Allen: The Changes We Keep

Dartmouth must use lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve its post-pandemic teaching.

by Spencer Allen | 7/16/21 4:05am

The entire Dartmouth community is yearning to break free of the COVID-19 pandemic and make the long-awaited return to in-person classes. Yet, as we emerge from the pandemic, we can’t return to what we knew as “normal.” Before last spring, what might have been seen as classroom norms in fact presented barriers that prevented many students from fully thriving academically. Though by no means perfect, some changes brought about by the pandemic — such as recorded content and lenient course policies such as forgiving absences and alternative participation methods — greatly augmented students’ ability to participate in their classes. Come fall, these improvements must be carried over into the new school year to make Dartmouth more academically accessible for every student.

A defining academic moment in the pandemic was the radical departure of students’ schedules from what they were when taking in person classes. Whether due to time zone differences, additional work, or responsibilities at home, it was no longer a given that students could attend classes on the same timetable that they had when they were on campus. Building in asynchronous instruction to classes — either through pre-recorded lectures or recordings of class meetings — was a necessary respite for students whose schedules did not align perfectly to Dartmouth’s. Students could log into a class at any time of day from wherever they were in the world and still learn.

Going forward, recorded class content still has a place at Dartmouth. Before the pandemic, students often fell ill throughout the term, yet went to class anyway in order to not fall behind — likely infecting others and prolonging their own infection. Recording class sessions as a norm eliminates the need for sick students to drag themselves out of bed and to class, where they are more of a burden to themselves and those around them than they would be still in their dorms.

Remote learning also brought radical changes to how classes are graded. A hallmark of many syllabi is the attendance or participation grade, which stipulates that a student’s grade will be impacted if they don’t attend or participate fully in class sessions. Though these policies never completely vanished, many professors accommodated students’ unique circumstances by offering ways to engage in class asynchronously, like contributing to discussion posts on Canvas.

As professors prepare for the new term, ways to participate asynchronously should remain in their courses. Yes, they help when a student needs a day off, but they also benefit students who attend class regularly. For students who experience social anxiety when speaking in class, discussion boards, Slack channels and other alternative ways to contribute to  class discussion will allow them to engage more fully and meaningfully in their classes.

While keeping some of these changes might open them up to misuse by some students, any perceived misuse would be minor and far less substantial than the benefits these changes would bring. Sure, some students might use recorded lectures as an excuse to go on an extended weekend trip off campus, and others may reap the benefits of asynchronous discussions after a night of partying leaves them hungover. That said, is that necessarily a bad thing? Dartmouth’s schedule is notoriously demanding, so a weekend away from Hanover can be welcomed self care for students. Further, the quality of a student’s participation when they are recovering from a night out and suffering from a migraine or nausea is likely to be quite poor in comparison to their contributions in an asynchronous discussion once they have had the chance to recover.

Some may argue that, since many of these changes might be perceived as “accommodations,” students who want to benefit from these accommodations should use established processes. However, Dartmouth’s Student Accessibility Services is limited in how they can help students with short-term afflictions — like illnesses — because a condition must usually last at least six months in order for SAS to officially consider it a “disability,” according to SAS’s website. What’s more, receiving formal accommodations during a time of crisis can be a “ridiculous and compassionless” process. When sudden situations arise, Dartmouth cannot expect its students to jump over administrative hurdles and recover from their afflictions at the same time.

As the pandemic draws to a close and life returns to normal, the need to reconsider how we as an institution handle academics is greater than ever. Innumerable changes to how classes operate have taken place in the last year and a half, but it would be inappropriate of professors and the College to relegate those changes to the annals of history. Some near-universal changes, like recorded content and asynchronous participation, have made the last 18 months feasible — and, going forward, have the potential to revolutionize the curriculum,making it more accessible to students. Instead of scrapping these changes, professors across the institution must strike a balance between old and new definitions of normal to improve their courses for every student.