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Updated: April 6, 2020

Coronavirus could make online learning the new norm at CT colleges

Photo | Contributed Amy Feest, interim dean of academic affairs at Tunxis Community College, says online learning may not work for all students.
Photo | Isabel Chenoweth, SCSU Southern Connecticut State University President Joe Bertolino.

Southern Connecticut State University was already preparing to roll out a slate of new online continuing-education and certificate courses when it joined almost all Connecticut higher-education institutions last month in moving courses for the rest of this semester online, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“I think we will see a cultural shift that needed to take place in higher education anyway, the tragedy of the virus has, I think, accelerated that,” said Joe Bertolino, president of the New Haven-based school. “I think it’s going to significantly change how we work in the future, there’s no doubt about that in my mind.”

As the nation and world adjust to the new realities forced upon us by the coronavirus, experts and officials at Connecticut’s public and private colleges say the situation will likely act as an accelerant to the already-existing trend of online learning in higher education.

And some, like Bertolino, see this as a permanent shift to virtual classes.

“We’ll get to the other side of this crisis,” Bertolino said. “But I think if anyone believes that things are just going to go back to the way they were, I think that’s naive. That is not going to be the case at all.”

Anthony Carnevale, Director, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University

Long before the coronavirus tore through Wuhan, China, early this year, factors like the cost of higher education, changing demographics and a decadeslong increase in American jobs requiring at least some college were pushing higher-ed institutions to at least experiment with online learning, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The extraordinary situation that forced professors to teach courses online almost overnight serves as a mass-scale experiment of how effective distance-learning technologies are, Carnevale said. And the results will have major implications on the industry’s business model.

“This will be an experiment in which this question is going to arise in a lot of people’s minds: ‘Why should we pay all this money for room and board when our kid can stay at home?’ “ Carnevale said. “We’ve got a lot of sunk investment. … American colleges are basically a brick-and-mortar system.”

And colleges rely on revenue from on-campus charges like room and board in a significant way.

For example, UConn recently announced it will likely take a $30-million hit from residential student-fee refunds as a result of pupils not finishing the spring semester on campus.

Carnevale predicts over the next few decades there will be a realignment of how colleges, especially public universities, operate. About 60% of jobs in America’s workforce today require at least some post-secondary education, Carnevale said. Added to that, the federal government in recent years began requiring colleges that receive federal funding to publicly report student graduation rates and economic outcomes post-graduation.

The result of the increased demand for higher education, and schools being judged for the success rates of each program they offer, changes the incentive for courses universities offer and how they offer them, Carnevale said.

“Colleges tend to operate on a cafeteria model in which in order to compete, you have to have pretty much the full range of programs or fields of study,” Carnevale said.

But over time, it will likely make more sense for schools to offer fewer specialized programs with which they can compete on a national level, and expand online offerings so that students from anywhere can enroll, Carnevale said.

In a situation like that, state university systems like the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) may have an engineering program at one of university, and an English program at another, rather than multiple schools having both, as is currently the case.

“It will open the way for somebody to say, ‘OK, I can’t make another Harvard — that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars — but I can make a better program,” Carnevale said.

Lisa Galvin, Director of Graduate Admissions, Southern Connecticut State University

Southern Connecticut State University already has four graduate degrees available completely online, and also offers certificate programs online and some hybrid programs with a mix of online and in-class work, said Lisa Galvin, Southern’s director of graduate admissions.

Before COVID-19 hit, Southern had just introduced a slate of online continuing-education courses, Galvin said. Since all professors are teaching online through the semester, everyone will get a better idea of what problems exist with an online model, she said.

“I think it’s going to give everyone the opportunity to say, ‘maybe my argument against online didn’t hold as much water for this particular program or course as I thought it did,’ “ Galvin said.

More demand and pitfalls

Many local colleges have been in the online game for sometime.

For example, UConn had about 550 online offerings before the coronavirus hit, and expects to find many other courses will be adaptable to that format over the next month or so, said school spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz.

