said.
Colleges’ ability to pay for that blended model, though, may create further divides between higher ed’s haves and have-nots. The pandemic and resulting economic downturn are decimating the finances of private and public colleges in Massachusetts and across the country. A new report by the consultancy group EY-Parthenon has found that under a pessimistic scenario, assuming decreased enrollment and taxpayer funding, eight state universities and community colleges in Massachusetts would not have the cash flow to cover existing expenses for a month, let alone new online programs.
“If we are stripped to the core, we will be in no way ready for the short-term training that is needed for economic recovery,” Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, told the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education last week.
Eddinger says the vast majority of Bunker Hill’s 12,000 students will learn online in the fall, at a time hospitals in Boston and across the region are counting on the state’s 15 community colleges during this pandemic to produce nurses, EMTs and respiratory technicians.
“Eighty-five percent of those front-line workers that are helping us with COVID right now started with us,” she said.
Despite any online innovation, to be effective, much of those students’ education and training will still need to be in-person.
As she wrapped up her online course last semester, UMass Boston Professor Erin O’Brien says she always tried to keep in mind her students’ social and economic challenges. Many lost jobs.
“I had students who lived in shelters. Students who had COVID. Students who were in the nursing program and were working on floors that were getting converted,” she said. “Their lives were just incredibly complicated, and COVID revealed it all the more.”