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Higher Ed Should Rise to the Challenge of Offering Greater Student-centered Flexibility

In response to my post late last week “Two out of five US college presidents already considering online options for Fall 2020 term,” Evangeline Cummings replied on LinkedIn with some valuable thoughts about the Fall term and the implications for higher ed. The post and discussion followed the summary argument:

What I would describe is that as early as late March, two out of five US college presidents were already considering a scenario where a return of most in-person classes might not be feasible for the Fall 2020 term. It is likely that this number is even higher today, perhaps with most presidents considering remote learning or online education options for their institutions in the fall.

Cummings is the Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online at the University of Florida. In this role she both oversees the fully-online programs of UF Online and also interacts with the primarily face-to-face main university. What follows below is a lightly edited version of Cummings’ LinkedIn observations. – [Phil]

Not all learners do well online, and I say that as an onlineadministrator. It’s time to consider how we may need to completely revamp ourcollege model to ensure we are best serving a variety of learners in Fall 2020,but also in Spring 2021 and beyond.

Even if we succeed at flattening the COVID-19 infection curve – and I think we will – we won’t go back to full-time campus models anytime soon. It just won’t be part of our reality yet. Instead we will be carefully reopening our society with still very limited group sizes, activities, and face-to-face events.

Our Challenge

How will we help our students persist in a completely new model? A model that draws on faculty creativity, puts students first, and provides much more flexibility and staggered engagement than even face-to-face. Wise, creative minds across higher education need to be working on THAT challenge. The availability of pedagogically strong, yet flexible, hybrid models for college, in general, have been long overdue. Throw out the usual rules, be student-centric, and get creative. We have it in us.

That said, there are millions of students who will thrive in online college courses and degree programs. For many students, online may be their only option, particularly for this coming fall, as they must take on additional jobs, stay “home” to help their families, even mourn for loved ones with their communities, and also undertake completely new family roles and child care scenarios.


What students will want is great flexibility – online, hybrid, orface-to-face and blended programs; mixing it up as needed to manage everydaylife each term. Students will likely even need the flexibility of 6-week segments and/orcompetency-based segments. We should stop thinking one-size-fits-all, oreven online vs “residential.” Such a dichotomy does not serve us and it doesnot fit the reality of many of our students, neither now nor prior to thepandemic, nor does it accurately depict how faculty are teaching.

In order to rise to this challenge, our students need us to be adaptable to a variety of circumstances, most importantly their own. Circumstances will continue to shift as we grapple with our new normal, as institutions, families, and communities. Faculty, too, will need a choice to have the flexibility to gravitate to the delivery mode and format that their students need most and that the faculty are eager to deliver. In this process of adaptation of higher education to a flexible model, it is indispensable that we rely on faculty being creative and thoughtful, modifying their pedagogy to meet current needs. Our students deserve it.

To ensure students have many choices of formats, components and courses, we will likely need better connections across public university systems, for example, to maximize the flexible options described above for our students. I think our future is very bright and higher ed will rise to this challenge.


We are living through a historic time. By focusing on ourtrue and renewed sense of genuine empathy for our students and by harnessingthe real power of our faculty to think creatively about their programs andcourses, we will see a new renewed chapter for higher education thatdemonstrates not only our adaptability but our commitment to serving ourstudents.