Of the many changes occurring across education, one of the most dramatic has unfolded on college campuses, as students have left campuses across the country and now attend class virtually. To better understand the online landscape and how to handle the inequities that have surfaced during the transition, HGSE Dean Bridget Long sat down for a conversation with Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). LeBlanc is a longtime innovator in the area of remote teaching and learning — something that schools and universities everywhere are now navigating, as the coronavirus crisis prompts unprecedented school closures.
It was the debut offering in HGSE's spring 2020 Leadership Series — a series of conversations with education leaders that the school will host in the coming weeks, as the field of education adapts to the reality of a global pandemic. “This series was developed in response to the unprecedented challenges that the education sector is facing as a result of the pandemic. Over the course of the series, we will be joined by guests that are driving the sector forward,” Long wrote to the HGSE community.
Takeaways: Insights for Higher Education leaders
- Now is a time to dial up compassion and be flexible, according to LeBlanc. Meet social and emotional needs before the academic ones, to ensure that students are set up for success.
- Think ahead to September, LeBlanc said. Right now, most schools are implementing emergency remote plans, not necessarily an integrated, well-designed strategy for online learning. Start to put a plan together.
- It’s also important to think about what this disruption means for this generation of students — as well as the next. Not only are we facing a pandemic, but also a recession and massive unemployment. Higher education will need to adapt.
Under LeBlanc’s leadership, SNHU's small campus, serving 2800 students, was transformed into a virtual network that serves over 135,000 and is the largest nonprofit provider of higher education in the country. The school’s students tend to be more vulnerable or students for whom a traditional campus and structure may confine their studies: students who are older, actively serving or veterans, young adults in refugee camps, or who are homeless.
“I see and hear right now an enormous conversation about the academic side. And ironically, not nearly enough about the supports when students need those more than ever before,” LeBlanc said.
These supports, according to LeBlanc, are precisely what have made SNHU so successful. Some of these supports are related to integration of technology into teaching practice — things like algorithmic analysis that monitor when students are logged in and how they’re progressing. This data allows an assigned advisor to reach out to the student if they’re not keeping up with the workload. And students need that kind of connection.
“This [time] is less about having the most exacting academic standards. This is about taking care of people who are absolutely traumatized. We took the generation of learners with the highest record of depression and anxiety, and we added a pandemic and a recession and put them back under their parents’ roofs,” LeBlanc said. “This is about dialing up compassion.”
LeBlanc also recommended schools start to think ahead to September, as it may be unlikely that colleges will be able to open again. While higher education institutions may be keeping their campuses closed, he doesn’t believe higher education as we know it will be totally disrupted — college is also a coming of age experience in addition to an academic one.
“I think students will want to come rushing back [to campus]. But I do wonder if they can afford to do so. I really worry about that and we might see a great unbundling of the residential experience from the academic experience,” he said.