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How Academic Institutions Are Navigating the Pandemic

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As the pandemic extends into the summer months, academic institutions continue to face difficult planning decisions for both remote and in-person instruction for the fall semester. Programs and professors are preparing for more time online and adapting to the new norm of teaching curriculum during a pandemic. 

To get a better perspective of how academic institutions are navigating this new norm, we sat down with Dr. Robert Riza who has held many roles within academia over the last 20 years including Associate Vice Chancellor, Vice President of Student Services, and, most recently, President of a college in Texas.  He currently serves as a higher education and leadership development consultant.

UWorld Roger CPA Review: Dr. Riza, how have your colleagues within the academic community handled the transition from on-campus to remote education?

Dr. Riza: I think that with this change, you have those who handled it well and those who had more of a challenging time transitioning. When speaking with other college presidents, the biggest concern for us was simply the unknown. No one knows how long the pandemic will last and what August will look like for academic institutions this fall.

Our college was already doing the majority of our summer and mini-semester courses online so it was not as difficult for some of our faculty to make the transition to remote, virtual teaching.

UWRCPAR: What do you think has been the greatest challenge for colleges and universities during the pandemic?

DR: As mentioned before, simply the unknown factor. Would we be able to re-open in the fall face-to-face, or would we still be in virtual mode? This query is no different than what the school districts are dealing with, especially with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. The scenario changes almost daily.

UWRCPAR: Do you think college and university professors are adapting well to virtual teaching?

DR: Some professors have been able to complete their courses online with few issues because they have online sections already on their schedule. Some disciplines were truly working on the fly as they were preparing to make the change in the spring. All in all, the faculty at my school were able to adapt and transition easily. 

UWRCPAR: Do you think college and university students are adapting well to virtual learning?

DR: The students entering colleges and universities now have grown up with technology and have been exposed to virtual learning through their high school dual credit courses in college. I will be the first to admit that it hasn’t been perfectly easy for all students, but I think it’s safe to say that many students probably handled it better than some.

UWRCPAR: What do you think are the biggest challenges academic institutions will have to face as we move forward in a post-pandemic world?

DR: Balancing the aspects of opening in a traditional manner versus the ongoing safety measures for faculty, staff, and students. In my role as a college president, I had to think about what state funding would look like during a pandemic and also consider if student enrollment numbers would decline or stay the same. These types of questions are at the forefront for most colleagues I’ve spoken to over the last few months. 

UWRCPAR: Do you think colleges and universities can deliver the same high-quality education to students online as they can with on-campus classes?

DR: I will always believe face-to-face instruction is the best for everyone. I also understand that it is not always an available option. However, I believe that the faculty and students who committed to making it work had the greatest success in the spring.

UWRCPAR: Do you think remote teaching and learning will be the new “norm” for academic institutions?

DR: I have heard colleagues mention that online education will replace brick and mortar academic institutions in the future. I firmly believe we must adapt and continue to work together to include online education into our programs as we move forward.

UWRCPAR: Do you think the shift to virtual learning is more of a cultural challenge versus a technological one?

DR: Yes I would probably agree with you that virtual learning is more of a cultural challenge. I’ve worked with faculty who made it clear to me that they were not happy or comfortable teaching within a virtual type platform. However, I am sure IT departments and staff do everything possible to make virtual teaching work for our professors. 

UWRCPAR: What words of encouragement do you have for students during this time who might be struggling with remote learning?

DR: It’s the same advice I would give them at the start of every semester — be engaged with your professors and ask questions. Students need to be encouraged to ask for help when they need it. They shouldn’t wait until the end of the semester for help when it is probably too late to make a difference. Students need to simply commit themselves to provide the effort necessary to make it through their courses until things get back to normal, whenever that happens.

UWRCPAR: What’s the one thing you hope we all learn through this?

DR:  It’s important that we remember to be agile in all that we do. The transition to remote teaching wasn’t perfect in the spring semester, but when everyone works together toward a common purpose, we can make it work for the students. I firmly believe the overwhelming majority of those who were involved in transitioning easily in the spring did their very best to help their students succeed.

We would like to thank Dr. Riza for both his time and insights provided for this interview.