By Annah Johnson
At Grand Rapids Community College, Provost Brian Knetl provides leadership and direction for faculty, staff and students. Knetl’s job at the onset of the pandemic involved coordinating the college’s shift to online learning and teaching. His oversight helped to determine much of what has become GRCC’s new normal.
Like many organizations across the globe, colleges have felt a major shift in their trajectories, uncertainty for the future and a forceful nudge into virtual and online learning. Where we go from here is the question that has college administrators forecasting possible plans for post-pandemic education.
“I can honestly, genuinely, and humbly say that the pandemic was not something that any of us had in our tool kit,” Knetl said. “We responded trying to keep the student at the center of our response, and we knew that continuing education was key – and equally important was the safety of our students and our faculty and staff.”
Before the pandemic, the number of online course offerings was averaging at 25% compared to in-person courses. Students chose this option because of convenience, rather than necessity. In March 2020, the ratio shifted, and all course offerings became virtual or online.
“That balance was a little different for us, but really, I think it was the extended duration that started to challenge us a little bit and put us in situations where a lot of us hadn’t dealt with having to totally shift our model from being mostly on campus to having to be primarily online.”
The resounding frustration of the pandemic side-effects is the unknown duration, as Knetl mentioned. Administrators have become accustomed to adaptation and making changes as needed.
Now that vaccines are becoming more widely available, many are wondering what is next. The shift to online learning and instruction has taught many students, administrators, and educators alike, unique lessons about inclusion and accessibility.
Learning loss is a phenomenon that is at the forefront of educators’ concerns for moving forward. Not every K-12 student received a well-rounded education through the duration of the pandemic due to their ability to access technology, varied levels of parental involvement and underlying inequities in districts’ capabilities to continue providing education. The learning loss accumulated because of the pandemic will follow many students to college, and educators are beginning to prepare.
“What we really want to do is just start to re-engage and reinspire them [incoming highschool students] with the prospect of postsecondary education,” Knetl said, explaining a new GRCC introduction program currently in development. “Yes the last year and a half, by that point, has been really difficult but, GRCC is still here.”
During the summer GRCC is planning to launch a program to aid incoming freshmen who have experienced learning loss. The primary academic focuses will be on math and English readiness to prepare students for their college classes and understand the support systems that will be available to them at GRCC.
While there were many unexpected setbacks during the pandemic, there have also been lessons learned. Knetl expressed that technology has shown to be an important tool in how we gather, instruct and learn during the shutdown but it won’t just stop there.
“Technology has become very important,” Knetl said. “We are benefiting from the technology we have, we are benefiting from the skills… faculty, staff and students at GRCC have built up in order to continue learning through this challenge.”
Administrators have learned that diverse course mode offerings are appealing to students, as they offer enhanced flexibility and accessibility. A student survey is being conducted to see what students’ preferences are concerning modes of class instruction. The exploration of the appropriate mix of classes is underway, and the student survey will be a major part of determining what students are hoping for.
“It will be exciting to see how all of our operations integrate more technology into our new normal,” Knetl said. “We are talking very actively as we begin planning for our next year as to what is the right mix of online, on-campus and virtual formats.”
Knetl projects that our new normal will take into consideration the lessons learned in the pandemic to better show up for students and make GRCC more accessible.
“I am confident that we are going to be bringing classes back to campus as much as we can,” Knetl said. “But I am equally confident that we will not go back to the same levels we were before the pandemic, where 80% of classes were on campus and only around 20% online.”