Online Learning, Hybrid Classes and Virtual Reality: Philly Universities Prepare for a Risky Fall Semester

Planning for the fall has become a top priority for universities both locally and nationwide, especially as the pandemic takes its financial toll. Here's what Philadelphia schools are considering and why.

Fall semester could look a lot different at Philadelphia area universities. Clockwise from top left: Photo by CCPedu via Wikimedia Commons; AP Photo; Photo by Jeff Fusco

The high school seniors who saw their graduation ceremonies ripped away by COVID-19 this spring may now have to worry about their plans for the fall semester: As the pandemic continues to claim lives and hamstring virtually every sector of society, universities in Philadelphia and around the country are preparing for the possibility of remote learning come September.

The New York Times reported last week that the coronavirus has already cost U.S. universities millions of dollars, thanks to factors like sports season cancellations, housing payment refunds, demand for tuition discounts and fundraising challenges.

Here in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania has announced a hiring freeze on all positions. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old South Carolina native has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Drexel University, seeking more than $5 million in collective refunds and damages for himself and his classmates. The student, Grainger Rickenbaker, alleges that Drexel has “diminished” the “value of any degree” by moving to an online curriculum. (Drexel has not commented on the lawsuit.)

Universities and colleges in the Philly region have cancelled in-person summer programs, and many are now confronting the possibility that fall courses will have to be conducted online as well. Contacted by Philadelphia, schools like Thomas Jefferson University, the Community College of Philadelphia, Villanova University and La Salle University say they are either planning or poised to plan for all scenarios, including online learning.

For those schools and others, it’s not yet clear what will happen in August and September: Spokespeople said arrangements will largely revolve around mandated shutdowns and the city’s and state’s stay-at-home orders. Planning for anything right now feels impossible — and for that reason, many schools are considering multiple possibilities.

Bora Ozkan, assistant professor of finance at Temple University and academic director of the online MBA and BBA programs at the Fox School of Business, predicts that universities will rely on a mix of in-person and remote learning this fall semester, given what we know now. A working group at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, for example, is currently considering a plan that would allow students to “cycle in and out of remote learning if the virus comes and goes,” the New York Times reported in its piece last week.

“If we open up the economy, we may see a spike again in the spread of the coronavirus,” Ozkan says. “Even if courses are not online and we go back to campus, I forecast that we cannot enforce in-person participation. We may have to offer students the option not to come — and either offer the same course online or simulcast the course so students can watch the course from home.”

Ozkan notes that many universities employ faculty members who are over 65 years old — the demographic particularly susceptible to COVID-19’s worst symptoms and higher fatality rates. “Is faculty willing to risk themselves and teach in person?” Ozkan asks. “I don’t think the university can, in a situation like this, force the faculty to do that.”

Schools in the Philadelphia area are already resigned to the potential for a combination of online and in-person instruction this fall. Shannon McLaughlin Rooney, a spokesperson for the Community College of Philadelphia, says the school is planning for “multiple possible scenarios,” including “fully in-person classes, hybrid classes with a mix of in-person and online instruction, and fully remote classes.”

Similarly, Drexel University president John Fry says the school aims to resume on-campus operations “to the greatest extent possible.”

However, online courses are not “necessarily cheaper for the university,” and maintaining both online and in-person courses could be costly, Ozkan stresses. And the financial strains schools are facing could get worse: The University of Arizona announced furloughs and pay cuts for most of its staff last week. The American Council on Education, a trade group, predicted on April 9th a 15 percent enrollment drop for the next academic year — including a 25 percent decline in enrollment for international students.

If enrollment drops and universities continue to suffer financially, they’ll be hard-pressed to come up with solutions. Options could include cutting in-person costs and relying solely on remote learning — or attempting to recoup finances through as much in-person programming as conditions allow.

“It’s better to wait and see,” Ozkan says. “At some point in July or August, they’ll have to make that decision.”

Either way, one lesson is sure to come out of this, Ozkan says: COVID-19 is going to be a “catalyst” for education technology.

Last month, he began teaching a Fox online MBA course in a virtual reality format — one of the first of its kind. The roughly 20 students in the course were mailed virtual reality headsets after signing up. During class, they enter a virtual lecture hall, complete with the Philadelphia skyline in the background.

While it’s highly unlikely that that sort of technology will be widespread this fall, Ozkan suggested that universities might be incentivized to at least simulcast their courses — meaning stream them online for students who are unable to come in.

“I have a feeling we may see more and more [simulcasting], which will help with maintaining social distancing,” Ozkan says. “If you have a class of 40 and 20 came in [to the classroom], those 20 can better distance themselves in the classroom, and in the meantime, those who chose not to come in can distance themselves at home.”

For its part, the Community College of Philadelphia has already convened an administrative group to work on a plan that will focus on online learning and technological advances in the short term and permanently, Rooney says: “Regardless of how this pandemic continues, we know the shift to technology-based education will accelerate.”