With excessive zeal at the opening of this academic year, Penn State University denied the request of James Tierney, an assistant teaching professor of economics, to teach his 590-person introductory course online. Tierney thought, quite rightly, that it made no sense this fall to convene hundreds of students in one room.
Penn State has a mask mandate but not a vaccine mandate. When his request was denied, Tierney contemplated resigning immediately but was reluctant to impose on another department member to pick up his courses at the last minute. He resigned effective the end of the semester.
Tierney was right to do so—and not just for health reasons. What is the point at any time to bring 590 students together for a lecture? I’ve heard it said that in large lecture classes beyond the first row, it’s all distance education.
The old status quo is not an option because it is gone. Our colleges and universities can meet the challenge if we insist on accountability.
During various polls taken last year, students indicated a desire to return to face-to-face instruction, but they were not excited about large classes and expressed a preference for video lectures, which enable them to watch the lecture several times, review difficult segments, take notes and contemplate what was said.
In this case, schools could apply the teaching technique referred to as the “flipped” classroom, with students meeting with the professor on campus in small groups to deeply engage in the lecture through discussion and probing questions. The editors of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania, have called specifically for exactly this approach.
It is not in students’ interest for Penn State—or any university—to have a monolithic policy for online and in-person. If we learn from the pandemic, most courses should be hybrid. Instructors should be held accountable for being strategic in course development, using online instruction creatively and actively, making the best possible use of bringing students together in a room. The key is to focus on student engagement—the active involvement of learners in their own education. Students can be passive in person, fully engaged online, and vice versa.
I should add that engagement is as important in the workplace as it is in the classroom. Decisions about working on site or at home should be made strategically in terms of the goals to be achieved.
Plan? What plan?
I’ve been wondering for a while about what’s up with Penn State. I have long had deep respect for the Penn State faculty, especially in my own field of English. Penn State recognizes the importance of writing instruction for their students, and that commitment is the foundation of quality undergraduate education. The faculty has done what it can to help the administration see the light on pandemic policy. The Penn State Faculty Senate has voted no confidence in the university’s Covid-19 Plan.
The university has justified its Covid plan by claiming that the Republican legislature might withdraw funds if a vaccine mandate were to be imposed. Teaching science, as Penn State does so well, requires applying science, not politics, to life-and-death situations.
MORE ON EDUCATION REFORM FROM ELAINE MAIMON
The University of Pennsylvania and other universities in the Commonwealth have full-scale vaccine mandates for students, faculty, and staff. And to make matters worse, Penn State has declined even to use the excitement and privilege of Nittany football to encourage vaccinations and mask-wearing.
Let’s hope that Penn State amends its Covid policies now that the CDC has formally and officially approved the Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and older. If not, while the Delta variant rages, 107,000 fans will be welcomed to Beaver Stadium to cheer, sneeze, and breathe on each other for each of the seven Nittany home games. Instead, why not take the example of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders in educating the public about vaccine necessity and safety. Not only are the Raiders requiring proof of vaccination for football attendance, they are providing free shots at the stadium.
How to encourage universities to enact reform agendas post-Covid
What’s clear is that the pandemic has brought us to a teachable moment about science and about student engagement. It’s essential for colleges and universities to develop principles to guide decisions about health requirements and online/in-person instruction. While flexibility and resilience are necessary, overriding principles provide guidance. Ad hoc decisions are poor, unreliable decisions.
Penn State is now searching for a new president. I hope that the trustees will select a courageous, principled, and reform-minded leader.
Colleges and universities everywhere need to learn from the pandemic and develop reform agendas. Here are some ways we can all encourage them to do that:
- Review local university and college websites to see how they are addressing pandemic health concerns in your community—and then reach out to them if you see something that could put students, faculty or neighbors at needless risk. For instance: Some colleges are putting in place a vaccine mandate for everyone on campus. That is good not just for the university community, but for the surrounding neighborhood where thousands of students are now living.
- Also look to see if they are applying an all or nothing approach to in-person/online instruction—like at Penn State—or if they are making strategic use of each. Are they creative about their use of technology as a teaching tool? Or are they just using it to serve up canned material?
- Ask if the universities communicate with students in ways that elicit meaningful feedback about their experience and needs. We know, for example, that traditional-age undergraduates respond to Chatbots (artificial intelligence assistants) and texts rather than to emails.
- Encourage students to advocate for keeping themselves safe. When an incoming freshman at Millersville University, for example, found out that his assigned roommate was unvaccinated, he requested one who had taken the shot. The university denied his request—so he enrolled in a school with a more caring student-oriented policy.
- Get involved in your local colleges and universities, or one that you are affiliated with. Make philanthropic donations, if you are able, to those that have outstanding leadership acting courageously on principle. Take advantage of open forums on presidential searches. Participate as an alum or parent.
The pandemic should open up an era of reform in higher education. The old status quo is not an option because it is gone. Our colleges and universities can meet the challenge if we insist on accountability.
Elaine Maimon, PhD, is author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Follow her @epmaimon.
Photo by Summer Summer / Unsplash