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Fifteen shades of fall


May 28, 2020

June is upon us, and somehow universities and the HEC managed to bring the Spring semester, which was unexpectedly interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, to a close.

But there is no time to rest. The state has buckled under pressure from multiple quarters and reopened the economy, while voluntary precautionary measures are largely being flouted. At this point, a second wave of Covid-19 should be expected and planned for, not just for the education sector, but all sectors. We still have three months until the start of the next academic year.

In the spring, universities and the HEC had very little time to react. However, one positive thing that came out of the work done by the HEC was a report that classified universities into three levels, according to their technical level of readiness to switch to all-online classes.

In many cases, university administrators who make decisions, who have little connection to the situation on the ground in classrooms, simply signaled to the HEC their readiness to switch to online classes and decreed the same to faculty who had to implement the decision. This happened without any internal readiness assessment. The reaction was a strong push-back from students and faculty. Characterizing this decision-making process by many universities as seat-of-the-pants is charitable.

Those decisions were taken in the midst of a crisis, and may be excused to some extent. However, there will be no valid excuses if the coming Fall semester will be equally chaotic. If you think it is premature, consider that Cambridge University just announced it is going to all-online classes until summer 2021. So, what are our options? Universities across the world have been working on this question, and several candidate approaches have evolved.

Last month Edward J Maloney and Joshua Kim wrote an article, ‘15 Fall Scenarios’, in ‘Insider Higher Ed’ that lists 15 options universities across the US are contemplating. On one end of the spectrum of options are on-campus classes, as was routine in pre-Covid days. The other end is occupied by fully online classes and closed campuses, as happened during the Spring semester (Cambridge University, Harvard University, Manchester University). The other 13 scenarios represent different shades of grey on the spectrum between these two extremes.

The other 13 scenarios are different ways to reduce the density of students and staff on campus. This means having fewer students on campus at all times, smaller classes, possibly broken into multiple, smaller sections, allowing more physical space between students.

Some approaches suggest identifying and prioritizing subsets of students that should take classes on-campus, while others continue to study online. Possible groups that have been suggested include first year students/freshmen (prioritizing new students starting university studies), graduate students (California Institute of Technology, Vanderbilt University), or students in select programmes that require access to labs or other resources only available on-campus.

Since the need for on-campus resources varies from one course to the next (and courses overlap between programmes), another possibility is to conduct a fraction of courses on-campus, while conducting the rest online. However, such an approach may confine students of some programmes, who may not require any lab or other campus facilities, to all online classes.

Another set of approaches reduces student density on campus by having fewer students for more intense face-to-face engagement on campus, for example, 12 weeks online classes, four weeks on-campus for course activities requiring on-campus presence. A variation of this is where courses are compressed into few week-long modules – for example, students taking four courses in the 16-week long semester finish each course in a four-week timeslot.

Some students may wish not to risk infection and may prefer online classes. The split-curriculum option accomplished that, where students get to choose whether they take a course on campus or all-online (University of Pennsylvania, Rice University). Several students who have gotten the hang of online classes and do not face internet access issues from home may actually prefer it.

Many US universities gave students the option to simply sit out the fall semester, in the hope that: a) this will flatten the curve of a second wave; and b) a vaccine or treatment can be developed in the meantime. In this scenario, the fall semester will be taught in spring 2021, and the spring semester will be pushed back to summer 2021. For those who prioritize safety above all else and are able and willing, universities allow students to simply take a gap year – that is, sit out the entire next academic year and rejoin university in fall 2021.

Another (more traditional) option is the modified tutorial model, which is similar to the flipped classroom being used in select courses in some of Pakistan’s better universities. Here, students watch the traditional lecture online and complete their assigned readings ahead of class, in their own time. Face-to-face time happens in the form of tutorial sessions with teaching assistants and faculty in groups small enough to permit social distancing, where they cover Q&A and problem solving.

Many more universities are still watching the pandemic develop and are mulling their options, and will announce their plans in June. The lesson to learn here is that each university is making plans according to its assessment of its own situation. Several of these approaches can also be used together, for example taking measures to reduce student density on campuses, while also giving them the option to take a gap year. These scenarios entail numerous details, to be evaluated by each university based on its resources, constraints and situation.

A more sensible approach is to create a separate qualification checklist of requirements to implement each approach. Those requirements should include what is required from students (parents?), faculty and university administrations. Let each university figure out what approaches it qualifies for.

The HEC can certify it, and each university can announce its tailored approach to conducting the next academic year to students by August 1. If the chosen scenario gives students options, they will then have roughly a month to decide how to proceed and make necessary arrangements. Even with just a few hundred institutions of higher education, a one-, two- or even three-sizes-fit-all approach is unlikely to work in Pakistan.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Email: [email protected]