In the pandemic, disruption may be our silver lining


The pandemic has brought plenty of changes to our everyday routines. The same is true in higher education. Beginning as soon as we closed our campus buildings in March, we had to figure out how we could continue to provide instruction and support services to students – and we had a week to figure it out. Classes moved online and to “alternative delivery methods.” Advising moved to working with students by phone and in virtual meetings. Our remaining holdout paper forms were transformed into web forms overnight.

Many of these changes involved things we’d been discussing for years. We knew the technology existed to do online meetings but we never seemed to have the time to really implement them. In a crisis, we were suddenly able to do it. And now it’s unlikely that our advising team will ever return to the way things were pre-pandemic. They probably will meet face-to-face with students again when that’s prudent, but I’m pretty sure students will want to continue to communicate from a distance, especially those who live a significant distance from our campus.

Our mix of classes pre-pandemic was about 30% online and 70% in-person/on-campus. This fall, that ratio is reversed: the only classes on-campus are those that can’t effectively be taught online, including nursing, engineering technology (welding, robotics, fabrication, etc.), and graphic design, plus a handful of chemistry and biology labs that also need to be in-person. Because we’re not sure when things will get back to “normal,” the winter semester is looking to have a similar mix. If we can start to move classes back on campus next fall, I still expect that our online offerings will expand. They’re not for everyone (online classes aren’t great for procrastinators in particular, and there are plenty of those in college), but they’ve always been popular with our students who would otherwise have to commute 30 minutes or more each way to campus and students with families or who have regular work commitments during the day. A 50/50 split between online and on-campus wouldn’t surprise me moving forward.

One of the areas I supervise is our Testing Center. We’ve seen huge changes this year due to the center being closed from March through the end of June. Testing for placement into our entry-level math and English classes wasn’t available for the fall semester, so working with the faculty in those disciplines we developed rubrics for self-placement that – so far – seem to be satisfactorily. Would we prefer to go back to placement testing? Perhaps; math was moving in this direction anyway, and English may want to evaluate the data before making a final decision. In any case, we’ve proven that the previous way of doing things wasn’t the only way to do it.

Testing in general is a challenge in pandemic conditions. The first reaction of college instructors, especially those who hadn’t taught online before, was to try to duplicate their in-person, analog assessment tools like multiple choice tests in the online world. Experienced online teachers have learned that’s a difficult thing to accomplish. While it’s fairly easy to set up a test in any of the popular learning management systems (LMS) used by colleges and universities, the challenge is trying to make sure that students don’t cheat when taking them. Our Testing Center staff evaluated several companies that claim to provide methods to ensure that students take tests by themselves with no notes, calculators, or other assistance, but the truth is that none of those systems are foolproof. If students want to cheat, they tend to be pretty resourceful under normal conditions, and monitored only by a webcam, well, you can imagine how creative they can be.

The long-term answer is to re-evaluate how we assess student progress. Multiple choice tests are easier to grade, especially if the LMS or a fill-the-bubble form such as Scantron is used, but they’re easier to cheat on, especially in the online world. Essay questions are harder to grade but are perhaps a better way to evaluate whether students have understood the material instead of just memorizing and regurgitating facts and figures. This is a topic in itself, but I saw an interesting article today by Beckie Supiano in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Students Cheat. How Much Does It Matter?” This is a discussion that, like many of our other changes made urgent by the pandemic, has been going on for years. Maybe the urgency of our current situation will provide the impetus to finally do something to improve evaluation, assessment, and testing methods.

While no one would have wished for a pandemic that has sickened millions of people worldwide and killed over 200,000 Americans alone, it would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of the urgency created by the crisis to improve the way we impart knowledge to our students and fairly and effectively evaluate how well they comprehend. It may be a small silver lining in a huge dark cloud, but it’s better than nothing.