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Lessons to Learn from The Stanford Experience, Part 2

Students are transforming how they imagine their college experiences and reimagining their relationship with their university. Suddenly, with shifts to online learning and for many students, the eviction from on-campus residences, like those at Stanford, the loss of access to libraries, tutoring centers, guest lectures, panel discussions, late-night dorm conversations about the meaning of the universe, the list goes on, fundamentally alters their educational experience—what one first year student calls, “A Massive L[oss].”

We, at Creative Marbles, analyzed Stanford Provost Persis Drell’s March 6 letter announcing the shift to remote learning and the suspension of normal university operations, as well as parts of President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s letter on March 13, as an example of how university administrators are announcing the suspension of normal university operations. In the following post, we seek to understand the effects of remote learning on both the quality of education and the reputation of the university: 

Provost Drell writes: 

To the extent feasible, we will be moving classes to online formats in place of in-person instruction.

March 6

In light of many students across the U.S. transitioning to learning without face-to-face interaction with professors, we suggest all students seek to better understand how to effectively interact with their professors from a distance, since faculty are learning how to use online tools to teach, so then student can learn through remote resources.

  • If the course content, like a lab experiment, field research or seminar-style discussion, can’t be uploaded online, what are alternatives to learning the material? 
  • What is the process to continue offering feedback to faculty so that they can improve instruction? 

In President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s letter dated March 13, he writes:

FINAL EXAMS: The provost is asking instructors to make winter quarter final exams optional for undergraduate students. If a student chooses not to take a final exam, their grade should be calculated on work they have done in the course to date. It will be important for instructors to provide students with clear information about the choice that should be made, the deadline by which they have to choose, and how the final grade will be calculated if they choose not to take the exam. This guidance applies only to undergraduate students.

Bolding is CMC’s emphasis

In analyzing the option to not take final exams, I ask the following regarding the quality of education with a truncated course structure: 

  • How can professors guarantee that “work done in the course to date” meets the rigorous standards expected of the university education? 
  • Also, if the coursework to date does meet the rigorous standards expected of an education without a final exam, why are final exams ever required in more normal circumstances?

In the March 6th letter, Provost Drell also communicates the expectation for student engagement in online courses, echoing the expectations of other university administrators for regular attendance:

Where online instruction takes place, students will be expected to attend classes online at their regularly scheduled time, though we will continue to encourage instructors to be flexible with attendance and exam policies for any students who are ill.

March 6

As many students confess, socializing with friends is a reason they attend class. Yet, alone in their family homes, possibly scattered across the country, seeing friends is no longer as strong a motivator to “attend” online classes. 

  • How will university officials make concessions, given students are now learning in a format, for which they did not expect, nor pay tuition to have? 

Also, students are shifting how they learn ideas, reading text on computer screen or watching videos, without their professor present to ask questions in realtime or have an in-class discussions. 

  • What is the affect on learning for those students who gain understanding though seminar-style classes, needing to listen to others’ views to refine their own ideas? 
  • What support services will still be functioning for students to address concerns spurred by the isolation from their social network and the sudden shift in their education?
  • How will students with identified Learning Disabilities, who have academic accommodations, be advised and supported, as they’re learning remotely? 

University administrators are relying on the goodwill and faith of their students to believe that administrators are making instructional decisions in their best interests. However, the state of the relationship between administration and students, as well as faculty and students before the disruption of  COVID-19 will affect how students adjust to the sudden shift in their college experience, as well as if they even matriculate back to campus after the emergency passes. 

Any existing complexities in the university-student relationship are not going to be ignored in times of crisis, instead they are exacerbated. One first year student at a university where graduate students have been a labor dispute with administrators, causing their fall grades to still not post on their transcript, and now the student is finishing the rest of their school year online from home, and is simply not going to return to the university in the fall.

Conversely, as we talk with students, who are former CMC clients, around the country, their reactions and adjustment to the disruption to their education when the dean of their college has emailed daily with updates about decisions made, or solicits students’ input, are less anxious about the shift to online learning. 

While not diminishing the urgency of responding to the current health care emergency, the decisions that university administrators are making now will reverberate into the fall and in years to come. We strongly encourage all university administrators to consider the effects of their decisions now, to ensure the viability of their universities in the future. Otherwise, university administrators may stretch the goodwill of students and faculty beyond the breaking point, irreparably damaging the reputation of their institutions.