With this update, I want to start a conversation about NDSU in the post-COVID world.
A. Full Return to the Classroom. Media are reporting that vaccine roll-out is starting to pick up steam after some initial problems. All indications are that the rate of distribution will continue to increase, and hopefully, President Biden will be able to meet his goal of 100 million doses in 100 days. In fact, there’s reason to believe that it could be achieved sooner. While we are wary of the contagiousness of the new variants, I believe that we can and should be hopeful about the future.
Along those lines, we need to be planning for how campus will operate once COVID is no longer as threatening as it has been. This semester we again adopted HyFlex as the primary modality of course delivery, and both students and faculty are choosing whether to attend classes in-person or synchronously remote. Given the fact that the virus is still very present in the country, it makes sense that this semester we will continue to use HyFlex.
However, as the situation improves, the rationale for continuing with such heavy reliance on HyFlex becomes less compelling. In fact, I believe that it is reasonable, and pedagogically beneficial, for both faculty and students to physically return to class even during this semester. Nevertheless, the choice will remain with each person.
I anticipate the fall to be a very different situation. Right now, I expect a full return in the fall semester to our traditional educational model with both faculty and students physically in the classroom. I have heard from both faculty and students about the desire to return to the classroom, and the fall semester is a logical and appropriate time to effectuate that change.
Noticeably, I have not dealt with summer classes. While many summer classes were already online even before the pandemic, many others were face-to-face. These classes are tougher to plan right now because much depends upon how quickly the vaccine is distributed and what happens with the new variants of the virus. Summer appears to be an inflection point, and we need to monitor events to determine the modality of our summer classes. We will be providing additional information soon.
B. Future of HyFlex. HyFlex was effective at allowing NDSU to teach its courses throughout the pandemic, even when the COVID metrics in North Dakota were among the highest in the world. However, HyFlex was instituted at NDSU during a crisis, and because it was a crisis, it limited the amount of planning and inclusive conversation that could occur.
In addition, you may recall that even before the pandemic hit, the entire higher education industry was facing major difficulties, particularly in the area of enrollment. How the pandemic will impact enrollment is unclear. In the short-term, graduating seniors and the unemployed may be more likely to continue their educations because of the lack of employment opportunities. However, the lack of financial resources caused by the economic downturn may prevent some people from being able to continue their educations.
In the longer term, national demographic trends have not changed. Certain areas of the country have been experiencing a shortage of college-age students. Starting in 2026, that trend becomes national (i.e., 18 years after the birthrate decline caused by the Great Recession of 2008). NDSU will continue to be impacted by these trends because of the increasingly intense national competition for students. Please remember that our current budget cutting process was caused by loss of enrollment, not a loss of state support (although further cuts from the legislature continue to be possible). To prevent future losses, we need to increase enrollment.
I believe that HyFlex can help with these enrollment issues if we are thoughtful and creative about using it. For example, I could foresee HyFlex expanding the summer course offerings and providing rural and under-resourced secondary schools with access to specialized dual credit taught by college faculty, not high school teachers. Those ideas could just be the tip of the iceberg. The only limit may be our own creativity.
We are approaching a time when the crisis will be past, and we still have this powerful tool at our disposal. Now is the time to talk about its future. To that end, I’m asking Provost Fitzgerald to lead a collaborative effort with faculty aimed at exploring both faculty and student needs/expectations and developing innovative solutions. She is already starting this process, and by the end of the calendar year, I believe we will have exciting new ways to continue to fulfill NDSU’s mission.
Dean L. Bresciani, President