Editor’s note: In this weekly column, we’re looking ahead at how the coronavirus pandemic could affect higher ed in the long term. Have an idea or question you’d like us to look into? Let us know. Read more of our coverage of how the coronavirus is impacting higher ed.

It’s been a month since the coronavirus forced college campuses across the U.S. to close to most students. As classes moved online, learners, instructors and administrators grappled with a host of questions spurred by the current moment — but not unique to it.

Among them: When faculty are teaching courses designed for the classroom remotely, how can they be sure students are learning as intended?

The U.S. Department of Education is giving schools and their accreditors flexibility to adapt courses for online or remote delivery, dropping some approval and technology requirements. And accreditors have said they are trying to limit red tape for institutions.

Colleges have been giving students latitude in assessments, acknowledging that the disruption may affect their ability to complete coursework well and on time. Many schools are moving to pass/fail grading and are encouraging instructors to opt for less-strenuous assignments.

While all that slack has been widely accepted, it is likely to be pulled back when campuses eventually reopen.

For now, the Ed Department’s leniency applies to terms that start as late as June 1, according to updated guidance issued last week. The duration of state and municipal lockdowns vary, but public health experts say social distancing measures will be needed for several weeks or even months — and then intermittently after that, until the virus can be contained with a vaccine. And even when students are allowed to return to campus, they may not be ready or able. 

The uncertainty suggests campus-based colleges may need to offer online instruction at least through the fall. Some are already planning for it. As they do, observers say, it will be important to understand whether — and just how much —​ students are learning. That could require thinking differently about how learning is assessed online.

“The issue that everybody is facing is that traditional higher education systems have really been anchored around the credit hour as the meaningful marker of rigor and of value,” said Marni Baker Stein, provost and chief academic officer at Western Governors University, an online-only institution that uses competency-based education (CBE). CBE programs are designed to show that graduates have achieved highly specific outcomes related to their fields of study.

A traditional three-credit course offered on campus may use assessments to gauge how much students have learned, but part of the experience that those credits account for is classroom time. Replicating that course online in short order is a challenge, she noted, because the tools and capabilities for learning in the digital domain don’t match up so neatly with what’s available in the classroom. 

“If that’s not an equal translation,” Baker Stein asked, “then how do we measure what’s going on here?”

New rules and the credit hour

That question dovetails with a debate occurring across higher ed prior to coronavirus: What’s the best way to measure learning as more instruction moves online?

In 2010, the Ed Department codified the general practice of counting the credit hour as one hour of classroom instruction and two hours of work outside the classroom each week. Its goal was to clarify the amount of expected academic effort associated with a given course and give accreditors and schools a consistent standard to work from.

But the department left room for colleges to use non-time-based measures, too. While schools initially feared employing alternatives would jeopardize their access to federal aid, that has since changed in part because the administration went out into the field and showed schools there was room for innovation, said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at think tank New America and author of a 2012 report arguing for other ways to measure learning. 

New proposed rules from the Ed Department maintain this definition. However, in explaining its logic, the department said it thinks it is necessary to broaden the definition of the credit hour to one that “focuses on student learning rather than seat time and is flexible enough to account for innovations in the delivery models used by institutions.” The proposal is out for public comment, and a final rule is expected by Nov. 1.

It’s unclear whether a looser definition will gain traction. 

Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, said the accreditor is adhering to the time-based version for now, in part because it is the only quantitative measure available for learning.

Prior to the coronavirus, WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) President Jamienne Studley said her team was evaluating how to better clarify that the credit hour doesn’t have to be time-based. For now, they are telling schools to think about how the educational value they are trying to offer translates into credit hours. 

“We know that we’re going to want to go deeper into that question when people have a chance to catch their breath,” she said.

The proposed new rules contain other measures that could open the door for colleges to measure learning differently — in this case, by making it easier to offer direct assessment programs, a form of CBE in which student learning is measured through assessments alone. 

“The whole notion of competency-based or student learning outcomes helps one … get over the whole idea of time and focus on learning,” Studley said.

But even advocates of CBE say the programs aren’t easy to stand up, and their uptake has been gradual. Direct assessment programs still must translate back to the credit hour format.

Meanwhile, some institutions are looking for better ways to assess how much students are learning within the current credit-hour structure. That can include swapping grading assignments between instructors to see if students in different sections of the same course are being held to consistent standards, Laitinen said.

Developing course objectives that are focused less on assessing students’ ability to show they can understand or describe a concept and more on “putting things to work” is also part of the push, Brittingham said.

Check and verify

The coronavirus crisis is likely to accelerate a shift across higher ed toward better and more targeted learning outcomes, observers say.  

That’s partly because colleges are likely paying closer attention to potential issues with moving to online education, having had to do so swiftly and with little warning. “They may be more willing to not just assume that students are learning but to check and to verify,” Laitinen said.

Whether the shift happens depends in part on how closely colleges are keeping track of the instructional changes they are making and how effective those are with students.

The Ed Department is loosely requiring colleges and accreditors to document changes to programs and processes as a result of the coronavirus. The seven regional accreditors have been inconsistent in what information they’re asking their members to provide.

Still, observers caution that colleges should keep track of modifications — if only to learn from them going forward.

“There needs to be some strategy around all of what can be learned from the fact that everybody was forced into this situation,” said Deborah Seymour, a higher ed consultant. 

“What corners did faculty allow students to cut, so to speak, because of the crazy situation students were forced into? And how much did that impact their learning? And were they even able to measure it appropriately?” she asked. “I think all institutions are going to be forced to do that work.”

That exercise could be useful heading into the fall because many instructors will need to determine what work students did — and did not do —​ in the disrupted spring term in order to know where to pick back up.

“The emphasis will be not that they sat there but: What did they cover? What do I think the majority of them had an opportunity to learn?” WSCUC’s Studley said. “If you change the question, then we may get better answers over time.”

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