Image: OISE Education Commons

Johnson, N., Seaman, J. and Veletsianos, G. (2021) Teaching during a pandemic: Spring Transition, Fall Continuation, Winter Evaluation Bay View Analytics: Oakland CA, March 22, pp. 53

This is the nineteenth in a growing series on Research reports on Covid-19 and emergency remote learning/online learning. This one is unusual as it combines three Pulse reports conducted in April, August, and December, and looks at changes in higher education teaching in the USA as the pandemic raged through 2020. This report examines the nature and magnitude of these changes in teaching and learning, from faculty and academic administrators’ points of view.

Declaration of interest

All three authors are close colleagues. We all are involved with the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA). However, I was in no way directly or even indirectly involved in this study. 

Who did the study?

Good question. Funding came mainly from Cengage but the study is a result of a partnership of:

These organizations came together to help identify and focus the resources needed to support educators and institutions in addressing teaching challenges during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.


To examine the nature and magnitude of the changes in teaching and learning over the course of the pandemic from faculty and academic administrators’ points of view.

The snapshots addressed the following questions:

  • What situations were faculty and administrators facing?
  • How did faculty adapt the processes and techniques used for teaching?
  • What resources did faculty and administrators think they needed to be successful, and did they have access to these resources?
  • What did faculty and administrators expect the next steps to be as the pandemic continued?
  • What did faculty experiences teach them about teaching and learning?
  • Which new processes and techniques, if any, did faculty and administrators believe would continue post-pandemic?


Information for this report comes from three surveys of higher education administrators and teaching faculty in the USA. Participants responded voluntarily to emails and secondary announcements sent to representative samples of higher education teaching faculty and academic administrators in US higher education institutions:

  • the first survey collected data from April 6 through April 19, 2020, with 897 participants from 672 institutions and 45 states
  • the second collected data between August 4 and August 14, 2020, with 887 participants from 597 institutions and 45 states
  • the third collected data between December 2 and December 4, 2020, with 1,708 participants from 1,204 institutions.

The participants were spread across different sectors as follows in the three surveys:

  • 47%-57% public universities
  • 32%-36% private universities
  • 11%-17% two-year institutions.

The overall split between the number of instructors and administrators is not given. The results represent the personal views and perceptions of faculty and administrators.

It should also be noted that the survey used a mix of quantitative and qualitative analyses. In this study, the qualitative answers to open-ended questions were examined in detail by the three authors and constitute an important and influential part of the findings. At the same time, this requires substantial selection, analysis, and interpretation from the researchers.  

Main results

Once again, these are the results that most interested me. For the full results, please read the report itself.

After nine months

  • 19.6 million total students in U.S. higher education, supported by 1.5 million faculty members, and 2 million other staff members, were all impacted by transitions to remote or alternative forms of teaching and learning.
  • Higher education institutions, and the faculty and administrators within them, nevertheless proved to be highly agile, adaptable, and resilient when faced with numerous challenges between March and December 2020.
  • Attitudes toward teaching online, which had been relatively stagnant since the turn of the century, became markedly more positive over the past year.
  • Faculty expressed considerable concern in the spring about how they would teach the following fall. By the end of the summer, that attitude had turned to cautious optimism, with most faculty reporting that they felt prepared for the semester ahead.
  • Experience with online instruction resulted in some faculty coming to new understandings and appreciations of online learning, and second, some faculty, due to the transition to online learning, came to receive worthwhile professional development that can support them and their students in any modality.
  • More faculty are now familiar with incorporating video, digital materials, and OER into their teaching. Also, more institutions are now supporting the use of such tools. Future in-person offerings will likely make greater use of various technologies to support instruction and learning.
  • COVID-19 laid bare the inequities that exist in higher education institutions. These inequities stem from economic, class, racial, gender, and geographic issues, impacting student access and success. The impacts are manifested in many ways, including unequal access to tools and technologies. Some students had very little space and privacy for studying outside the campus.
  • Flexibility is a design feature that will become increasingly relevant in post-pandemic education, from students having the flexibility to access course materials digitally, to faculty having the flexibility to access professional development asynchronously.

What happened in April, 2020

  • Almost all institutions (97%) moving classes online in April 2020 had to call on faculty with no previous online teaching experience.
  • One-half (50%) of the institutions could rely on at least some faculty with online teaching experience.
  • A majority of faculty (56%) who moved courses online were using teaching methods that they had never used before.
  • Virtually all higher education institutions employed emergency remote teaching to complete the term. Only 11% of institutions reported that they did not move any face-to-face courses online.
  • Faculty had to make multiple adjustments to their courses. Roughly one-half reduced the amount of work they expected students to complete, and about one-third lowered their expectations for the quality of the work they required.
  • The majority of faculty indicated that they would like more information and training on how to best support remote students, a webinar for students on how to succeed in online courses, greater access to online digital materials, and best practices on working and teaching from home.

What had happened by August

  • A majority of institutions provided faculty with multiple opportunities for professional development related to teaching online in advance of the fall semester.
  • Faculty reported feeling prepared and ready to deliver their courses online in the fall, and administrators agreed to an even greater extent that faculty were prepared.
  • All professional development offerings were perceived as being effective by faculty, with webinars being the most common offering and being rated as most effective.
  • Student equity remained a concern among faculty and administrators.
  • Email was the predominant technology used by faculty to communicate with students, followed by one-to-one video conferencing.

Taking stock in December

  • Most faculty reported changes to their teaching practices compared to teaching prior to the pandemic, and nearly all expect to incorporate these changes to some extent after the pandemic.
  • Faculty were mainly satisfied with student learning during the fall term.
  • Faculty expect that teaching will continue to be different following the pandemic.
  • Video-based technologies were heavily used by faculty, and faculty anticipate continued use of video-based technologies post-pandemic.
  • Faculty and administrators feel more optimistic about using digital materials.
  • Following the fall semester, most faculty perceived the professional development they received related to teaching online to meet their needs.
  • Administrators were more critical than faculty when asked to assess their institution’s ability to meet the professional development needs of faculty.

Authors’ conclusion

The experiences of 2020 will likely have far-reaching impacts on higher education. The post-pandemic institution and classroom may not immediately look or function in radically different ways. Still, pandemic-driven effects will reach far, impacting some institutions and some instructional activities more than others.

My comments

I haven’t seen a longitudinal study before of this kind on the impact of Covid-19. It is interesting to see how institutions, faculty and administrators changed and adapted over time.

It is a pity though that we don’t have students’ perspectives on this, but that would need another study. Also, I still haven’t seen any studies on the impact on learning of such changes. Nearly one year into the pandemic, we need to be able to start measuring this.

However, this report has given me a much broader picture of the impact of Covid-19 on higher education, at least in the USA, and I would be surprised if the picture was very different in Canada.

Certainly I see higher education as being capable of much more flexibility than I had seen before Covid-19. The pandemic also appears to have resulted in the largest professional development push on university and college teaching in history. Lastly, the use of technology in teaching will almost certainly get a boost as a result. So it appears that at least something good is coming out of this awful disease. It is just a pity we needed a pandemic to force these much needed changes.


  1. Tony An excellent article, as we look at 2021 going this year also online courses are important & needless to say effective medium to reach the students.


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