A Plan for Saving the Fall Semester

By now, virtually everyone has canceled school for the remainder of the year. Some colleges have already announced that summer courses, many of which begin in just a month, will already be taught online; the announcement allows us time to do more than pivot to remote teaching but to build, even if hurriedly, online-by-design courses.

I don’t think we’ll be back in the fall, and I think that colleges should plan for that now.

It could be that by the first half of the semester, COVID-19 is under control, but we can expect a resurgence for the second half of the semester.

Rather than bringing students back for half of a semester, then returning them home again (which means all kinds of disruptions and expenses for them), I recommend:

  • turning all courses into 4 1/2 week intensive courses, fully and deliberately online, for fall 2020. Students would have 4 weeks of instruction, 2 1/2 days to do their finals (so, Wednesday by noon), and then two days off. Repeat.
  • encourage students to enroll in 1-2 classes per 4 1/2 week mini-trimester

Why? This would allow students to

  • focus on one or two classes at a time, so their attention isn’t so scattered and they aren’t attempting to learn the many new demands of their new-to-this professors
  • skip a mini-trimester and fall behind on only 1 or 2 graduation requirements rather than 5 or 6
  • select if being home, working, or taking class is most important at a particular moment without having to commit to that for 15 weeks
  • start at multiple points in the fall, so students who aren’t ready in August can come back in last September or October.
  • increase their likelihood of success–and thus retention
  • have space for rising emergencies, since it’s unlikely that they are going to go the 15 weeks of a traditional semester without a major problem that interrupts learning. For example, rather than having students make it to week 12 and then face a death in the family that results in them leaving the course or even taking an Incomplete, let them plan for 4 1/2 weeks at a time. That way, if they are interrupted at week 12, they have already earned 12 credits and are about done with their final course and can easier take an Incomplete if needed.

And this is right for faculty, too, because it would allow them to

  • build 1-2 classes over the summer, then 1-2 classes over Fall 1 and Fall 2, rather than prep all our classes for both in person and possible online teaching
  • make our rookie online teaching mistakes in the 1-2 classes we are prepping at a time rather than making them over the 3-4 classes we would have to prep at all once if all classes rolled out on the same day in August
  • choose which of the mini-trimesters we will teach in, which will give us more time outside of the online classroom, if we decide to organize our semesters that way, to prep courses, serve in our communities, make progress on other aspects of our job duties, and take care of our own families.

And this is right for universities because it would allow them to

  • plan now for fall rather than waiting and seeing, which requires everyone to plan for all possible outcomes–especially since it’s unlikely that campuses will be able to reopen
  • reduce fall costs for students now, since students won’t be paying room and board, which will increase their likelihood of enrolling
  • reduce house-and-board related staff now, which is more fair than springing that news on those employees later
  • figure out how to build a sense of identity–which is work often done in the fall through fall rituals like orientation and homecoming–while there is time to do so
  • help faculty identify if this step–which I think is short- but definitely not long-term inevitable–want to participate in this kind of work or would rather retire or take paid or unpaid leave
  • feel a lessened impact from faculty who need to take FMLA, since some of them would likely schedule time off to correspond with a mini-trimester, if they are able to do so (like if they are using FMLA to share caring duties for a parent or child with a sibling or partner)

This is also a broader good for the US because it would encourage students to stay enrolled in school–and thus out of the economy, which will mean more jobs for other people. I think this factor alone is so compelling that all tuition should be fully paid by the federal government. If we could remove 50% of people 18-24 from unemployment rolls (but still offer them a UBI) just by making college tuition-free, we should.  It helps them, and it helps everyone they would be competing with for limited jobs.


Above, in white paint on the fading red of a barn, someone has painted the words “Save Our School.” The image is from a rural public school I love, which was nearly closed due to rural depopulation. The community banded together offered a new innovative curriculum there that has since attracted students from the county seat, a larger town located about 7 miles away.

To make this happen, universities should

  • offer a compelling early-retirement option for faculty who are not interested in having their last year of teaching take this form; this would have to be big enough to help them overcome their concerns about the current state of their 401Ks
  • offer unpaid leave and a pause in the tenure clock for faculty who would like to take some or all of the fall off (which can now easier be done if it’s split into 3 parts)
  • begin earlier in August, so we are done at Thanksgiving, when COVID-19 will likely be at high rates again.
  • advertise this plan now, with an updated fall schedule, ASAP
  • maintain the same levels of instructor employment for all, including non-tenure track faculty, by re-assigning those who are interested in the work to do the simple tech work of building courses or serving as graders for other faculty. Once a syllabus is written, materials selected, assignments crafted, and lecturers recorded (which is a lot of work!), any faculty member who is fluent at your LMS can do the tech work of uploading documents, setting deadlines, setting up gradebooks, etc. Yes, it takes hours and is tedious, but it is necessary, frees up other faculty for work that ONLY they can do, and helps maintain faculty engagement and morale (especially for the majority of college educators, who are in precarious positions). Higher ed relies on precarious labor, and a return to campus will require those folks to return, too, even if enrollment is down. Cutting them loose now–when many of them are not eligible for unemployment benefits because they are temporary workers–makes it harder to find them again when campus opens. (Plus, it’s a jerk move).

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One thought on “A Plan for Saving the Fall Semester

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  1. (1) There are some classes that can’t be cut down to the trimester size, though. Whenever students ask me whether to take Calculus II (out of a 3-semester series) or Differential Equations during the summer, I always advise strongly against it, especially if they’re not retaking it. (If you’ve been reading my comments to these threads, you already know that I’m a math lecturer at Arizona State who teaches 400 students a semester. If you haven’t, then you know now.)

    (Although, now that I think of it, Calculus II could be split because it consists of four topics which don’t build on each other.)

    As for “To make this happen, universities should [do the following]” …

    (2) “[…] offer a compelling early-retirement option for faculty who are not interested in having their last year of teaching take this form.” This will either require more last-minute hiring, or will put extra stress on the faculty that can’t take any time off.

    (3) “[…] begin earlier in August, so we are done at Thanksgiving, when COVID-19 will likely be at high rates again.” No one really knows how the seasons will affect the Coronavirus, so this might be a case of too-long-range planning. Besides, ASU starts on August 20, so this isn’t that much of a shift and probably won’t make any difference. The only advantage would be that classes end before Thanksgiving, which is something that does not depend on the Coronavirus.

    (4) “[…] advertise this plan now, with an updated fall schedule, ASAP.” ASU has a reasonably good online college (6th in the nation), and I see much more demands for the online versions of courses this fall.

    (5) “[…] maintain the same levels of instructor employment for all, including non-tenure track faculty, by re-assigning those who are interested in the work to do the simple tech work of building courses or serving as graders for other faculty.” Once again, I don’t see the work load for the instructors decreasing, because of the options of early retirement and sabbaticals, without hiring instructors to replace them. To do the extra tasks will require more hiring and/or a larger workload.

    As for building courses, ASU got a jump on this a few years ago, when they announced that Blackboard was going to be replaced (finally!*) by Canvas, and everyone started converting/building shells around Spring 2018. (We switched officially at the start of Fall 2019.) ASU is lazy in that they tend to assign classes based on what was assigned in the previous year, so those shells would be re-used, avoiding the problem of creating a bunch of new shells.

    The homework system that came with Blackboard was a nightmare from a mathematical point of view. When entering an answer, you had to type it in exactly, which is fine when spelling counts. However, for a math problem with the answer of 2, entering 1+1, 2.0, 2., or even 2 with a space after it, were all counted as wrong answers. The department started using WeBWorK when this was discovered.


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