The Fall conundrum and the international student

As the accidental face–or at least, Zoom avatar–of online learning in my department, I’ve ended up on the ELI’s “reopening committee.” Of course, it’s worth emphasizing that we’re not actually reopening because we never closed. We taught through the spring, we’re teaching in the summer, and we’ll be teaching the fall, come what may. So really it’s just the building reopening committee.

Many voices online are wondering why we’re even bothering talking about (re)opening, arguing that online is the only “moral choice.” Others contend with equal passion that online education is inequitable and unsatisfactory by definition. It’s easy to take the high ground on either side, but clearly there’s an element of magical thinking if you believe that students, or even faculty and staff, will maintain social distance 24/7 even if the quixotic room-use arrangements are followed down to the last decal. Will we make it to Thanksgiving without a major outbreak of Covid? Or Halloween? Or National Online Learning Day (Sep 15)? Can we really test the entire student body every two weeks? Do twice daily temperature checks mean anything at all? I don’t know.

I think it’s too simplistic to reduce the situation to a question of open or closed, Zoom and Canvas or bricks and mortar. Here are three questions we need to ask in my international/ESL corner of the higher ed world:

  1. What will SEVP do next? The Student and Exchange Visa Program is the bit of the US government that sets the rules for international students. Ordinarily, international students cannot take English language classes and only one university course online per semester, rules that were suspended in March. But SEVP hasn’t provided a clear determination for the Fall yet. SEVP could extend the current flexibility, or they could tell international students that they must attend face-to-face classes if they are offered by their institutions. Since my university has promised at least some face-to-face classes, visa students may be forced to come to campus if they are physically present in the US or risk falling out of status, and we have to plan for that possibility. So we can’t just afford to reject on-campus classes out of hand.
  2. How many faculty will be comfortable and willing to teach in person? It’s true that most–but certainly not all–students are at lower risk of contracting a serious case of Covid from the coronavirus, but we faculty are more likely to be, excuse my French, d’un certain age. And that’s even without considering underlying health conditions, caregiver responsibilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the constant risk of school closings for those of us with young kids. I believe that my university and department are acting in goodwill, but they’re asking me to say now if I’ll be comfortable teaching in a classroom on Sep 1, and the honest answer is “I don’t know yet.”
  3. Do students actually want to take classes on campus? This to me is the least examined question. I feel that a lot of administrators, parents, and even faculty are assuming that we have to reopen campuses because students overwhelmingly prefer face-to-face classes and that they would rather not study at all than continue for another semester or (don’t shoot the messenger) longer online. But is this actually true?

We just surveyed our students at the end of our first fully online 8-week session. Almost 60% of our student body participated (n = 148), giving us a solid sample. All our students are international and are learning English for academic, business, or personal reasons. Just under half are already taking classes from their home countries, having left the US since March, plus a handful who started online in May. When asked their preference for the fall, about a third requested some form of face-to-face classes. That’s a bit misleading since international students won’t have the choice to return to the US for Fall classes, so I also looked at responses from students who are in this country, and still only 37% said they would prefer on-campus classes. Interestingly 41% want to take classes online from the US, while only 19% (15 students) expressed a desire to return home and take remote classes.

That sounds about right to me: A third or so of students really want an in-person experience (and perhaps will not enroll or defer if they can’t get it), students already in their home countries are still interested in our classes (with no travel and housing costs, they just dropped in price dramatically!), and a significant group want to stay here, study online, and wait until we can safely open a better classroom experience (they probably didn’t read this article about a day in the life of a Fall student, but they can imagine it). Put another way, although a sizeable majority of our particular student body wants to stay online for now, we need to decide soon whether we can offer safe and effective classes for those who don’t.

We also canvased students (all puns intended) on their preference for synchronous vs. asynchronous learning. As I’ve previously explained, we chose to move to a fully synchronous model with all Zoom classes all the time. And inevitably, both students and faculty are exhausted. A large majority of students (74%) supported the strategic blend of synchro/asynch that we are planning, in which about 60-80% of instruction will take place in asynchronous modes. This does leave a quarter of students asking for eight days a week on Zoom (because that’s what it’s going to feel like) but I wonder if this is partly because many students haven’t yet experienced high-quality, well-designed asynchronous learning experiences.

Online learning is far from ideal for everyone, but neither is the socially distant classroom that we will encounter in September if/when we go back to campus. Some students need the structure of fully synchronous classes, while most will probably appreciate the flexibility and educational opportunities of asynch modules. We need to continue to make plans for a wide range of scenarios, including reclosing the campus after reopening it. And both faculty and students should have the right to stay home without any fear of coercion or retribution if they do not feel safe attending in-person classes. But we should at least ask them first.

(As I’ve been doing throughout this period, here are the latest stats in Delaware. In the past week, 3 people died from COVID-19, the lowest death toll since the virus was first reported in the state, and hospitalizations fell to 78. However, the rate of positive tests has gone up as the state has moved into “stage 2.” In a photo in the News Journal, crowds of people can be seen celebrating the end of road construction of Main Street, Newark, on Thursday, right in front of the building where I work! … without wearing masks.)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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