COVID-19 changes higher education as innovative learning options emerge

Higher education in Indiana, and across the nation, just closed out one of the most unusual spring semesters in its history.

Who could have known as the spring semester began in January, so full of traditions, that by mid-March, institutions and students would be scrambling to transition into technology-delivered learning. For some institutions and students, this adjustment was met with eagerness and opportunities; for others, trepidation and uncertainties were abundant. And those emotions remain as institutional leaders and students consider how courses will be offered for the summer term, as well as the upcoming fall semester.

COVID-19 has upended higher education in many ways, with how learning is delivered being high on the list. Higher education will be forever changed because of COVID-19. Institutional leaders who recognize opportunities from this disruption will move their institutions forward faster and stronger than others.

While higher education is steep in tradition and some of those traditions must continue when the time is right (an in-person commencement celebration) COVID-19 has opened the door for institutions to become even more innovative in how courses and programs are designed and delivered. And this provides alternatives for students as they consider what is important to them for their learning.

As higher education institutions move forward, should the phrase “traditional education” still be part of the conversation? Visionary higher education leaders will move their institutions forward through innovation rather than holding on to traditions that may no longer work for today’s learners.

Under the leadership of President Sue Ellspermann, Ivy Tech Community College has become one of the most innovative community colleges in the nation. Ivy Tech has been a leader in changing how students learn, providing them with many options. President Ellspermann has encouraged innovation from faculty and staff, and this has become a foundation for how the College operates.

About three years ago, Ivy Tech took a significant step in redeveloping courses for delivery in eight weeks instead of 16 weeks. This change was based on research that supports higher student retention and completion. There is another benefit as well. The shorter duration of classes allows the College to be nimble and flexible to respond to situations such as COVID-19.

Multiple course delivery options are not new for Ivy Tech. The College has delivered courses totally online for more than 20 years, and now offers more than 500 courses totally online.

The term virtual learning became more prominent this past spring, but again, Ivy Tech has offered courses via two-way video, which is a precursor to virtual learning, for many years. Virtual learning is a combination of recorded lectures, real-time connections with instructors and other students via technology, and online activities.

Fully on campus courses (known as traditional courses) have been reconfigured at Ivy Tech over the past few years as well. The College still offers in-person courses, but a blended model has been emerging with positive results from faculty and students. A blended course is a combination of in-person, virtual, and online learning.

Not all courses or learning can occur remotely. For some curriculum and skills, there must be an in-person, hands-on component for learning and assessment of learning. While classrooms and labs can be reconfigured to support social distancing in the learning environment, this is not the only solution. Watch for innovative institutions to integrate more experiential learning experiences.

In response to COVID-19 many higher learning institutions wanted to minimize disruptions to students’ learning as much as possible. Although learning continued, the learning environment changed significantly. For many students, those learning environments and experiences were not what they anticipated or wanted. However, many other students likely discovered something new about how they can learn.

As COVID-19 remains with many moving variables, institutions and students alike are challenged to anticipate the future. For students uncertain or unsure about the traditional higher learning pathway they may have dreamed about, perhaps it’s time to consider an innovative pathway. Sometimes, an unexpected journey becomes the most rewarding.

Jo Ann Hallawell is professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College at Columbus.