Fortunately, since my last month’s column, the COVID-19 curve seems to have flattened somewhat through the sacrifices of many. But the repercussions have rippled through society, both imposing restrictions and offering opportunities on what remains possible.
Like many organizations, Weber State University has had to pivot to continue its primary function of educating. Faculty, staff and students have stepped up going online during what has been a difficult time for many. The university also has an eye on what the future may bring. What we have discovered so far is that empathy might be one of the best weapons for limiting disruption.
Fortunately, WSU moved aggressively to put classes online in the late ’90s. Many departments already had an impressive online presence. For example, along with standard “brick and mortar” classes, programs in computer science and professional sales already had, respectively, 70% and 100% of their classes available online.
However, a successful online experience can depend on the experience and expertise of the faculty member in creating and running a class as well as the type of class offered. In addition, for more than a century, Weber State has prided itself on providing more hands-on experiential learning than other institutions of higher education. Team projects, internships, lab work and the like have taken a hit.
Faculty have worked hard to give students the best online experience possible, considering the restrictions. One professor in manufacturing has spent 10 hours for every hour of lecture capturing the intricacies of programming the milling of a three-dimensional metal part. One dance instructor broke down dance steps from his living room. Numerous faculty have tried to replicate the verbal vibrancy of seminar classes through video conferencing.
Typically, students flock to online classes. When asked, however, they don’t prefer them. They take them to accommodate their busy lives — with families, jobs and other responsibilities. With the COVID-19 crisis, children are home from school. Their parents, Weber State students, are trying to attend classes and work from home or, worse, now looking for new employment. It has put pressure on the online experience like nothing before.
Faculty often have the same issues. Many have children, who they now essentially home-school, while simultaneously learning online teaching tools for the first time. They are dealing with a spouse who isn’t used to interacting with them on a 24/7 basis. They can’t get the internet to work fast enough to upload video lectures. They wonder if they can get eggs next time they pick up groceries.
The precipitous drop in employment has not been fair in its impact. Typically recession-proof occupations such as hairdressing depend on working closer to the client than 6 feet. Lower-income service jobs in the hotel, retail and restaurant sectors — the kind of jobs that many students who haven’t yet learned career skills hold — have suffered inordinately. Women have lost 60% of the jobs lost in the last month. Hispanic-Americans have been hit the hardest of any ethnic group in Utah. These things put additional pressure on our already overtaxed students. Meanwhile, high-end critical jobs go unfilled.
Faculty and staff have recognized the economic hardships of students. The library loaned out hundreds of laptops for students who don’t have computers to use. In my college, we cannibalized labs of high-end computers and loaned them out, so our students in manufacturing, mechanical engineering and interior design could run specialized design software.
Universities usually benefit from recessions as people take advantage of unemployment to improve their skills and position themselves for better jobs. That may happen again during this recession. However, despite adding money to summer scholarships, the university’s summer and, especially, fall semesters have fewer enrollments. Why? We could guess that students might just have a wait-and-see attitude, but we really need to ask and listen to them.
I’ve been most impressed with faculty and students soldiering on this past month and with the listening and empathy both have shown toward each other. Faculty now recognize we need to continually improve how we manage classes in an ongoing social-distancing environment. Students, meanwhile, especially seniors, often seem apathetic in their final assignments, putting them in the context of a global crisis. Yet, most still strive to complete them. They also recognize faculty are trying.
The university will work to make summer and fall a robust educational experience for all students. Many jobs that require an education need Weber State graduates, even in an economic and medical crisis.