What About Fall?

When Boston University announced that they are considering reopening in January 2021, I couldn’t help but wonder: when will we decide if we are going online for the fall semester? Up until now, it’s felt inconceivable to even consider it for a variety of obvious reasons. But the longer we wait, the more we risk doing educational triage. Again.

As more than one essay has pointed out since the start of online teaching due to COVID-19, what we’re doing is not online education — it’s taking face-to-face content, and putting it online under extreme conditions. Professors (not all, but many) are turning themselves inside out to get their course content online, and students (not all, but many) are frustrated and overwhelmed by hour-long voiceover powerpoints, endless digital worksheets, and other digital busywork that doesn’t amount to very good pedagogy.

Amazing things are possible in an online teaching and learning environment — but only when educators and students alike have the theoretical and practical knowledge for how to design, manage, and participate in a virtual classroom. Without that knowledge (and the bandwidth to support it), online education can be exhausting for everyone involved.

Therefore, this blog post argues for the long-term implementation of a professional development (PD) plan for online education at institutions of higher education (IHEs). The literature on PD is long on description and prescription, and one might project that the IHEs that engage in intensive PD activities now will have the most effective instructors and least stressed-out workers later. They may also be the only ones left standing when the COVID crisis ends.

provide ongoing, quality professional development

Online educators often discuss Universal Design Learning (UDL), which calls for multiple options for accessing and engaging with course content. For example, the same information might be made available as a video, a slidedeck, an audio file, and in plain text. But I’ve been teaching online since 2003, and it wasn’t until I took a PD class offered by my university on UDL in fall 2019 that I realized how to implement the theory in practice.

Teaching online in higher education is quite different from teaching face-to-face, and educators need time to explore, implement, refine, and tweak before being asked to do it well. Quality, just-in-time PD is needed right now more than ever. It cannot be one-size-fits-all, offered once with no follow-up, or in workers’ free time. Instead, it needs to be part of the daily work of educators. And it cannot create more labor for anyone without commensurate compensation.

As a rule of thumb, PD needs to be:

  • DIFFERENTIATED: offered at flexible times and in flexible formats
  • FOCUSED: offered on specific topics
  • DEMOCRATIC: offered on faculty-driven topics
  • ONGOING: provided with an opportunity to circle back for additional feedback
  • PRACTICAL: applicable in the classroom immediately (or soon)

If the possibility for going online in the fall is real, we need to have the conversation sooner rather than later. Faculty need time not only to shift their courses to online for the fall. They also need time to learn how to do it well.

And even those of us who’ve been doing it for a while need time to prepare materials for coursework that has never been online before. Those of us in fields that require physical learning in spaces that do not exist easily during social distancing — such as teacher education, nursing, medicine, and the sciences — will need additional support.

models for implementation

Since there’s so little information out there about what schools are thinking for fall, I offer the void a few suggestions. Feel free to tear the ideas apart, borrow them, or poke fun. But if we don’t get this conversation going, we are going to be in more trouble than we are in now.

Option A. Schools do not fully reopen for fall, and only run classes that have been developed for an online environment, with instructors who have been approved to teach online. Everyone else goes through a PD training to prepare them (well) for teaching online, and the balance of the semester is used to build out amazing online course shells for spring. I know this model is unlikely — it’s incredibly expensive! But I would argue that institutions that do this — and do it well — will have incredibly strong online educators, come spring.

Option B. Schools develop a July-and/or-August PD institute for instructors. Sufficient time is carved out during the institute to build out online course shells for fall. Compensation is provided. Fall proceeds online. This option could be costly, but not as much as Option A, and there would be less discontinuity of programming than in Option A. An alternate plan for any faculty who could not commit to a July or August institute for any reason would be necessary.

Option C. Schools go online without any targeted PD (or training is purely voluntary). Fall proceeds online, and feels much like it does now. Faculty will be incrementally better at teaching online, and students may continue to feel like they are not getting their money’s worth.

If we end up online in the fall — whether we start there, or end up there as we have this spring, I would personally prefer Option A. I’m no economist, but it would be the best return on investment in the long-run. It would also be the most pedagogically sound way to move forward. And it would likely provide the fewest complications for IHEs that have contractual bargaining agreements. It may also upset a lot of students and families, and could be financial suicide for some institutions. Option B is not a bad runner-up, but it would be complex to implement and in order to work would require outstanding trainers. I’m worried that in the current economic climate, Option C will be the only choice for many IHEs.

whatever we do, let us know yesterday

No matter what happens, let’s figure it out as soon as humanly possible. One thing this spring has demonstrated is how much planning and preparation are required of online education. Not to mention the equity issues that it exposes and creates. And what about the data that’s being collected? And how about the physical and mental challenges that are being created and stoked? There is so much to be discussed and determined. I’m here for that conversation when it happens.


Before I get attacked for being pro-corporate or blindly promoting online education, consider for a moment that we can actually do amazing things online. That if educators had a chance to put their heads together everywhere and think out loud about what’s going on (and get paid while doing it), they might come up with something incredible. It won’t replace face-to-face instruction, and it won’t ‘fix’ the widespread problems we’re facing in education, generally. But in the face of an indefinite amount of time spent in a socially distant future, we should consider making sure that the education we do offer online is as pedagogically good as it can possibly be.

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