What is the State of Learning in Higher Education’s Fall 2020 Semester?

The fall of 2020 for college campuses is unlike any other. Freshman orientations were often held over Zoom, there is ongoing COVID testing as well as face-covering mandates, and empty football stadiums. But even though many of the usual college rituals are not occurring, students are still pursuing studies and learning, albeit through different means.

According to a study of roughly 3,000 higher education institutions in September 2020, the College Crisis Initiative, a program designed to learn how colleges and universities innovate in a crisis mindset, found that institutions were all over the map with their plans to reopen campus in the fall of 2020. Below is a recap of how institutions planned to reopen their campus this fall (per data captured in September 2020).

  • Fully in-person: 2.5%
  • Primarily in-person: 20%
  • Hybrid: 15%
  • Primarily online: 27%
  • Fully online: 6%
  • Other: 6%
  • TBD: 24%

Changing Plans During Challenging Times

In these extraordinary times, many schools have been forced to pivot from their original reopening plans due to the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases on campuses. For example, nine days after commencing in-person classes, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that it shifted all undergraduate instruction to remote learning. Meanwhile, increasing COVID-19 cases at the University of Notre Dame forced a move to virtual learning for undergraduates for two weeks—a mere eight days after classes started.

These cases were not rare. Higher education campuses around the world were forced to reevaluate their reopening scenarios based on constantly evolving information. The growing presence of COVID-19 cases among students, faculty, or family members in local communities pressured decision-makers in many cases to rapidly switch to fully online or hybrid learning. In other situations, institutions may have realized, upon reopening campus, that their plans to support safe and healthy learning environments were not up to par with the inherent complexities of dealing with a novel virus.

Fully and Primarily In-Person

Although it is only a sliver of higher education institutions across the U.S., some colleges (approximately 2.5% of the institutions in the study) opted to support fully in-person classes. In most cases, these institutions are smaller organizations in which campus leaders have more control over the coming and going of students and visitors.

Surprisingly, many institutions in the study (20%) planned to support primarily in-person learning. Schools that allowed students to come back on campus often had a comprehensive list of conditions for those individuals, including screening, testing, contact tracing, quarantining, and isolation housing. In some cases, international students or individuals who came back to campus from states with high positive COVID-19 cases were subjected to quarantine on arrival.

The Appeal of a Hybrid Model

A large portion of public and private universities opened their campuses and dormitories for a mix of in-person and remote classes this fall. In a lot of these cases, faculty members teach most classes remotely, but some classes are held in-person or through hybrid delivery with physical distancing.

The hybrid model is appealing to many higher education institutions, which may have a big impact on future semesters. A hybrid model allows institutions to find a balance between in-person and online learning without swaying too much one way or another. This agility empowers students with freedom of choice, in many cases allowing individuals to decide for themselves if they feel it is safe enough to return to campus. If there are no major losses of productivity, declines in student success rates beyond the expected outcomes due to fewer overall students returning to campus, or highly visible drops in student experiences, there may be a big shift in how higher education is delivered in the future.

Thinking of Spring

Many institutions are already planning or announcing their plans for the spring 2021 semester, which are looking very similar to their fall plans. This makes sense, as there are no imminent vaccines available and so much thought and effort went into creating their course models for the fall 2020 semester.

Announcing next semester’s plans now can be highly beneficial for institutions, as early announcements give students and faculty time to prepare for what the immediate future holds. While there are no definitive best practices established yet for how to deliver higher education in today’s setting, institutions should work with partners that can deliver the technology needed to support a wide range of learning models, including fully remote or in-person or a hybrid mix. Campus leaders should also look at how other institutions are approaching upcoming semesters as well as how they fared in the fall 2020 semester to identify potential pitfalls or ways to overcome challenges.

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