Higher Education continues to be impacted by the worldwide pandemic

Published: Apr. 15, 2020 at 9:03 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The COVID-19 pandemic has community colleges and universities across the state of Alabama working remotely until the end of the spring semester.

The question now is how long will online learning last?

Jim Purcell, the Executive Director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said the decision to continue online learning through the summer is made by the board at each individual college.

“Now we are beginning to think about the way we are going to interact in the summer with our students,” Purcell said. “Most of the campuses have already announced that they are going to do it all online and then just plan to have normal [classes] in the fall.”

Some summer courses begin in mid-May. Purcell said the commission is asking universities to be clear about what lies ahead for students.

“What we’ve asked for from the universities especially is to give as much clarity as they can to what’s coming,” Purcell said.

Enrollment numbers are anticipated to drop more than in previous years. The commission also estimates summer school enrollment to be a lot less.

Enrollment in the fall semester though is what has them concerned.

“I think the big stress for the universities is whether the students that normally live on campus are going to come in the same numbers that they have in the past,” said Purcell.

A dip in college enrollment could mean a large financial hit for universities. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in the fall of 2019, six in ten colleges didn’t meet their enrollment goal and two-third of colleges failed to meet their revenue goals.

However, community colleges actually could see a spike in the number of admissions come fall.

“We actually believe that there will be a lot of people who are unemployed now that may want to go back, especially to community colleges to sort of form up some of their skill sets,” Purcell said. “This is the opportunity for people that if they are out of work for a period of time, can take the time to enhance their skills and become further marketable in the workplace.”

With so much job loss across the country, should spring graduates worry about employment?

“Anytime there’s a recession it’s a difficult time for people to transition into the workplace,” Purcell said. “Our universities will work real hard with those students to make sure that they have an opportunity to have access to the American Dream.”

For college seniors, their last semester in school has looked a lot different than imagined. Aside from doing class from home, spring commencement has been canceled across the state.

“To me, that is the heartbreaking thing those significant ceremonial activities really are a demarcation in different parts of our life,” Purcell said. “Just know that that degree really matters. There is a workforce out there that is requiring your skill sets and that your colleges and universities are going to be with you and help you with that transition as you move forward.”

Some universities have even chosen to do an alternative or online format for the ceremonies.

Online learning has posed some challenges for course requirements. Some courses require in-person instruction to receive credit. For example, students who aspire to be teachers need their student teaching requirement to graduate. With classes solely online, that has made it difficult to achieve.

“I do believe we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that the online experience is as of quality as when we are working person to person,” Purcell said. “What we’ve had to do in healthcare and some technical fields is actually give students an incomplete until we can make sure that we have a clinical experience that is of quality and we can make sure they are prepared for the job moving forward.”

An incomplete on a degree audit means a student cannot graduate. Purcell said he hopes some of those requirements will be waived.

For entering freshman, several colleges and most universities have made the decision to waive SAT/ACT exams for 2021 applicants. For example, Alabama State University in Montgomery is admitting freshmen with or without the exam scores.

Overall, the commission said despite the quick transition to online learning, they are proud of how quickly and effectively colleges have responded to the needs of their students.

Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (NAAL)

Sheila Snow-Croft, Director of the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (NAAL), said librarians have been the leaders in helping teachers transition to an online learning environment.

“We have librarians in almost all of the online classes so that they are available for that technical assistance and the instructors can rely on the librarians to give the students help when they need it,” Snow-Croft said. “It’s hard enough on the teachers and faculty to learn how to move online, and then to also have to provide technical expertise, so the librarians have stepped into that role.”

Snow-Croft said the goal has been to provide students with what they need to make this transition to online learning as seamless as possible.

Students that would normally be able to get tutoring or research help from a librarian in person can still access them online via chat call.

“Research consultations and academic instruction numbers have gone through the roof as students have relied on library staff to figure out how to navigate new technology and learn from home,” said Snow-Croft. “We’ve always had that [online chat] available, but it’s being used a lot more now because students are having to use it online rather than physically going and speaking with someone.”

Snow-Croft also said most of the librarians have become the distributor and organizers of getting laptops and tablets to students that need them. Librarians have even gone out of their way to provide virtual tours of museums and archives for students who have to visit them for a written assignment.

Snow-Croft encourages students looking for a repository of digital materials on Alabamian history, culture, places, and people, to access it through this website.

Alabama Virtual Library

Ron Leonard, Director of Special Initiatives for the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, has made it his mission to provide access to additional online education to students and anyone in the state during the pandemic through the Alabama Virtual Library (AVL).

“These additional resources mean students have access to thousands of more e-books, thousands of more articles. There are even primary source materials and videos that weren’t available before,” Leonard said.

Through the website, students and teachers will have access to thousands of additional electronic books and periodicals as well as educational software and databases to support their move to online instruction.

Here are a few of the additional resources that are available for free to students until June 15.

Visible Body– A 3D anatomy atlas that replicates the lab setting for high school and college students.

PreStep– Where High School students can go to find tests, tutorials, & e-books

Pebble Go Science– “Discover physical, life, and earth and space sciences, along with engineering, technology, and their applications.”

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