“UConn had already been moving quickly into online learning, although the pandemic certainly added urgency,” Reitz said. “I won’t say it’s been an easy process, but we’re working through various hiccups and making improvements every day.”

R.J. McGivney, Associate Vice President for Continuing Education and Institutional Effectiveness, University of Hartford

The University of Hartford got into online learning early in 2006, said R.J. McGivney, UHart’s associate vice president for continuing education and institutional effectiveness. The private university currently has eight programs fully online, including its online MBA program, which debuted in 2012 and is growing exponentially.

In 2018, 425 students enrolled in UHart’s MBA online program; that number more than doubled last spring to 984 enrollees.

Like Galvin, McGivney also said professors and students forced to teach or take classes online might find they are effective, or even a preferred method of learning.

Online learning does have some pitfalls, though, especially among students who are less motivated, or who have more difficulty with the subject matter, said Amy Feest, interim dean of academic affairs at Tunxis Community College in Farmington.

“Online learning is not easier than traditional classes, you really have to be committed,” said Feest, who in 1998 served on a six-person team that designed the state college and university system’s first online courses. “The problem with a community college is … you [often] have an 18-year-old who struggled in high school, who’s not sure what they want to do in the first place, and you put them into a fully online environment.”

Tunxis faculty are currently dealing with this issue by calling each of the school’s 4,000 students to ensure they are able to login to their classes, and offer any needed guidance, Feest said. The school is also allowing some students to retake a course on-campus at a later date.

Changing landscape

Carnevale, of the Center for Education and the Workforce, said many non-selective, four-year schools — especially liberal-arts institutions — will close in coming years as the nation sees a drop in college-age people, and students shift how they select a school.

But the college campus won’t completely die off, he said, noting that elite institutions like Yale and Harvard will always have a place in U.S. higher education.

Additionally, if the federal government begins providing more funding to colleges and universities — which Carnevale believes will happen over the next decade — schools will be under increased pressure to control costs. That could include reining in spending on college campuses, many of which have been a breeding ground for new buildings and dorms in recent years.

“I do think it’s going to make us rethink how we use space, how much space do we really need … and I’m not convinced that all of the institutions in New England are going to survive this,” said Bertolino, Southern’s president.

But higher-ed officials also say that even as colleges go further in the direction of online learning, there will always be a need for the American college campus.

“UConn will never reach a point at which we stop offering in-person, hands-on learning at our campuses,” Reitz said. “So much of what we do is experiential through labs, group collaborations, and other experiences that are best in person. Hopefully, we’ll be able to offer the best of both worlds with the lessons we learn during this unusual time.”

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April 13, 2020

The rush to move public higher education to an online model is propelled by Universities’ budget crises far more than by a concern for students (e.g., to expand access). Elite universities will not give up the traditions of social learning that take place in college classrooms: Can one really imagine Yale, Harvard, Princeton or Georgetown denying their students the opportunity to learn the social skills necessary for lawyers, captains of industry, and politicians; denying future scientists access to hands-on experiences in world-class laboratories; or expecting future social workers and other therapists to develop skills of human interaction through technology-mediated communications? Those experiences create true access. Eliminating robustly interactive experiences from public higher education in favor of trendy pedagogy will only further remove opportunity from the majority of students in the U.S., who study in public institutions. The many college students who begin post-secondary education without strong basic skills need intensive instruction and support. The answer is not to push them into distance learning, but rather to fight for the resources public higher education needs to create an educated populace and graduates ready to contribute to society and have successful lives. Most state colleges and universities are regional, meaning that students can live at home if they want to economize, and still have a full college experience that allows them to develop leadership, followership and effective human-interaction skills.

April 13, 2020

I don’t know the context of President Bertolino’s remarks, but my sense from the article is that labelling those who think differently from him “naïve” seems provocative and insensitive, especially for a leader of university. Remote or online education has a pedagogical and curricular role to play in higher education, but it is less effective when imposed from above by the administration, whose core values are efficiency and finance. It should be done by and with the collaboration of those most qualified and capable of implementing it, which are the faculty, who are in the trenches with students every day, putting them first in reality not as a slogan.

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