Lessons Learned?: Course modalities, quality and accessibility

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With UConn students now prepping next semester's schedule, many students are faced again with the burden of deciding of whether or not to take online courses, or face the extra cost of tuition and opt for in-person lectures. Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

College looks a bit different now from what it used to be. The continuing spread of the novel coronavirus has forced the University of Connecticut to offer courses in a range of modalities, which in the least has provided us with new applications of words like “split” and “hybrid” and has left most of us glued to our computer screens for much of the day. 

Evidently, the decision seems largely up to professors to determine the “best” mode of instruction for their courses. The present and ongoing risk of contagion likely is, and should be, a large part of their decision. Other factors, too, are likely a part of their decisions: some professors are more familiar and comfortable with using technology to teach than others, some teach courses like labs where essential aspects of informational delivery are challenging to recreate in virtual formats and some worry about their own safety as part of an at-risk group to the coronavirus. 

For both students and the university, it is a pertinent question of whether or not these changes in format preserve the quality of instruction. For students, it is a question of whether or not the maintained tuition expense is justified despite the shift in modalities. For the university, it is a question of whether or not the range of course modalities might be a valuable adaptation to enhancement of instruction in the future. When the need to minimize health risks is no longer present, other pressing needs might justify continuing to offer courses in a range of modalities at UConn. 

“When the need to minimize health risks is no longer present, other pressing needs might justify continuing to offer courses in a range of modalities at UConn. “

One of these needs is to reduce the educational inequities of higher education. This cannot be done without first increasing accessibility to higher education. Courses only being offered at a particular geographic location present a barrier to significant subsets of the population, such as: incarcerated individuals who have exhausted the educational offerings in prison and seek a degree in higher education as a way to achieve a secure economic and social position when they are released;  single mothers for whom a long commute would be nearly impossible to structure in to their day; students who live at home because they cannot afford to pay for housing either on or near campus; students who live at home because they have pressing and constant family responsibilities; and others.  

As of now it may be too early to properly measure whether or not quality is preserved in non-in-person modalities. However, the public health necessity of continuing on with a range of modalities for at least another semester presents an invaluable opportunity for experimentation and evaluation. Recognition of how a range of modalities might increase accessibility to higher education in a very significant way in the future should be of great importance to the university in its considerations in the months to come. 

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