COVID-19 moved higher education online almost overnight. The field has transformed itself, solving problems on the go to ensure students can succeed while quarantined at home. Federal funding was heavily invested in resources that connected students to technology and high-speed Internet.
As the pandemic has begun to subside, many institutions are transitioning back to fully in-person learning — but not all.
The 22 colleges and 88 campuses within the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) and the four-year North Carolina Central University (NCCU) continue to use technology as a tool to enhance and expand educational opportunities, particularly for non-traditional students, through the creation of hyflex or hybrid courses.
These programs offer their students the option to attend class in person, online or asynchronously. TCSG and NCCU representatives say this flexibility has made their students happier and increased equitable access to higher education, which is critical in a time of declining college enrollment.
To better understand the declining enrollment, Dr. Jessica Davis-Ganao interviews students about what might prevent them from enrolling or staying. Davis-Ganao is Associate Professor and Chair of the Criminal Justice Program at NCCU, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Durham, NC.
Students told her that their needs outside of the classroom, such as work or caring for dependents, make it very difficult to attend class, especially for students in the criminal justice program. Many early careers in criminal justice work demanding hours that conflict with evening classes, Davis-Ganao said.
Davis-Ganao said she’s wanted to incorporate online learning for nearly a decade, but it wasn’t until COVID that she finally had the opportunity to push her department into the option. They are now pilot testing hyflex learning at postgraduate level. At monthly meetings, students say how much they appreciate the flexibility they now have, and attendance has so far remained on par with in-person classes.
“Students absolutely love it,” Davis-Ganao said.
The most difficult part of the transition to hyflex was the acclimatization of the faculty to the new technology.
“Everybody we talk to about hyflex is like a deer in the headlights,” Davis-Ganao said with a laugh. “Once I explain it to them, they say, ‘This is what we did during COVID.’ But now we have better technology.”
NCCU works with Webex by Cisco, an online conferencing software that offers high-tech ways to implement learning, such as digital whiteboards. It can also be integrated into the educational system of the institution. Cisco offered several training sessions to faculty, and Davis-Ganao helped resolve lesson planning issues to ensure both students and faculty had what they needed to be successful.
Gary DePreta, regional vice president of Cisco’s US public sector organization, said that while the pandemic was the trigger for moving programming online, meeting student demands for more flexibility was a long time coming.
“Our student population was already starting to have expectations of learning differently and accessing different resources as consumers. These days, they can get anything remotely from their iPhone, whenever they want,” DePreta said.
Delivery education and expectations have changed forever since COVID, DePreta added, and those willing to embrace technology as they navigate this transition will be more successful.
Prior to March 2020, Steven Ferguson, Chief Information Officer at TCSG, was already working to incorporate newer, better technology into teaching. When the pandemic hit, because many teachers were already comfortable with incorporating online learning, they were able to fine-tune and explore how to offer technical training remotely and even set up remote assessments for assessments like changing car brakes.
Ferguson launched TCSG’s eCampus program during the height of the pandemic, targeting COVID resources such as funding from the Coronavirus Relief, Assistance, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to improve wireless connectivity in rural areas with sparse or slow signal, expanding access and opportunity for those , who are not. living in metropolitan areas.
“Two years later, in autumn 2022, all 22 universities are participating [in eCampus], more than 300 courses offered and 2,400 seats occupied,” Ferguson said, adding that the steady demand for online programming means enrollment does not vary by region. “Now the school can use one faculty in several places. It changes the economic motivation and enables [the schools] to provide more content to the communities they serve.”
This transition to hybrid learning increases the workforce across the state of Georgia, Ferguson said, meeting the needs of both students and employers.
“Not everyone has semesters and years to devote to education. They need something now,” Ferguson said. “We have to be more flexible. We serve tech natives, Gen Z – even Gen X and Millennials – who expect this hybrid environment. And if you don’t have it, they’ll find somewhere you have it.”
Liann Herder can be reached at email@example.com.