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Students and Universities Continue on Despite COVID-19 to Make Most of College During Pandemic

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Photo by Gustavo Fring used with permission

September 3, 2020 – With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and academic institutions are cautiously beginning the fall semester either in person, online, or somewhere in-between.

Cole Ridgway, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, was notified days before his classes began that all but one had been moved online. His job had just announced it would soon become remote as well. With the two biggest parts of his routine now taking place virtually, Cole was instantly concerned about the monotony of his new day-to-day.

“All my time is going to be spent at home, at one desk, and I’m going to go insane,” he recalls thinking.

A screenshot of Cole Ridgeway during a conversation via webcam

The bad news for Cole didn’t stop there. The only course in his schedule that remained in-person was Intermediate Chinese, a class where spontaneous conversation, engaging with peers, and nonverbal cues directly impact learning. He was only able to attend only a handful of sessions before the course also shifted online.

As a Political Science major with an international focus, Cole intends to persue a career in China after graduation. He felt apprehensive that a virtual language class could adequately prepare him for a future overseas.

“It’s hard not to feel my confidence shaken in getting a firm enough footing in the language to [go] abroad,” Cole said.

Though VCU is still offering some in-person courses, many of Cole’s peers at the central Virginia university face the same challenge he does: a semester entirely online.

Cole Ridgway with his family

Virtual schooling is increasingly common as COVID-19 continues to threaten in-person gatherings. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, around a third of colleges intend to deliver fall courses though an online-only or hybrid format in response to the pandemic.

For students and universities alike, the prospect of online college comes with significant pitfalls. In addition to issues surrounding reliable computers and internet access, many students feel they are missing out on key aspects of the college life. Schools anticipate significant financial losses and disengaged pupils, many of whom are angry at being charged full tuition for an online experience.

Strategies for dealing with COVID-19 from different universities

VCU, based in Richmond, is of one of many institutions beginning the semester through a hybrid setup.

While some courses have moved online, smaller classes have remained in-person. Upon arriving on grounds, each student was provided with a starter supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, and washable face coverings, while 50 kiosks around campus allow students to monitor their temperature.

All students attending class in-person were required to complete an online course that outlined proper safety protocol, such as the guidelines for disinfecting personal and shared spaces before and after use. Students were made to acknowledge they understood these requirements as well as the punishments for disregarding them.

However, a student informant at VCU who asked to remain anonymous reported that many of their peers have yet to complete the online course, yet haven’t faced consequences from the administration. The source also says that many students are ignoring the guidelines to disinfect classroom items after use, also with no repercussions.

Meanwhile, the university’s Honors College dormitory has been converted into a quarantine space for students. A location set aside for to self- isolation is increasingly needed. On August 26, 44 student athletes tested positive for the virus. By Monday, the number of cases at the university had grown to 146.

For those keeping their distance, VCU is working to accommodate students who aren’t able to participate in on-campus activities. The University is offering a virtual student activity fair continuously through the semester to help create a sense of community among new and returning students.

Further, VCU’s Division of Student Affairs keeps an up-to-date bulletin for all virtual worships, social connection opportunities, and events taking place.

Liberty University’s approach to in-person instruction

Liberty University, the private evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia, chose instead to begin the semester on entirely in person on August 24 while saying they were still adhering to CDC guidelines. Former university president Jerry Falwell, Jr. – who resigned last week over allegations about conduct in his personal life – had in June cited the ‘close to zero lethal threat’ COVID-19 poses to young people as the reason for the University staying open.

Photo of Liberty University campus

In fact, Liberty released a lengthy operating plan outlining its COVID response. The document establishes a COVID Task Force to ensure the University is able to quickly respond to the latest developments. For instance, if more than 5 percent of the university population tested positive for COVID or is presenting with symptoms the school will shift to online-only instruction.

The operating plan (PDF) also outlined procedures for contract tracing among students, and creates a communication line between Resident Advisors and University Health Services in order to monitor the health of students in dorms .

All-remote education at Michigan State University

While others have opted for in-person instruction, Michigan State University announced on August 18 that the whole fall semester would be taught remotely. The college cited outbreaks at other universities as the reason for moving entirely online. However, a small number of students with extenuating circumstances will be allowed to live in residence halls, while the university is committed to working with its international students on their visa status.

A wholly remote semester means MSU must cultivate an online experience that students find fulfilling academically as well as socially.

For example, the university keeps an online bulletin regularly updated with tips for virtual learning and social success during the period of remote instruction. The bulletin provides links to the university’s tutoring and writing centers, all of which have moved online, in addition to a list of public Wi-fi sites in Michigan for those who don’t have reliable internet at home.

The bulletin also points students to applications like Facebook and Discord as a way to connect with on-campus organizations. Zoom events hosted by the university are also listed, even group fitness classes and movie viewings.

Even “welcome week,” a tradition aimed at helping freshman connect with MSU, has also moved entirely online. The celebration comes complete with a live streaming of fall convocation as well as virtual tours of notable locations on campus, such as the Abrams Planetarium and the MSU Museum.

Students angered by cost of attendance even as universities are struggling financially

However, not all students are satisfied with an online experience. Jahfreen Alam, a senior at University of California San Diego, laments paying the full cost of attendance, noting that key aspects of university life don’t transfer over in a virtual environment.

