In the pandemic’s wake, the paradigm of traditional education in Oklahoma is in flux, as institutions plan how to best serve students under ever-evolving health guidelines. The general consensus in higher learning? A blend of in-person and online methods may be the way to go.

“To help guide Oklahoma’s universities, colleges and high schools, the Oklahoma Department of Education offers safeguards and resources, including Return to Learn Oklahoma: A Framework for Reopening Schools, a compendium of factors for individual districts to consider as they determine how to begin the school year with a focus on learning and the safety and ongoing health of students, staff and families,” says Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  “We all have to be willing to pivot with one plan to the next and have more than one plan of action in place.” 

For Aaron Inlow, Tulsa Community College human anatomy instructor, it’s all about lecture conversion while retaining a personal touch.

“Like many of my colleagues, we put a lot of time into converting class lectures into other formats, including video and animation,” he says. “We’ll have online classes, but students should know their instructors are available via email and in person. We have specific material to convey, and concepts need discussion to ensure the student is understanding. It’s a misconception that an online class means you’re on your own. You’re not alone.”

At the University of Tulsa, Paige Francis, the school’s vice president of information technology, believes the COVID-19 crisis solidified some common truths and made certain avenues of learning more accessible. 

“The pandemic reinforced that the faculty member, the teaching, the education itself, is at the core of higher education,” she says. “The online delivery method, while inarguably different, is learnable with the appropriate support and tools. There also is now a deeper appreciation for the methods formerly known as ‘alternative.’”

While the pandemic brings challenges, opportunities have evolved through them. 

“Many students understood the gravity of the situation and seemed to find extra appreciation for instructors that were making the best of a bad situation,” says Wayne Thomas, Ph.D.,  the interim dean of the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. “Online class makes it easy for instructors to capture their lectures. Students then have the ability to replay the lecture as many times as they like as they do homework and study for exams.”

While educators acknowledge that the pandemic will likely alter Oklahoma’s educational format permanently, the specifics aren’t clear as of yet, because online learning comes with a few catches.

“Online education can be a very positive learning environment, especially for advanced degrees,” says Mark Morvant, the vice provost of instruction and student success at OU. “But for a wide change in the state, availability to technology and high-speed internet will need to be ubiquitous.”

While the virus has put a spotlight on distance learning, Monica Roberts with Oklahoma State University stresses that “there have always been a large menu of online learning tools that were used in limited ways; now they are used heavily. Online teaching is not a cheap alternative; the tools are expensive and require training.”

Like in any crisis, disparities arose between students at different socioeconomic levels. 

“These circumstances have highlighted the stark differences between those with and without privilege in higher education,” says Jenel T. Cavazos, P.h.D., a psychology professor at OU. “Some students were able to continue being students with little interruption. Others were immediately thrown into chaotic home environments in which parents were sick or had lost employment, and the students needed to work or care for younger siblings. The same differences are very apparent in the lives of educators at all levels. I hope this pandemic alters education in the state by highlighting the value of teachers, especially those in the K-12 system who work tirelessly for our kids with so little security.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Education Special Education Services (OSDE-SES) provided special education students with multiple guidance resources during the spring semester of distance learning, and will continue that utilization for the upcoming school year, says Todd Loftin, the executive director of OSDE-SES. Additional guidance will follow throughout the year, he says.

The Role of an
Academic Advisor

A student’s college experience is enriched by academic advisors, who prepare students for success, help them stay on the path to a degree, and occasionally get them through the process at a faster rate, says Beverly Morris, the director of academic advising for OSU-Tulsa. 

Counseling takes many forms.

“We meet with students weekly to monthly throughout their first year and beyond, as requested,” says Mandy Moore, TU’s student success team executive director. “We assess students in eight areas that are critical to their success and degree completion. We coach them in the areas where we identify gaps, and then we partner with offices at TU to provide students with the resources they need to increase the likelihood of success. 

For example, if a student is not confident in their major or are still deciding, we partner with the Center for Career Development and Professional Engagement, where coaches assist students with major selection and potential career fit. We also refer the student to faculty in those majors, alumni in the field and collegiate academic advisors.”

Financial Aid in a Nutshell

Financial aid opportunity is out there, but won’t be found without actively seeking it. 

