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Are colleges really equipped for serious online learning? Not many

Marsh Plaza on Boston University's Campus on April 17, 2020. BU said last week that 44 of its graduate and professional programs will be offered both online and in-person next fall to accommodate students who may not be able to make it to campus.
Marsh Plaza on Boston University's Campus on April 17, 2020. BU said last week that 44 of its graduate and professional programs will be offered both online and in-person next fall to accommodate students who may not be able to make it to campus.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Southern New Hampshire University president Paul LeBlanc has received a rush of phone calls from college leaders in the United States, Europe, and Latin America in recent weeks seeking advice on one pressing issue: how to offer robust online classes this fall.

As one of the largest nonprofit providers of online education in the United States, with more than 135,000 students learning virtually, SNHU and LeBlanc have become a sounding board for college presidents charting the unfamiliar territory forced on them by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many are unprepared and scrambling to find online solutions in case they can’t bring students back to campus in the fall, LeBlanc said.

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They want to know how many advisers to hire to keep track of student academic progress, if they should hire a third-party technology company to help them, and if their faculty can take SNHU’s lessons and materials for basic courses and teach it to their students, LeBlanc said.

“They need a stopgap measure,” LeBlanc said. For many institutions, online learning has not been “part of the enterprise strategy. It’s mostly little islands."

Colleges and universities have made do in recent weeks with video conference calls and pretaped lectures, but that is unlikely to satisfy students or families who are footing significant tuition bills, if it continues into the fall. Already students across the country have filed class-action lawsuits against more than two dozen institutions, including Boston University, Northeastern University, Brown University, and the University of California Berkeley, demanding tuition refunds because of what they say is the inferior quality of online education.

While many universities argue that the lawsuits have been filed by opportunistic attorneys, it does suggest that students will want a better experience in the fall.

Universities have a significant ways to go to improve their offerings, said Ted Rounsaville, an associate partner with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

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Despite all the talk of online learning in recent years, more than half of all higher education institutions had very limited experience with virtual education, especially at the undergraduate level, before COVID-19, according to a study by McKinsey.

McKinsey found that more than 2,000 two- and four-year institutions had fewer than 500 students and less than 10 percent of their student body enrolled in distance learning programs in the fall of 2018, the latest year data was available.

Many of the institutions have long emphasized on-campus, face-to-face learning and include top-tier, private colleges such as Amherst and Williams, but also financially struggling schools such as Pine Manor College and Hampshire College.

Institutions without the resources to invest in strong online options may find it harder to adapt to a fall semester where some, if not all, classes may have to be taught virtually, Rounsaville said.

“There is a major gap in capabilities for delivering instruction and supporting students in a remote environment,” Rounsaville said. “If the coming fall semester is remote, or if a large share of classes are delivered remotely while students are on campus to enable social distancing, many schools will need to use the summer to build their capabilities in instruction and student supports.”

While most institutions have declared that they are looking to bring students back on campus in the fall, the reality is more complicated, especially if public health officials continue to discourage large gatherings, such as lecture classes.

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Some institutions are starting to make online plans. Private technology firms that help universities with their online programs, such as 2U and Pearson, say that they are seeing greater interest in their products and that while in the past institutions were primarily focused on launching graduate degree programs, they are also exploring virtual options for undergraduate classes.

“I’ve spoken to more presidents and provosts in the past few weeks than I have in the past 12 years,” said Andrew Hermalyn, president of 2U’s global partnerships. “I don’t think there is anyone talking who thinks it’s going to be fully on campus in the fall.”

Cape Cod Community College announced this week that its fall classes would be largely online, with students coming to campus in short spurts for hands-on learning.

Boston University last week said that 44 of its graduate and professional programs will be offered both online and in-person next fall to accommodate students who may not be able to make it to campus. The university’s leadership is considering a similar hybrid option for undergraduates too.

Getting classrooms set up with the right video and audio equipment and making sure teaching assistants have the proper training both in the technology and the academic work will take time, said Jean Morrison, BU’s provost.

“When we went to emergency remote learning on no notice halfway through the spring semester . . . we were aiming for continuity,” Morrison said. “We have the opportunity and are eager to offer an experience to the students that is more sophisticated than a faculty member with a laptop.”

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But whether all classes or just some can be offered online in the fall is unclear. And how much those online classes will cost still must be determined.

For students, the cost issue is clear, said Abby Velozo, who attends Mount Wachusett Community College and serves as a student representative on the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

If classes are online in the fall, “they definitely want lower tuition rates,” Velozo told other board members during the monthly meeting Tuesday.

But for schools, the issue is more nuanced. Many will have to invest in the technology and support systems to provide the online education.

Suffolk University is working on several contingency plans for the fall and hasn’t decided on the cost. But ensuring that students have online tutoring and mental health support, and that they can participate in extracurricular club activities, costs the university money, said Marisa Kelly, Suffolk’s president.

“If you’re providing a broad range of academic support services and engagement, and the experience is not identical but it’s parallel to the experience that people have signed up to your institution for,” there is a justification for charging the same rate, Kelly said.

LeBlanc, of SHNU, said that offering robust online learning in the fall is going to cost colleges money, whether it’s a partnership with a private company that takes a share of the school’s tuition revenue or purchasing predictive technology that allows faculty to identify and nudge students who are struggling academically before they even show up to a professor’s virtual office hours.

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Many colleges and universities will dip into their endowments, reduce salaries and benefits, and cut budgets to make the fall semester work, LeBlanc said.

But the fate of many institutions is less clear if the pandemic remains a problem into next year or if it ushers in a longer-term economic crisis, he said.

“If it’s one semester that’s online, they’ll suffer great pains and get to the other side,” LeBlanc said. “Everyone is going to have to navigate this.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.