By Abby Weingarten
Lecture halls with hundreds of students packed desk-to-desk, and crowded halls with strangers brushing elbows—these may be daily realities for massive universities, but not for New College.
And, as the campus prepares to reopen in the fall, the administration is reflecting on what gives the small, independent College an unusual edge in an unsettling era.
There are multiple challenges to opening back up during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are also advantages that are wholly unique to New College.
“When you’re at a small school, the fact that everyone knows each other makes it more personal, whether you’re in a classroom or in an online meeting,” said New College Provost Barbara Feldman, Ph.D. “There is just so much more personal connection at a small school. I went to a big school and the faculty members, for the most part, didn’t know who I was most of the time. That’s not the case here.”
With its student population of 700, a total of 90 professors, a student-to-faculty ratio of 7-to-1, and an average class size of 12 students, New College has a makeup that is unlike any other institution within the State University System (SUS) of Florida.
The current objective at New College is to offer both in-person and virtual learning options for the fall semester but, should guidelines from the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) change, New College is ready to pivot to a fully remote curriculum then back again to in-person classes as needed.
Because giant classroom settings make little sense in a socially-distanced society, New College already has a leg up; it has been designed for individualized learning since its inception in 1960. That model translates effortlessly to online platforms, as a Zoom meeting with 12 students lends itself to more intimate connections than one with hundreds of participants.
“We can replicate, in very real ways, the same kind of intimate connection online as we can in person at New College,” Feldman said. “We can do this better remotely because we’re small. Large Zoom meetings are awkward and cumbersome. When you have a small group discussion on Zoom, it’s very manageable.”
New College’s faculty and staff learned to manage this type of setup quickly, too. No other college in the SUS moved from 100 percent in-person classes to 100 percent virtual classes in the span of a couple of weeks like New College did after the campus was evacuated in mid-March.
Former Director of Educational Technology Services Angie Fairweather crafted an advanced plan to make remote teaching a stimulating reality. Even classes like art, marine biology and biochemistry (which typically might not translate well to a digital format) were reinvented.
“We realized that there were students who participated even more when the classes were remote. We’re small enough that we can decipher those sorts of things through course evaluations and other data,” Feldman said. “People learn in different ways. We may uncover that there are some students who do better this way than in person in general. So, for those students, we should continue to have this as a learning option and not just say that everybody does better in person (because that may not be the case).”
This understanding feeds into the New College model and its emphasis on creating a customized curriculum for each student.
“New College has always had a model of learning deeply and allowing students to tunnel off into aspects of topics that excite or interest them. That’s very hard to manage if you have a lot of people in a classroom or online class,” Feldman said. “Keeping a class small allows students to pursue what they’re interested in, and I don’t think that idea has suffered in any great way as we move toward remote learning. We will only get better at this.”
Faculty and staff are committed to consistently improving. They have taken multiple professional development classes over the summer on how to efficiently teach remotely (including the Canvas basic and advanced courses, and Quality Matters).
By the end of July, comprehensive New College surveys determined that 60 percent of students preferred in-person learning while 40 percent opted for the remote alternative. There will still be remote seats in every in-person class, and outdoor classrooms are also being considered.
Feldman is hopeful that the self-awareness Novo Collegians have will translate to more socially conscious behaviors and precautions this fall (which might not be the case on other college campuses).
“Once again, because we’re small, we’re a community and we’re going to take care of each other,” Feldman said. “We can trust and count on each other. That’s the way New College rolls.”
Randy Harrell, New College’s interim dean of student affairs, agrees.
As he helps coordinate the staggered student move-in schedule for August, he is already noticing that incoming and returning students have a shared sense of social responsibility. Students know that they are required to get tested for COVID-19 prior to arriving on campus, and they will be using a symptom-checker cell phone app to evaluate their personal health every day.
When families first arrive at New College (two accompanying people maximum per student), they will be greeted by a staff member in a mask and gloves, and given a welcome pack with masks, a water bottle, a campus map, and a parking permit. Harrell calls it a “concierge check-in.”
He knows that this level of personalized service would be difficult to offer at a larger university (another advantage New College has because of its size). But the biggest advantage of New College may be the students themselves, who continue to impress Harrell and the rest of the faculty and staff.
“Our students have a high level of care and concern for one another. I’m really optimistic about our students embracing the social awareness aspect of this whole process,” Harrell said. “Over 90 percent of our students vote in elections (we even won a national award for it) and that shows their civic engagement. I think we are uniquely positioned at New College to weather this reopening effectively—because of our size, the nature of our students, and our sense of community.”
To read New College’s full reopening plan, visit ncf.edu/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/sites/25/2020/06/New-College-Plan-to-Reopen.pdf.
To learn more about how New College is preparing for the future, visit ncf.edu/academics/new-can.
To see how the College has adapted to remote learning, visit ncf.edu/thrive.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.