HACKETTSTOWN, NJ, (Warren County) – Summers are normally laid back for faculty at Centenary University. Not this year. After winding down an unprecedented spring semester that transitioned to virtual learning due to COVID-19, the University’s faculty immediately regrouped to begin planning for a fall semester reshaped by the pandemic. Their work has revealed some surprising insights into how today’s students learn—and ways to re-tool college education to meet evolving student needs.
“At Centenary, many of our faculty members usually take a break over the summer before preparing for the fall semester,” said Amy D’Olivo, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs. “That didn’t happen this year. Instead, they devoted their personal time to intensive planning that will ensure that every course—whether it’s in person, online, or HyFlex—meets or exceeds all of the specified learning objectives, as well as the University’s high academic standards.”
Since the pandemic’s spread was so uncertain over the summer, Centenary faculty needed to be ready to teach in person, online, or in a HyFlex format combining the two. Students can also choose to take all courses online this fall. Classes began Aug. 31. That meant many more hours of preparation, said Lauren Bergey, Ph.D., professor of biology and dean of special academic programs: “Each course for this fall took double—and sometimes triple—the normal preparation faculty make every summer.”
The variety of choices has presented challenges that also illuminate differences in student learning styles that have faculty thinking about more creative ways to tune into individual preferences. For instance, several professors anecdotally observed that students with learning difficulties who took virtual classes seemed to participate in class more, often resulting in better learning outcomes. Other professors are dividing traditional hour-long lectures into recorded 15-minute components that are easier to digest for an audience attuned to shorter video clips on social media. “The rise in creativity of course content delivery is exciting,” Dr. Bergey said. “The pandemic will change how we think about higher education forever.”
Learning Technologist John Burkhart worked this summer to help faculty incorporate new technologies into their instruction. While most were already adept with these tools, Burkhart encouraged them to explore advanced features to make virtual sessions more interactive. “Our faculty upskilled pretty quickly,” he said. “Some were even willing to use their own financial resources to purchase technologies to make their classes more dynamic. In some cases, we’re really moving toward more of a flipped classroom, where students work independently and use lecture time for collaboration and clarification, rather than passive listening.”
At the Centenary University School of Professional Studies in Parsippany, many courses and degree programs operate fully online. After leading several of the faculty forums this summer, Lisa Plantamura, D.M., dean of the School of Professional Studies, noted that faculty were extremely open to sharing best practices to strengthen the teaching of their colleagues: “The forums were really a space where faculty could open up about the challenges and successes they’ve experienced and listen to others to enrich teaching.”
Dr. Bergey said Centenary faculty are excited about the advances they’ve made in helping to shape a new era of college instruction. “There’s a misnomer that online education is somehow easier than on-ground classes. That’s not true. At Centenary, this summer meant completely redesigning our approach to the curriculum to achieve the same, or even better, learning outcomes we’d reach in a more traditional semester.”