RETHINKING HIGHER EDUCATION IN THE ERA OF COVID-19
Reexamining priorities and tailoring higher education to expand opportunities
Higher education may never be the same, and maybe that’s a good thing. In the past few months, we’ve witnessed a shift in how we go about our lives — how we work, how we shop, how we socialize. And we’ve also witnessed a shift in how students pursue education. Students are finding more advantages in online learning, and we as educators are expanding the role of the virtual classroom in higher education.
For college students, we’ve seen how their educational needs look drastically different than they did in March. Receiving a high-quality education and earning a degree that leads directly to a rewarding job remain essential considerations for them. However, the era of COVID-19 has shifted students’ viewpoints when it comes to how they pursue their educational goals. As students continue to look at colleges to attend or consider whether to attend a campus in the fall, maintaining flexibility in personal schedules, staying safe, and the option of online learning are priority topics for conversation.
Challenges students face in online education
At Kirtland, over half of our student population has said they prefer online learning to in-person classes, mainly due to the flexibility provided in managing their calendar and course schedules. Many community college students are juggling jobs, parenthood, or caring for family members, and because of this, attending traditional in-person classes can be a challenge. According to the Community College Research Center, 80% of students at community colleges are employed, and 39% work full-time. Modern students are working tirelessly to balance education with life’s responsibilities, not to mention navigating the new challenges of personal and family safety during a worldwide health crisis.
As Kirtland was recently voted the top online community college in Michigan, we know that simply setting students up with a Zoom meeting or online classroom isn’t enough. Students need consistent engagement from instructors, tutors and advisors. They need access to technology support, as differences in digital services are especially prevalent in rural regions like ours. A recent study showed 47% of U.S. college students living in rural areas do not have access to high-speed internet. As the need for flexible programming increases, so does the need for high-quality learning from home.
What does successful online teaching look like?
Helping students reach their goals in the era of COVID-19 requires expanding what student support means. For Kirtland, that means offering remote student services and tech support online and over the phone, from virtual tutoring and advising, to digital textbooks, and shifting library resources to the website.
Expanding student support also looks like providing free Chromebook laptop computer rentals, Verizon MiFi high-speed internet access, and an online hub for digital resources and tutorials through our Center for Teaching and Learning. It looks like investing even more in online programs, like our Cyber Security and Business Administration programs, which can be done entirely online in two years or less.
The future of higher education is already underway
Many students will be transitioning from finishing high school virtually, to starting higher education online, and they’re expecting more from the virtual classroom this fall. Online learning at Kirtland provides a great option for college and high school students alike. In many respects, online learning removes barriers. College students can set their own schedule while remaining safely distanced, and high school students can enroll in college classes and put credits toward a high school diploma and a college degree at the same time.
Meeting the needs of student’s means listening and then putting their feedback into action — moving from the long-held belief that the goal of college is to go to campus, sit in the classroom, and earn a degree in a few years. For many students, earning a degree is a ticket to a better future, and they’ll need flexibility and understanding to support them along the way.
In a fully functioning virtual classroom, the college experience no longer needs to be tied to place. College learning can happen remotely online, while life experiences can be portable, mitigating cost, and expanding opportunities. Instead of spending their freshman year in a campus dorm, students can study online and save money at home, or they can live in communities that inspire them — naturally distanced in northern Michigan. Why not?
When you’re connected in online education, you can choose to take control of your life.
- —Dr. Tom Quinn
President, Kirtland Community College