By Emily Kressley | Image by Daniel de Koning

One of the aspects of normalcy we’re missing is the ability to make plans for the future, but unfortunately, no one has those answers right now. Coronavirus left the world stunned and unprepared, and with a vaccine still far off, educational institutions are preparing for the uncertain time ahead. On May 5, Colorado College’s Interim President and Provost Alan Townsend was interviewed by NPR on six ways college might look different in the fall.

The stakes are high for the 20 million Americans in higher education, and the conditions require innovative thinking for faculty teaching in less than ideal situations. There is also a spectrum of classroom environments to meet these challenges between a normal, in-person experience and something fully online.

Schools are looking at a variety of scenarios, ranging from the completely virtual classes embraced by many colleges this spring, to measuring their classrooms to determine how many people could fit if spaced six feet apart. There is also potential for hybrid scenarios in which bigger lectures could be taught online and small courses could appear in person. Some schools have considered pushing back their start date to October of 2020, or even January of 2021. Meanwhile, other schools are floating this wild new idea: taking one class at a time, condensed into just one month.

Colorado College has always been known for its wacky schedule, but its flexibility has numerous benefits for the pandemic standards of planning. Townsend joked that NPR was not the first to call to learn more about the non-traditional calendar that sets CC apart from most other liberal arts schools.

“We’ve heard from a number of institutions, ranging from colleges to universities to prep / secondary schools,” said Townsend. “I do think the block system gives us some advantages. We can pivot more easily between blocks, both in terms of overall campus operations and course content, than can a semester system.”

As cited by the interview with NPR, the block plan can accommodate mid-semester shifts relatively well, so that while one class may need to be online, the next block could be taught in person if conditions allow. A block could be offered in both capacities to offer flexibility and lower the number of students that had to be on campus if conditions remained dangerous.

Still, the preparations for a block-style class, especially an online one, are substantial. “For those who might already be doing short format classes in ‘shoulder seasons’ — e.g. J-terms, Maymesters, etc — they may be a little more up to speed on how to translate content into this kind of format,” said Townsend.

“But switching to a block system under normal times is not easy — it takes a lot of work and planning on everything from academic content and pedagogy, to logistics of supporting such classes (space, timing, etc.), so doing so under the current circumstances would be even harder. I applaud places for thinking about it, but it would not be an easy thing to do under a rapid and stress-filled timeline.”

Basically, the block plan allows more flexibility for the student; they could, in theory, make different decisions on where they can best and most safely conduct learning. Still, none of this solidifies what housing will look like next year. Schools are considering spreading out students into unused offices and or even hotel rooms. Colleges also need to recognize their role in providing a safe, stable space that serves as a home-away-from-home, especially when home itself doesn’t serve that purpose.

Could the block plan become a sort of new norm once adopted by schools? Have we been secretly “right” for the last 50 years?

It’s “hard to say right now,” said Townsend. “It could well be that this moment spurs another wave of innovation in higher-ed that includes more places adopting versions of the block system in some way. That wouldn’t shock me.” Townsend noted that larger universities face bigger logistical challenges in making this a reality, but noted that a “good sized” university in Australia has made the switch, “so, it’s possible.”

While being experts on the block plan certainly gives CC a bit more room for creativity, it doesn’t mean planning for the fall will be easy.

“What professors had to do this spring already was incredibly challenging and honestly pretty heroic,” said Townsend. “But we are thinking of ways the block system can allow greater flexibility and student choice next year as we navigate an uncertain time.”

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