The concept of “new normal” is wearisome. Enterprises of every kind falter assuming there was an old normal. Normalcy is an innovation-robbing concept. In February, I reflected on demographics and their impact on shaping a regional research university like West Texas A&M University. In 1636, the first college in our nation was founded to educate clergy. From that day forward, the institution known eventually as Harvard has been changing, and when it stops, trouble starts. There was never a “normal” on the banks of the Charles River, nor should there be on the bluffs of Tierra Blanca Creek.
Post COVID-19 forces will modulate mission at responsive universities. Increasingly the approximately 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. are enrolled online, nearly seven million strong. Many, 1.5 million, are graduate students studying to advance career opportunities, often with the additional challenges of a full-time job.
Students will seek hybrid approaches for the freedom and flexibility provided. Nearly half of the current online students cite pre-existing obligations that do not allow for full-time or traditional on-campus study. One in five is supported by employee incentives to continue to “better” themselves professionally. If there is a “new normal,” this might represent it, but not for long. The recognition that not all students are 18 and fresh out of high school is currently and singularly the strongest refining force in universities. It knows no age, color, ethnicity, creed, gender, physical capability, preference, or orientation boundaries. Intellectual fulfillment and market-place value coupled with life experience require uniquely tailored responsiveness to the never-ending variety of students and their aspirations.
Between 2016 and 2019, the portion of faculty who taught online increased from 39% to 46%. Post COVID-19, nearly all faculty members have online experience following the blossoming coronavirus. But such teaching and learning must accommodate a new flow of students. The old normal is being boiled away by cruel circumstances.
At WTAMU, faculty who deliver online courses also develop the strategies and materials used to convey ideas and concepts. Additionally, they are required to teach face-to-face on-campus.
There are no shortcuts. It is one of the reasons why online courses have little impact on instructional costs at WT. The total delivery cost per student credit hour at WT is $592. Faculty, including salary and benefits, contribute nearly one-third ($176.36) to that total, appropriately the greatest resource demand of course delivery. Teaching is an interpersonal art form that cannot be digitized. It was that way in 1636 and will remain so. Institutions that undercut the faculty equation for excellence fail. The litany of failed for-profits proves the point. Since 2016, four dozen such institutions have been shuttered. The market place works, if at times too slowly.
The model that one faculty member can develop the material and 20 lower-paid others can teach 10,000 students is flawed. A rock star accompanied by a flock of groupies is a broken, ill-founded conception for learning. This does not diminish the concept that faculty and instructional designers have a great deal to add to quality teaching in the online environment. When father and son Hans and Zacharias Jensen purportedly invented the microscope in 1590, many thought it an interesting curiosity. It forever changed the way we see; that’s not a curiosity. Digitally enhanced instruction is changing the way we learn—history, math, physics, sociology, theology, and everything else—it, too, is a new way of “seeing.” And it is universally available to all with a hand-held device and a Wi-Fi connection. (I know not everybody has the tools and/or the connection, but that is the subject of another discussion.)
Essential elements of university courses are now expected to be online. Nine in ten faculty provide syllabi, seven in ten report grades, and over half communicate regularly with students digitally. The digital toolkit of faculty and students is rapidly expanding.
New modes of student interaction for study and sharing of insights are here, exaggerated by a virus 125 nanometers in diameter. Not a new normal, but a single point along progress’s path.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.