JONATHAN L. WHARTON
Connecticut’s colleges and universities have been scrambling this week in an effort to move their operations online because of the risks associated with person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in large groups.
Even if this online model is maintained for only a brief period, it is quite frankly overdue for higher education in Connecticut. Increasing the number of classes offered online makes lots of sense as our student enrollment numbers are decreasing and we are on the verge of a generational staffing shift.
Our governor declared coronavirus a public health emergency and urged an end to large gatherings. My employer, Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), decided on Tuesday to close campus for the rest of the week and after next week’s spring break to resume all classes online until April 6.
College campuses are notorious germ centers with large groups meeting in lecture halls, cafeterias, and dormitories. Few coeds take care of themselves, as they often lack sleep, rarely eat well, and hardly practice proper hygiene. Add the stress of midterm season this month, and it only contributes to their already high-anxiety lives and poor immune systems. As an academic, I routinely fear for my immune system this time of year and even more so now with the arrival of COVID-19.
As this virus sparks concerns on campus, SCSU and our state’s public institutions of higher education are also faced with a student enrollment shortfall that is expected to last for nearly a decade. It’s no secret that Connecticut’s population remains stagnant and fewer “traditional” students (those 18 to 24 years old) are expected to remain in Connecticut.
As a result, these regional universities and community colleges must find innovative ways to recruit and retain these students as well as nontraditional students such as older populations, veterans, active-duty military, and part-time students.
The most significant trend in higher education is to offer an innovative and holistic overall learning experience. Many students require night and weekend classes as well as online classes to make college work into their schedules while they are employed. And while community colleges and state universities offer some programs online, many departments do not have them available for every major and every class.
Beyond student enrollment concerns and coronavirus, Connecticut is also facing another dire reality: the soon-to-be “silver tsunami.” At least a quarter of the Baby Boomer staff will retire or not continue with the new state employee contract in 2022. And our state’s higher education institutions have a significant number of Boomer professors. As a SCSU faculty senator, last spring I heard our public higher education system president, Mark Ojakian, stress his concern about the impact of the silver tsunami on higher education as we know it in Connecticut.
With this generational change about to crest next year and student enrollment concerns, now is the time to consider new approaches in digital education. The training and retraining of our faculty are necessities in Connecticut’s public higher education system.
Maybe coronavirus will be the impetus to turn things around and demand that faculty catch up with online education. It will also hopefully draw in and retain more traditional and nontraditional students for classes at Connecticut’s public institutions.
But with campus closures this week, virtual learning will require a sudden, steep learning curve for academics. COVID-19 will now force faculty to learn beyond the classroom. This should come as no surprise, but professors are generally creatures of habit and remain accustomed to the same books and the same lectures in a classroom. To now hold classes “virtually” will be a significant shift, especially since professors are rarely tech savvy. How soon and how many professors will be able to grasp online education will be another story.
But the classroom is that sacred space of learning and sharing and many educators respect this basic element of our profession. As a third-generation educator (proudly from both sides of the family) who has taught for 20 years, I revere dialogues and debates in a physical classroom setting. At the same time, Connecticut is overdue for providing alternative and nontraditional delivery methods of higher education to address our student enrollment and generational staffing concerns.
Many academics have already embraced new learning approaches and I am meeting with academic colleagues this week to exchange ideas and tips about remote learning. In fact, I just registered for SCSU’s online education seminar for faculty. I am actually looking forward to it. After all, education should include educating oneself in helping to educate others.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He also serves on the New Haven City Plan Commission and Republican State Central Committee.
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