April 2020

Higher education across the country has gone to distance learning and Minnesota Private Colleges are no exception. 

“With such a quick turn around for faculty and students, things are going fairly well,” said Jennifer Schaefer, associate professor of biology and integrative science program chair at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. “For some classes, things have changed but we’re trying to replicate the most meaningful aspects of each class while recognizing that the online format necessarily requires some changes and flexibility.”

Professors are pivoting, providing resources and lectures digitally. Some are keeping regular class times using digital meeting platforms, while others are creating a new normal with prerecorded lectures and creative solutions to assignments, Schaefer said. 

For many the concerns are with students. “For some students, they were able to go home, have access to technology and have family support. For those students it’s going okay,” Schaefer said. “For other students it’s a really big struggle. They may not have had a place to go, or have to take care of family members; some are experiencing serious financial hardship.”

Private colleges pride themselves on small class sizes and excellent instruction delivered by professors, which often creates strong highly connected communities. These communities have allowed students and professors to transition imperfectly but resiliently.

“We’ll make it through this; we will teach and students will learn. And what will help us do that is the strength of the community,” Schaefer said. “From students checking in on one another to IT stepping up with so many resources. The strong sense of community is what will get us through this.”

The strength of community was reiterated by Joan Ostrove, professor of psychology and director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching at Macalester College. “We have a fine arts professor who was teaching oil painting this semester. The paints her students needed were at Mac, but the students weren’t,” Ostrove said. “The professor mailed each student a water color set, and pivoted to teaching them watercolor painting remotely. This is just one of many powerful stories of faculty commitment to our students.”

Looking ahead, plans for instruction during the fall semester remain uncertain, although private colleges clearly are eager to bring students back to campus. Though the goal is to be instructing in-person this fall, it’s important professors evaluate what is working now so they can be prepared if that is not the case.

When asked about how the change to distance learning this semester might affect how we teach in the future, Ostrove quipped, “I don’t think we’re in danger of changing the entire small liberal arts experience and doing everything online in future years. But I do think there are some things we learned this semester that can carry over. Professors have tried different technologies that are helping students engage in different ways and have developed new assignments that they will keep in future iterations of their courses. Just maybe we can take a few small positives out of all of this.”

By Tom Lancaster