 “Many students don’t realize that TCC disburses over $60 million in financial aid each year and the TCC Foundation is constantly looking for opportunities to expand our scholarship offerings through private donations,” says Rachael Achivare Hill, the school’s director of admissions and prospective student services. “Some families assume that their student is not eligible for financial aid and don’t apply. You can’t receive any aid without applying!”

 The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step to apply for most forms of financial aid, including federal and state grants. It also opens the door for many scholarship opportunities, which are both need- and merit-based. Those filing FAFSA should do so each year starting Oct. 1, along with applying for other institutional and external scholarships.

John Feaver, president of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, says his school is constantly looking for new scholarship opportunities for students. 

 “This year, USAO established several new institutional scholarships available to students starting in the fall, while also expanding its existing competitive scholarships for high-performing students,” he says.

If you don’t know where to start, Achivare Hill says that “some of the best resources for learning about your financial aid opportunities are your high school counselor, college admission counselor and financial aid office. They can help you understand the process of applying for financial aid and point our scholarship opportunities in your community and through their institution.”

Online resources include studentaid.gov; okcollegestart.org; and your college’s financial aid and scholarships pages.

Student Advisory Council

Technology made it possible for a July meeting of the Oklahoma State Department of Education Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. This twice-a-year consult includes students across the state and Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister. All members of the council are nominated by district superintendents to discuss Oklahoma’s public education concerns. 

“At the February meeting, students focused on the roadblocks they face in transitioning from high school to a college/career path,” says Steffie Corcoran, ODE’s executive director of communications “They focused on distance learning and how racial and ethnic identity impact the student experience.”

The Importance of
International Students

Due to current administration restrictions on visas, international students – who usually pay full tuition – are less able to seek U.S. institutions for higher education. The state’s universities are proactive in attempting to get those students back to our state. 

“OU welcomes all international students and their families,” says Jeff Blahnik, executive director of the office of admissions and recruitment. “To assist, we have a team of international admissions counselors who are dedicated to recruiting international students to OU. The Office of Admissions and Recruitment is working very closely with incoming international students to ensure that we know when their visa appointments are, and we are trying to accommodate them in their individual circumstances.”  

Other schools in the state report similar efforts, including OSU. 

“International students enrich our campus experience in numerous ways, primarily by offering their perspectives and culture to our community,” says Monica Roberts, the school’s communications director. “OSU continues to recruit international students as we have in previous years, but the current restrictions have made an impact on the number of students enrolling from other countries.”

While students are excited to return to campus this month, the traditional educational format will be shifting to support increased health-care measures. Photo courtesy the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma

Educational Rankings
on the Rise

Oklahoma typically hasn’t had the best educational rankings nationwide, but in recent years, significant strides have been made to keep us competitive with other high-ranking states. 

“Measuring Oklahoma education from K-12 and beyond, including higher education, also tracks student outcomes, which is where we put a lot of focus,” says Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We have worked hard to increase funding, and the Oklahoma legislature committed over $600 million over the past two years. All of this has helped with improved academic outcomes. We’ve written brand new academic standards for math and reading, and have moved from 47th lowest in the country with a D rating to 17th nationwide at the highest, with an A rating. We have built goals and have a plan to achieve them, and this increase of ranking is a result of that work taking hold. We fully expect to see Oklahoma continue to rise.”  

The Role of an Educational Counselor

A student’s college experience is enriched by educational counselors, who prepare students for success, help them stay on the path to a degree, and occasionally get them through the educational process at a faster rate, says Beverly Morris, the director of academic advising for OSU-Tulsa. 

Counseling takes many forms.

“We meet with students weekly to monthly throughout their first year and beyond, as requested,” says Mandy Moore, TU’s student success team executive director. “We assess students in eight areas that are critical to their success and degree completion. We coach them in the areas where we identify gaps, and then we partner with offices at TU to provide students with the resources they need to increase the likelihood of success. For example, if a student is not confident in their major or are still deciding, we partner with the Center for Career Development and Professional Engagement, where coaches assist students with major selection and potential career fit. We also refer the student to faculty in those majors, alumni in the field and collegiate academic advisors.”