Pandemic Prophecies: Q&A with LSU’s Sasha Thackaberry

Pandemic Prophecies: Q&A with LSU’s Sasha Thackaberry


Editor’s note: The Foundation’s magazine, Currents, includes a cover story in which experts offer ideas and predict the future after the pandemic. This piece is part of the cover story, which you can read in its entirety at this link.

By Sara Bongiorni
We asked Alexandera “Sasha” Thackaberry, VP of LSU online and continuing education, to provide her take on potential lasting impacts of the emergency switch to online learning at LSU and universities across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Currents: Do you expect the virus outbreak will speed a shift to online learning at LSU?

Alexandera “Sasha” Thackaberry
Alexandera “Sasha” Thackaberry

Sasha Thackaberry: It’s a little early to tell. This transition to remote teaching and learning is a temporary and unexpected change to ensure progress for traditional LSU students. Yet we have seen significant growth of online enrollment in the past 12 to18 months, and we expect that to continue as we launch new programs.

What is the extent of online education at LSU?

We have online offerings from single courses to MicroCreds in technology fields, project management and leadership.

We offer more than 65 credentials fully online, including undergraduate degrees through LSU A&M in Baton Rouge as well as through LSU Alexandria and LSU Eunice. We also have new online graduate degrees offered by LSU A&M and LSU Shreveport.

Our team is also working closely with faculty across the LSU campuses to ensure our programs best prepare students for high-demand job fields, including health care, technology and analytics.

Was there a plan to expand online learning prior to the coronavirus pandemic—and can you tell us about it?

Expanding online options for all students, particularly non-traditional students, has been a strategic initiative of the university for two years.

Our goal is to have as many online students as face-to-face students here in Baton Rouge. We are building flexible, stackable learning opportunities for students. They can come for a short course or a single training and continue that journey toward their degree. We also offer innovative options for individuals looking to change careers or advance in their current career by enabling them to gain credit for prior industry certifications or military training.

How might the online expansion plan change in light of the current situation?

Certain shifts will persist in our new normal. Many folks in service industries will want to consider new fields and may for the first time have the opportunity to do so. We anticipate additional interest in our short-form training online, like our MicroCreds in cloud computing and other technology and project management skill sets.

If anything, we may see an acceleration in the execution of this strategy, as having a taste of online learning may prompt more interest from faculty and students. But it’s important to remember that our temporary transition to remote teaching and learning is different from having an intentional online learning experience that is designed and planned in advance and selected by students and faculty.

How likely is it—if at all—that online learning could become the preferred option for college?

Physical campuses and in-person classes aren’t going anywhere. For students ages 18 to 22, college will always have a coming-of-age component.

For students who are older and have jobs and families, however, in-person college or training often just doesn’t fit into their lives. Universities and colleges around the nation have embraced online programs as a way to serve these students.

Are you seeing people from other parts of the U.S. become LSU online students?

We see folks from across the nation who want to take advantage of a high-quality LSU education from afar. Many of our students also started here in Louisiana and their lives have since taken them across the country.

What about access and fairness? Remote learning seems to open up access to education in one sense, yet there is also the reality that many students do not have Internet access and a laptop. How do you balance these concerns?

These are legitimate concerns. There is also a critical difference between what is happening now with a quick pivot to remote learning and a designed online-learning experience. Students and faculty didn’t self-select into online education. It became a necessity halfway through the semester to ensure the continuity of learning.

We have done several things to ameliorate barriers, like providing guidance to faculty on using the lowest-tech online options possible.

Our learning platform, Moodle, is also designed responsively. Students can access it and download materials onto their phones for offline viewing. They can interact via online discussion forums. We also have Zoom for the entire institution, which is web-conferencing technology. It has a fantastic smartphone app, so students can interact in real-time with their professors and classmates from their phones.

Would a shift of resources into online education expand access to higher education generally? In other words, would more people globally get a shot at a college education?

While again, it’s hard to say, here I would lean towards “no.” There will likely be more interest because many folks have lost their jobs and need new skills to get new jobs. Certain credentials and degrees are a great way to do that. LSU has held a strong advantage during this transition because we have been investing in infrastructure for online degrees and courses for two years. Many institutions either have a mish-mash of resources or very few resources at all.

While there will be more exposure to the concept of online education, for most institutions this shift of resources is temporary, and once in-person education is back to normal, it is likely those resources will again be redirected to on-campus students.

Can the online experience be as good as the face-to-face experience?

It can indeed be preferable to some types of people and personalities, but it can also can be a poor experience if it is not done well. Face-to-face learning experiences range from the excellent to the not-so-great. The same

is true for online.

What’s lacking?

One of the most often cited challenges is the creation of community in online environments. But this is rapidly changing for several reasons.

First, as the use of instructional design becomes more common in higher education, there’s an effort to design into the learning experience student-to-student engagement that is meaningful and authentic.

Second, the technology for learning and teaching online is improving.

Third, people are used to interacting online now. As a society, we’re getting better at it. A full 20% of marriages start online, so online experiences can indeed be “engaging.”

What areas of academic study are best suited to online?

The best suited programs are business, IT, the humanities and social sciences. We have had great success with everything from engineering degrees like our award-winning construction management program to our social work program that includes clinical experiences.

What areas pose the biggest challenges?

Two areas that are hard to do online are science labs and performing arts.

There are some great options for virtual science labs, but we were not in a position to test and implement these in short order for the recent transition to remote teaching. That is a possibility in the future, however.

I have a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in dance performance. There are intangibles that you cannot get online in dance. While you could teach online dance history or maybe choreography, there are things like spatial awareness and partnering that you simply cannot do from a distance.

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