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College Leaders Talk about Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Crisis
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:54AM / Monday, May 25, 2020
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1Berkshire's Jonathan Butler, top left, hosts virtual town hall with BCC President Ellen Kennedy, MCLA President James Birge, Bard College Simon's Rock Dean of Early Colleges John Weinstein and Williams President Maud Mandel.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Higher education is learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that it will inform their operations long after the crisis has passed, a group of top administrators agreed on Friday.
 
"I had begun to think about the ways in which the modalities of teaching that remote learning offers can infuse and enrich some aspects of teaching, without suggesting that we would move in any way to a fully remote learning platform or even a largely remote platform," Williams College President Maud Mandel said.
 
"There are aspects of the modality of remote learning I think faculty have found to be enriching of their teaching, and that's one area that I think could have significant impact in a positive way."
 
Mandel joined Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge, Berkshire Community College Ellen Kennedy and Bard College at Simon's Rock Dean of Early Colleges John Weinstein in a virtual town hall hosted by 1Berkshire.
 
The topic was "Higher Education During COVID-19," but moderator Jonathan Butler also asked the panel to talk about the lessons that their industry might take away from the pandemic.
 
Kennedy and Weinstein agreed that the remote learning forced by the closure of their physical campuses has demonstrated that some students may perform differently outside of a traditional classroom.
 
"From an educational standpoint, we have found that even in small, intimate classrooms, there are some students who have more difficulty having their voice heard in the in-person classroom, and their virtual platforms have enabled some of those students to have their voices heard," Weinstein said.
 
"So, for me as an educator, I think about what are things we could do in the classroom that would create that same scaffold for those students, so that when we are back in person their voice doesn't disappear, it stays in the forefront."
 
Kennedy said that observation was "spot on."
 
"I want to build a little bit on what John just said about what I would call introverts in education and how this, the online platform, does provide -- and I've discussed this with our faculty and others -- it amplifies the introvert," she said. "It gives the introvert an opportunity to capture their thoughts and then deliver them in a cogent way, which is really hard when you're sitting in a classroom being expected to respond immediately as things are evolving.
 
"So it is a platform that is very supportive of individuals who are introverts."
 
Kennedy added that the pandemic provided an opportunity for a unique moment of empathy between college faculty and the students who were thrust into an online learning environment overnight.
 
"I said to [the students] our faculty are in exactly the same place you are right now," she said. "Many of them have never done this before and suddenly they're the student, and they're figuring out how to navigate new technology and a new way to think about delivering what they want to share with you.
 
"They are in a very similar place to you at this moment, and it may have a profound effect on faculty to have this experience, to be a nascent learner. In some cases, some of them were already very comfortable spending time in this area, but for others, this was brand new."
 
The crisis also forced institutions to think about their student bodies in new ways.
 
"For MCLA, I think it became much more real for other people on campus to know that we are serving a population of students who have financial need that's greater than just access to college," Birge said. "It's access to food and secure housing. One of the very first things we did, we were contacted by an anonymous donor who had sold an IT firm, made a contribution because they were concerned about students not having access to hardware, computer hardware, for remote learning.
 
"So we launched the MCLA Resiliency Fund, very quickly. It was probably one of the first things that we did and had tremendous response from alumni, friends, donors, people we never had a donor relationship with. They gave money to this fund so we could provide resources to students for things like rent for housing, for access to food, to pay utility bills or gas for their car for jobs that they still had or internships they were concluding.
 
"In many ways, that sharing of resources for our students made their lives more real and palpable."
 
Weinstein, like the other administrators on the video conference, said that students' safety is a top priority. The abrupt closure at Simon's Rock pointed out how much safety can be a concern whether the students are on or off campus.
 
"In some ways, especially when you have a primarily residential campus … this becomes their home that can compensate for some challenges they may have in their home away from campus," Weinstein said. "This has made us even more acutely aware of which students don't actually have a really safe or comfortable home to go to when they're not on campus.
 
"When they are on campus, the fact that that's the case is still going to weigh on their minds, and while we think we've been seeing that, there are still probably ways in which we've overlooked things."
 
From an operational standpoint, some of the practices necessitated by the pandemic could be worth continuing once campuses reopen -- whenever that may be.
 
"Even the degree and the amount to which we all travel and the impact on our environment and the ways in which we're thinking about sustainability commitments and how to use some of the lessons we've learned for what is possible to do remotely," Mandel said. "Certainly, for me, that has been fascinating and important and will have an impact on how we think about this going forward.
 
"One can think of many things like that, where … we are learning things. And we are learning institutions. I think we always look at events small and large that happen on our campuses and think, ‘What can we take away from this that we can grow and innovate from and get better.' And I do think there's going to be any number of things where that's the case in this instance."
 
Birge indicated that one of those things may not be a full-fledged embrace of remote learning, which has disrupted the high education industry in recent years with the emergence of fully online programs offered through the University of Phoenix and others.
 
"One of the things that I think is going to come out and is the case here is remote learning or online learning isn't all it's cracked up to be," Birge said. "The traditional-age student likes that interactive experience with faculty, that academic intimacy that they have in the classroom. Our students really missed that.
 
"Now, there's been a function and utility to remote learning that we've all had to embrace for the semester and, perhaps, going forward. But I think one of the things I'm hearing is students like that environment where they exchange ideas face to face with people. I think we'll discover the pedestal that online learning has had for some time may not be as stable as some people think."
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