Smaller is Better as New College Reopens

Guest Correspondence

BY DONAL O'SHEA SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY AUG 8, 2020

Reopening campus in the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be easy for any of the institutions in the State University System of Florida.

In some ways, New College has a leg up. We’re small. We’re a community. And we’re pretty well-known for being socially responsible.

Lecture halls with hundreds of students packed desk-to-desk may be daily realities for massive universities, but not for us. We have a student population of 700, a student-to-faculty ratio of 7 to 1, and an average class size of 12 students—a makeup unlike any other SUS university.

Since our inception in 1960, we have been designed for individualized learning. That model translates effortlessly to online platforms, as a Zoom meeting with 12 students lends itself to more intimate connections than one with 200 participants.

“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 Provost Barbara Feldman, Ph.D. “We can replicate, in very real ways, the same kind of intimate connection online as we can in person at New College.”

New College plans to offer both in-person and virtual learning options for the fall semester.  Depending on the course of the pandemic in Sarasota-Bradenton, however, in-person classes will be ready to pivot to remote instruction, and back again, as needed. 

This spring, after the campus was evacuated in mid-March, our faculty and staff quickly learned how to shift teaching gears.

No other university in the SUS moved from 100 percent in-person classes to 100 percent virtual classes in a couple of weeks as did New College. 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 creatively reinvented.

“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.”

We are confident that Novo Collegians’ social consciousness will translate to behaviors this fall that protect others, such as strict social distancing, frequent hand washing and following safety measures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We will take care of and trust each other as we move forward; it’s the New College way.

“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,” said Randy Harrell, New College’s interim dean of student affairs. “Over 90 percent of 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.”

Those of us at New College spent the spring and summer learning to adapt, evolve and reinvent ourselves. We are up for the challenge this fall.

Dr. Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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