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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

Southern Connecticut State University’s provost emailed faculty this week that all summer classes will be online. This should not be surprising in light of Connecticut’s coronavirus status. But what is academia’s future this upcoming school year and beyond? Uncertainty.

Many community colleges, colleges and universities had to switch to online-only learning because of the coronavirus. Students and instructors were faced with an immediate and new learning curve by midterm: understanding online learning. Instructors had to suddenly deliver their lectures through a different pathway. And, most importantly, students had to grasp concepts remotely instead of together in a classroom.

Additional challenges included possessing modern technology, like computers and tablets, and reliable online services. As simple as this sounds, these tools differ widely throughout Connecticut. Some shoreline and rural communities have limited data plans and online access. Many low-income students have limited means to pay for modern technology, let alone cover expensive telecommunication services. And not all households have broadband technology. There is a digital divide, even in Connecticut.

For instructors and students, embracing online learning requires patience and attention to detail. Unlike classroom teaching, interaction among students and instructors is rare and terribly individualistic. For example, only a few of my students engage in online discussion or offer questions compared to when we were in a classroom setting last month. I have to use the chat feature often because many students are shy or unable to communicate in real time. I also notice that the majority of students do not have their cameras on during class. Others were distracted by phones or family members. For students with attention disorders, online learning has to be a struggle with everything going on around them.

I will admit that online teaching has led me to become more organized and remain ahead of assigned readings. And conducting weekly quizzes is easier than expected as students immediately email their responses. Yet correcting essays virtually is a challenge as I customarily mark responses in red pen and will instead have to do so in track-changes or prepared responses.

Office hours have also been a concern as instructors are using Microsoft Teams to conduct conversations virtually. Similar to FaceTime, it allows students to reach out to instructors during a specific time period. While the software program is not as engaging as in-person office hours, it at least allows students to be in touch with faculty. But like online classes, few students participate or rely on virtual office hours.

No doubt that these learning dynamics pose challenges for many students. Besides, college is costly, especially during an economic downturn. It’s no surprise then that some students have withdrawn from classes this semester while others have taken advantage of the pass/fail option. Some are considering a gap summer or gap year instead of returning to school. Many think taking several months or a year off to work or volunteer is the best option. Some students are also thinking about transferring to other universities or community colleges because of cost and location, and many newly admitted students are considering deferment. At the same time, a number of colleges are not requiring fall’s incoming class to take the SATs or giving students the option to complete the aptitude tests remotely.

While most students received some share of room and board reimbursement, others are concerned their tuition was too high for an online learning experience. Several students are suing their institutions in a class action lawsuit claiming that they are owed a partial tuition reimbursement. Considering the cost of higher education, especially at private colleges, forced online learning could remain a significant financial concern into the future.

Yet many colleges were already faced with financial challenges, and now they are experiencing increasing deficits as a result of the coronavirus. Beyond classes ending on campus, a number of profitable performances and educational programs have been canceled this spring and summer. In fact, a number of Connecticut’s colleges and universities are receiving federal aid through stimulus funding.

But how many students will forgo enrollment this summer and fall because of the coronavirus? How will this impact a state like Connecticut, where student enrollment is expected to decrease for the next decade?

Higher education must remain nimble as it weathers these challenges in the coronavirus and post-pandemic eras. After all, higher learning plays a vital role for so many students and their communities.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an 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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