Higher Ed in the News: 10/19

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News, students having trouble with textbooks and how research is impacted by higher education’s shift to a virtual environment.


Pandemic limits student access to textbooks

The COVID-19 pandemic is making it difficult for students to access reserve textbooks in their school’s libraries. In order to limit the spread of the virus, libraries are quarantining returned texts – some for 24 hours, others for multiple days, according to a recent article from Inside Higher Ed. Students who cannot afford textbooks rely on the library copies to complete homework assignments and study for exams, which means they often cannot afford to wait until the book is out of quarantine.

Typically, libraries only carry one copy of each textbook, often given to the library by a professor. Unlike other books on the shelf, these textbooks are categorized as “reserve materials,” meaning they can’t be removed from the library. Most libraries also cannot afford to purchase more textbooks due to high costs.

However, while access to books in the library is an issue for some students, others cannot use their school library at all this semester. For those learning remotely, the library isn’t an option for them. In the spring, many publishers made digital course materials free to help with the move to online classes, but that only lasted through the end of that semester.

Ultimately, Nicole Allen, director of open education at open-access publishing advocacy group SPARC, believes schools need a better long-term solution to this issue.

“It’s a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem,” she said.


Social distancing may be hurting academic research

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns over how colleges would transition to a virtual learning environment dominated higher education. Faculty members, administrators, and ed-tech companies have been working overtime to figure out how to thrive in the new online landscape, despite dealing with constraints such as social distancing and the waning sanity of every stakeholder involved.

While their resilient response has helped grow acceptance for online teaching, not all endeavors translate equally from the classroom or lab to the computer. A recent piece from Inside Higher Ed identifies research as one area of academia that has been challenged and pinpoints specific processes that will need to adapt in order to minimize the negative impact of these limitations.

In terms of research training, those involved worry it will be less effective in a virtual setting, citing the inability for instructors to assist with hands-on lab work or introduce a new process if they notice a trainee having difficulty. Limited or no access to required equipment and materials only makes matters worse and that is not expected to change for the immediate future. A lack of office interactions and the shift from seminars to webinars is expected to stifle the exchange of ideas as well, which will only further inhibit progress within the field. 

Institutes of higher learning still have the opportunity to appropriately translate research operations to the online setting. According to the author, a professor of applied physics at Yale University, acknowledging the importance of informal interactions and proper training is a strong place to start.