After multiple changes were implemented at Texas Tech over the past few weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tech President Lawrence Schovanec discussed how the university is planning for the coming semesters.
“Today, of course, we started the first day of fully online courses,” Schovanec said. “I was just here at home as my wife, Patty, was teaching her mathematics courses, and I observed her for a while. It actually was much better than I think I would have anticipated. At the same time, and I would say my wife is a very good teacher, she said, ‘If this is the future of teaching, I'm not sure this is what I want to do.’”
While the decision was made to conduct all courses online for the remainder of the spring semester, Schovanec said face-to-face learning is important, and the university's goal is to return to that medium once the pandemic ends.
“So, even though we are dealing with a situation, I think it sends a strong message that the future of the university will always be a residential experience that this is how you really gain close connections between faculty and students, between students and staff and between students themselves," Schovanec said. "And I think, if anything, this has shown us that the personal interaction, the human-to-human interactions, are an essential part of the educational experience.”
Even though the desire remains for the university to return to a state of normalcy, Schovanec said there are plans being developed for all situations, whether the pandemic is over before the summer begins, and even stretching all the way into next year, if the situation continues to worsen. He said planning for the future has become a 24/7 obsession for him.
“I would say that we want to get back to where we were in terms of that traditional college experience that makes it so personal,” he said, “and especially for those of us who are Red Raiders. When we're going to get there, I don't know. You've probably heard as much as I have as a long-term prognosis, and it's not going to be over soon."
Even though other schools have already made a decision on when summer courses will begin and the medium in which they will be conducted, Schovanec said he has yet to announce a decision because the possibility still remains for classes to return to a face-to-face format.
“Some schools have already made a decision,” Schovanec said. “We have not because we don't know exactly when we might be able to have some face-to-face, but we are going to have a larger amount of our credits taught online, while you're planning for that. We've also had discussions about what we can do to make these offerings more financially appealing and viable.”
For the students planning to take summer courses, the cost of tuition has become a concern, as the state-wide restrictions in place have eliminated several student jobs.
To help mitigate this, Schovanec said the school is planning to reduce some of the fees usually given to students during the summer.
“We are going to eliminate some of the fees we traditionally charge,” Schovanec said, “and so on, you’ll hear more about that in the near future. But just like with pass/fail, we have had much discussion about that, and there will be an announcement probably this week about what we're going to do."
For classes that require an in-person experience, such as classes within the College of Visual & Performing Arts, Schovanec said the transition to all online course has brought on many challenges in teaching. As a whole, most courses may not be as enriching as they were before the pandemic, but Schovanec said the university is trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“So, we can make adjustments for the short-term, but in the long-term, that presents some challenges that hopefully we won't have to address, but we’ll start to think about that,” he said. “At this point, it’s safe to say that it's not the same educational experience that we had before COVID-19 became a part of our lives. And having to adapt to this, we've had to make adjustments that don't always represent the best solution. In fact, for so many of the problems we face today, there is no perfect answer.”
For engineering students that are required to complete a study abroad trip, Schovanec said an exception was granted for this summer. Meanwhile, programs requiring research are attempting to continue remotely if possible.
“In the case of study abroad, which was mandatory for all engineering students, they were granted an exception for this summer,” Schovanec said. “A lot of research can be done without face-to-face interaction, especially for those fields, more so the humanities or social sciences where you don't have a laboratory component, but in a lot of the more STEM-related areas where a lot of the research is computationally intensive, that could still go on.”
However, Schovanec said these adjustments hopefully are just a short-term solution. While it may slow the pace of research, he does not expect this to be a long-term solution.
With both the summer and fall semesters facing the possibility of starting primarily online in some capacity, Schovanec said he hopes that if the opportunity arises and the pandemic subsides, a course that begins online may make the transition back to face-to-face.
“I think it also depends just how deep you are into a summer session. Those are relatively short. If you start online, that might be problematic," he said. "But certainly for the longer term, I would expect and I believe faculty and students would welcome any time that we could go back to face-to-face courses."
For students that have shared concern regarding online classes and grades, Schovanec said discussions are being had on how to implement pass/fail as a potential option for courses.
“I know that all of this has caused a lot of anxiety for students,” he said. “This morning, after the first period a student wrote to me and said ‘This wasn't good. I'm worried about my grades. Are you gonna go to pass/fail?’ and, you know, we are in discussion right now about how we make that transition. We will offer options. But I wanted to tell that student, and I did, to be patient. It will probably get better.”
While this transition has not been easy on some students, Schovanec said the changes have been just as hard on faculty and staff, and that everyone is trying to work together through these changes.
“I'm not saying it's ever going to be the same as what they had before,” he said. “But in a relatively short time that we have left in the semester, we'll just have to make the best of it.”