While publicly dangling possibilities and preparations for campus reopenings, US colleges must keep a serious internal focus on strengthening their remote learning options, advises their chief quality assurance advocate. US colleges seem to be making good progress towards online proficiency, says Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. “This is an opportunity to develop. From my perspective, there are several things that need to be addressed as we’re going forward.” This observation was made against the backdrop of a small but growing number of US colleges and universities having already acknowledged that they will spend at least part of the fall semester without students on campus.
Yet even as medical professionals have expressed scepticism about the safety of holding large gatherings in coming months, the majority of institutions have been putting emphasis on their ideas for reopening their campuses — with details of physical distancing and facilities for disinfection — than on their strategies for improving the online educational experience.
In a conference call with Mike Pence, the US vice president, and Betsy DeVos, the US education secretary, several university presidents reportedly expressed hope of legal protection in the likely event that their reopened campuses spread coronavirus infections.“We don’t know for sure, but it’s starting to look like we’re going to need to be more reliant on online options in the fall,” says Eaton.
For colleges, however, the urgency of resuming in-person instruction is clear. Many students have been demanding it and have been threatening to skip the autumn semester or to press for substantial tuition fee reductions if their only options are online. Institutions of all sizes have been warning of serious financial problems if that happens, with hundreds already beginning to make salary or staffing cuts.
Yet establishing a high-quality online operation — covering the full range of academic and administrative needs — demands dedicated commitment, says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, whose 140,000-student operation is almost entirely remote. “To do online well, and to mount a major effort, requires investment at the precise moment that they don’t have the resources,” says LeBlanc, a leading expert being besieged by other institutions for advice.
One of the most serious threats to US universities under financial stress is potential loss of accreditation, which the US Education Department requires for an institution’s students to be eligible for federal loans and grants. The department has been waiving or extending many accreditation- related deadlines and requirements for in-person instruction, and accrediting agencies whose judgement it officially recognises have been postponing inspection visits or conducting some aspects remotely.
But according to Dr. Eaton, it isn’t clear how strictly creditors will treat online programmes that, by the autumn are set to remain little more than teachers talking to their students over Zoom and similar platforms.
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