CORONAVIRUS

In coronavirus pandemic, more campuses looking to Cornell as model for new way forward

Its unusual course model may offer flexibility institutions are seeking

Craig Teague, a Cornell College chemistry professor, served on the team that added two more blocks to the school's one-c
Craig Teague, a Cornell College chemistry professor, served on the team that added two more blocks to the school’s one-course-at-a-time model, providing more scheduling possibilities. “I think it’s a use of our flexibility,” he said. “It even extends the flexibility that we already had.” (Photo courtesy Cornell College)

Among the higher education institutions recruiting Lindsay Smith to move from her suburban Chicago home to play soccer three years ago was Mount Vernon’s Cornell College — boasting a feature that separated it from the pack.

“The block plan is what ultimately drew me to Cornell and helped me make my decision,” said Smith, 20, now a Cornell junior majoring in business and economics. “One hundred percent.”

The “block” system is a non-traditional, one-course-at-a-time model that lets Cornell students focus on one subject or issue per block, over the span of eight such periods per academic year. Each block stretches 18 days, with classes often meeting twice daily.

It offers flexibility and fosters experimentation and exploration, according to Cornell President Jonathan Brand.

“Even if we’re not in a crisis, the one-course calendar really is student centered and achievement-focused,” he said.

But in a crisis — like the coronavirus pandemic that is disrupting higher education to a historic degree — Brand said it’s an exceptionally well-suited model.

“It promises minimal disruption and maximum benefit,” he said.

Colleges and universities across the state and nation scrambled in March to shift thousands of in-person courses to online instruction in just a matter of weeks, also forcing students to reorganize their numerous academic pursuits.

Cornell did the same — but with less juggling.

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A professors had only one course to reconfigure and one set of students to convene for virtual meetings, for example.

Where many college students used to sitting in lecture halls, congregating in study groups and capitalizing on professor office hours had to reorganize five or so courses on an array of different virtual platforms, Cornell students still had just one to re-imagine in a new context.

“Imagine students are at their homes and trying to juggle on a daily basis four or five courses,” Brand said. “Ours are only taking one.”

The one-course-at-a-time model — while far less common than the traditional semester system — has been garnering more national attention and intrigue amid this COVID-19 pandemic, which has no clear end in sight and continues to pose logistical and ethical challenges across higher education.

Some colleges and universities — struggling to decide when to bring students back to campus and how to do it safely — have reached out to Brand at Cornell to inquire about his school’s unique block system.

“We are hearing from schools contemplating a version of this block system for next year — we have heard from several institutions,” he said. “I think there is going to be a movement here potentially.”

And while Brand said he’d love to see that — as he believes in the benefits of the block system in good and hard times — he warned making the move is no easy lift, and his campus’ model cannot be swapped quickly with a traditional schedule that stacks numerous courses per student each semester.

“If a school thinks they can go to the block system and it’s a short-term solution, I think they are going to be sadly disappointed,” he said. “A lot would have to change on a campus to be a school on a one-course calendar.”

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Like many across higher education, though, Brand said he believes COVID-19 is creating lasting, long-term change — and that could translate to more schools on the block system.

“I do think COVID-19 will have changed higher education permanently in some ways,” he said.

Adding options

Although the future for Cornell, like most institutions these days, remains unclear, its coronavirus-related change in the short term involves leaning further into the block system.

Starting in August, Cornell will increase its number of 18-day blocks per academic year from eight to 10 — with the extra two offered over the summer. The idea is to give students more options to complete their eight blocks a year — allowing them to start later in the fall, for example, or take one off if they encounter a health emergency midyear.

Before the addition of the two new “flex blocks,” Cornell students needing to pause their education might have lost time toward graduation. This new plan “will not only allow students, but the entire college, to adapt right along with this changing crisis,” Brand said.

The plan — drafted in days and overwhelmingly approved by faculty — will remain in place for at least the next two academic years. Brand said it could continue beyond that, if successful.

“We’ll learn over the next year, and we’ll do like we’ve done for decades and we’ll modify it as we learn,” he said. “But I think it would be shortsighted for any college president to think that, like a rubber band, things will snap back to normal in a year or two. I think this has changed higher education forever.”

Cornell — like Iowa’s public universities and private and community colleges — is hoping for a return to on-campus learning this fall, even if it comes with unprecedented safety measures.

But, should circumstances require online-only learning to continue, Cornell’s new 10-block model could allow students who prefer in-person learning to wait to start until block three, for example, in hopes the disease would ease by that time.

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“We are prepared to start the year on campus, which is our goal,” Brand said. “If necessary, though, we are also prepared to take it block-by-block, starting the academic year online and pivoting back to campus when it is safe to do so.”

That pivot, he said, is easier with the block system — because Cornell students won’t have to jump from a virtual to in-person setting, or vice versa, midcourse. Instead, they can just wait until the start of a new block to make a change.

Or, Cornell could start back to in-person classes sooner than other campus that are taking it semester by semester.

“While many schools across the country are testing schedules with similarities to our block system, it’s not our first time around the block,” Brand said. “We’ve been doing what most would consider a new thing, investing our time, treasure and talents for 42 years and we’re virtually unique in the higher ed space.”

‘Pretty excited’

The block system in this crisis also has been easier on professors, who this spring had to shift only one course online and organize one set of students for Zoom meetings and group chats.

Craig Teague has been a Cornell chemistry professor since 2003 — coming straight from his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, tempted by the intrigue of teaching one course at a time.

“I was excited about the possibilities when I read the job,” said Teague, who thought, “Actually, this allows some interesting flexibility for me as an instructor in terms of the kinds of labs I could do, and the kind of classes I could hold, even the kinds of exams I could give.

“So even though I didn’t really know what it all meant at that point, I was pretty excited.”

When the pandemic hit in March, Teague was just wrapping up his academic year — as he doesn’t teach in block seven and eight, the two Cornell had to move from in-person to online.

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But he saw the benefits for his colleagues and students. And he was part of the team that made the call to add two more flex blocks.

“I think it’s a use of our flexibility,” he said. “It even extends the flexibility that we already had.”

Like for lab classes with a heavy hands-on component for students.

“This flex calendar gives us the opportunity to reschedule those as needed and still get that quality hands-on experience — just at a later time,” Teague said.

Even though Cornell junior Smith said she’s managing her education virtually from her Illinois home — where her brother, sister and parents are doing their schooling and work as well — she, like many of her peers, is eager to return to Mount Vernon.

“I think our school acknowledges the fact that all of us really want to get back to campus,” she said. “And the really neat thing about Cornell is if we do have that delay to get back on campus, if we do need to wait a little bit longer to move in, then probably it would be just block one or two.”

Smith isn’t sure yet whether she will use the new flex blocks to start later or take time off during the year. It will depend on the circumstances. But she acknowledged the temptation — should online-only courses persist.

“I definitely benefit from the in-person and in the classroom experience,” she said. “I think a lot of Cornell students do.”

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.