“The extras, the opportunities, the networking availabilities [are] what makes a specific school unique. By taking classes online I don’t have access to these extras or the same resources as I would if I were to be paying tuition for in-person classes.” Alam told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Oneclass, a virtual resource for study material, found that 93 percent of 13,606 students surveyed felt if classes were held entirely online college tuition should be lowered. Of respondents, 75 percent reported dissatisfaction with the quality of online classes, while 35 percent are considering withdrawing from school this year.

Aaron Vanek, a rising senior at New York University, believes each school should be transparent about their financial situation: “I would like to see a calculation around how much money is being saved by this remote instruction and using that to factor into a kind of refund to give to the students. That seems like the fairest thing for me,” he told CNBC.

However, despite instruction moving online, colleges are still required to maintain infrastructure as classes will eventually reconvene in person. There also are costs associated with preparing for a virtual semester, especially if a school previously had no remote learning infrastructure in place

Colleges where even a fraction of the student body is attending in-person classes must pay to maintain a safe environment. These expenses include protective equipment, sanitation personnel, and cleaning supplies, such as the $309,000 that the University of Central Florida in Orlando reported paying on reusable masks for student and staff members.

Universities are being hit by these expenses while revenue streams like college athletics and student housing have dried up. The University of Arizona projects it will lose $250 million from the pandemic, while the University of Michigan estimates losses ranging from $400 million to $1 billion.

State funds allocated to public universities may also decline significantly due to decreased state revenue and new expenditures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, a report from NAFSA, an association of international educators, estimates that colleges will lose at least $3 billion due to international student dropping in the fall of 2020 (

International students face unique problems

International students are a significant source of revenue for American colleges. For these students, a curriculum online can determine whether they will come to the US or remain in their home country.

Qing Li, a student from northern China, had planned to begin a law degree at the University of Washington this fall. However, the visa appointment he’d scheduled at the U.S. Embassy in Shenyang, China, was canceled at a week’s notice. By that time more than 90 percent of the University’s classes moved online, and Li didn’t see remote learning as feasible for someone in his situation. He decided to defer enrollment in the program.

“The class interactions might not be a big issue for students who study math or computer science,” Li to USA Today. “But for law students, class participation is everything.”

The future law student expressed concern about the 15-hour time difference between China and Seattle, the city the University of Washington is based in. For Li this could have meant streaming lectures from midnight to sunrise.

Li is not alone in his decision. A study conducted in July by World Education Services found that of the 615 international students surveyed, only 38 percent would matriculate to a U.S. institution if courses moved entirely online while 32 percent would not enroll. The remaining 30 percent remained undecided.

Such figures have a serious impact. According to the National Foundation for American Policy (PDF), the number of new international students entering American universities in the fall hasn’t been this low since World War II.

Some university offerings to cope with the coronavirus pandemic

Some universities are attempting to increase international enrollment numbers through unique offerings. For example, Cornell University’s Office of Global Learning has tailored its Study Away program to provide international students a way to “attend” Cornell while remaining in their home country.

The Ivy League university partnered with international colleges around the world to provide their students housing and co-curricular opportunities to be involved in while attending Cornell classes online.

This programs might offer a temporary solution for students with the hope of enticing them to continue their studies in America after the coronavirus threat passes.

Though Cole laments his classes at VCU moving online, he is quick to defend university administrators for their decision and commends professors for making the best of a less-than-ideal situation. As he elaborated on the negative impact going virtual has had on his Intermediate Chinese class, Cole clarified that his instructor should receive no criticism.

“Don’t disparage my 老师,” He said, affectionately referring to his professor as lǎoshī, the Chinese word for “teacher.”

Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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Education

Fiber Broadband Companies and Consultants Tout Their Work for Social Good

Fiber providers, equipment companies and consultants discussed their work in communities in a session at Fiber Connect

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Photo of Ritchie Sorrells of GVTC Communications, Hu Meena of C Spire, Ji Soo Song of Education Department's Office of Educational Technology and Keven Morgan of Clearfield by Drew Clark (left to right).

June 16, 2022 – Leading fiber broadband platforms are hoping to positively impact future generations beyond fiber deployment through education programs for youth, scholarship awards, and traditional community service events, said panelists at Fiber Connect event Tuesday.

The panel discussion, according to promotional material for the panel in advance of the session at the conference, “represented a new level of commitment based on the belief that operators have a responsibility to make the communities they serve even better.” The showcase panel was a way for the Fiber Broadband Association to highlight the work of providers, equipment vendors, consultants and government officials.

Companies are particularly focused on how to influence following generations for good. C-Spire is working with schools in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education, and it provides programs for youth to learn coding and participate in coding challenges hosted by C-Spire.

Working with the state of Mississippi, fiber provider C-Spire made computer science education available to all K-12 students in the state and donated $1 million for teacher training. C-Spire also provided more than $3 million in scholarships for higher education.

GVTC Communications, a consultant to the telecom industry, works with local nonprofits, churches, schools, and businesses to donate full thanksgiving meals to families in need every year since 2012.

Listening to the needs of the community is essential to make an impact, agreed the panel. “When you have listening as your core value, you find out things that you can really make a difference in,” said Kevin Morgan, chief marketing officer at Clearfield, a provider of equipment for fiber builds.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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