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A quest for new normal: Midwest colleges adjust to increased appetite for online learning during pandemic

Campus life, at UND and beyond, has never been the same.

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UND student body president Faith Wahl prepares for finals at Archives Coffee Shop on the UND campus Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. In the waked of lockdowns and the worst of the pandemic, students and universities are forging a new kind of college experience, marked by increased remote learning- even as many of the traumas of the pandemic remain. (Eric Hylden / For Prairie Business)
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GRAND FORKS — Faith Wahl, student body president at the University of North Dakota, was a freshman in the very first weeks of the COVID pandemic, sent home for a March 2020 spring break while the world changed.

Like so many institutions, UND had to make plans on the fly. There was a week off, then a scramble to offer a planned two weeks of remote learning — which was soon extended through the rest of the semester. Students were asked not to come back to Grand Forks. Commencement ceremonies were canceled.

Campus life, at UND and beyond, has never been the same. After two and a half years of the pandemic, colleges are dealing with a surge in student traumas, and often trying to cater to a boosted appetite for online learning. And many students are still trying to find their footing amid a fading pandemic.

“I think that's hard for students to transition from, ‘OK, what is this COVID college life like to what are my full time working expectations?’” Wahl said, wondering how graduating seniors who lived through lockdown will fare at social events after isolation, or in job interviews when their opportunities for internships and more were crimped.

This is what the quest for a new normal looks like at college campuses around the upper Midwest, where administrators are adapting to a world that’s been changed by the virus. It’s leaving many colleges at a pivotal moment, deciding how to adapt to nationwide trends in education.

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Mark Jendrysik, a UND political scientist, said he’s still trying to find the right technique to make online class discussions as engaging and enriching as the ones that happen more naturally in a classroom.

“It certainly can be done — online, with Zoom, with other forms of those type of online education tools,” Jendrysik said. But it’s harder, he said. “Part of it is, I’m older. I’ve been doing it the same way for over two decades…maybe it’s more me than the kids.”

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UND political science professor Mark Jendrysik leads a Zoom review for finals week with students from his office in Nistler Hall on the UND campus December 9, 2022.

But UND administrators are quick to point out that distance learning at the school goes back decades, all the way to videotape correspondence in the late 1980s — part of a long tradition of growing in its abilities that contrast with the hastily assembled instruction more common at the high school level.

“When we, as a whole university, went remote, we had a lot of instructors who had to do stuff they had never done before,” said Jeff Holm, vice provost for strategic programming and special initiatives — but there were plenty of instructors, Holm added, who were much more familiar with it.

“You think about making progress and stair steps, we are much further up that staircase than many institutions,” Holm said. “We’re looking at ways in which students can interact — online students, who maybe aren’t even online at the same time, can still interact with each other in a virtual classroom...they can leave notes for each other, they can help each other out, they can say, ‘Let’s meet at 9 o’clock and study together in that virtual classroom,’ so to speak.”

Big growth in the demand for online courses also represents an opportunity — one where students can complete their education “a la carte,” as UND economist David Flynn puts it. The advantage of online classes, in which students view material at their own pace or in their own place, fits some schedules best.

“I’ve taught classes before and had students who are active-duty deployed military,” he said. “I had a student once who was taking statistics exams while he was flying. He was in some kind of refueler or bomber…he'd have downtime and he'd take the exam and get signed in by whoever was his commander in the plane at that time.”

What does that mean for the future of college life? Stacy Duffield, the director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at North Dakota State, quoted a recent, wide ranging study on online education: “Students want more online options and flexibility. But that does not necessarily mean they want to reject the campus.”

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“At NDSU, we do see ourselves as a primarily residential campus,” she said. “And there are some degrees that are far better served in a residential model, like nursing, things like that — or theater arts. But there are places where there’s space to go online, and we see ourselves continuing to grow and evolve with that.”

Perhaps the most pressing challenge is how to support students at the university who are still dealing with what they experienced during the height of lockdown.

“I think that’s our biggest struggle right now, following the pandemic,” said Karyn Plumm, UND’s vice provost for undergraduate studies and student success. “We have students coming in who experienced a legitimate trauma trying to get through their high school years, and now they’re trying to be college students.”

She pointed out long COVID — when those sick with the virus exhibit symptoms of severe fatigue or other long-lasting issues months after infection. Will it interfere with their transition into college?

“I don't think we know yet what that means or how to help students navigate if that's what they're dealing with,” Plumm said. “I think we're still trying to figure those pieces out.”

And at South Dakota State University, Assistant Director for Counseling Greg Wasberg said the pandemic often intensified what students were already dealing with.

“For most of the students that we're seeing, the mental health issues that were present at the time or just before the pandemic … those symptoms worsened,” he said. “If they were anxious, they became more anxious. If they were depressed, they became more depressed.”

There’s a sense that things are getting better, though. At NDSU, Student Body President Christian Walth said that this year’s welcome week felt like a watershed moment, a thaw after such a long, long lockdown winter — a chance to really connect with students around campus.

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“No masks, large gatherings,” he said. “For a lot of us upperclassmen who got to welcome these freshmen and be able to give them hugs, give them high fives, just welcome them to campus with open arms — that was the difference this year.”

Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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