Editor’s Note: In 2020, there have been a lot of unanswered questions about life and living, so in our partnership with the Chemical Engineering Service Learning Class at Tulane University, taught by Dr. Julie Albert, we made it our aim to find questions we could answer. The series is called “Dear Big Chem-EZ” (think “Dear Abbey” but with less about “Why does my partner ignore me?” and more about “Can I actually drink my tap water?” and “What’s that smell outside my house?”).
You can look for new pieces on the second Wednesday of every month. Up first, we have a look at how Covid-19 has affected education at Tulane, and how it will possibly affect the future of education. If you have questions you’d like answered, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Big Chem-EZ, due to health concerns from Coronavirus, Tulane University has been forced to adapt to accommodate their students and some faculty fully remotely. Could COVID-19 be the event that causes fully remote upper level engineering college courses to be permanently offered at Tulane and other universities around the country?
Walking down the streets of New Orleans, everything is different. In place of the customary crowds of people on any given night are empty streets. Seeing a person wearing a mask is the new norm. COVID-19 guidelines seem to have been in place for so long that it seems strange to imagine an environment without social distancing. Due to this climate, academic institutions have been forced to adapt to keep their students safe.
Specifically, Tulane University has been affected by this pandemic. Tulane is a pricey private school that attracts a large number of its students not only with quality of education, but also with the unique nightlife experience that is the city of New Orleans. In the bizarre year that is 2020, students are only fully experiencing the former, but are they getting as much out of their education as in years past? Now, any class the institution offers can be taken fully remotely. This is a big change that could be a foreshadowing of college curriculums going forward. Before COVID-19, the very few online courses that Tulane offered were self-paced and most lacked professor-student interaction. As of this semester, students are able to log into class from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, joining a video call with a live stream of a professor who is trying to get accustomed to this challenging new teaching environment. Could this system be sustainable in the long run? The Chemical Engineering Education Journal is putting together a “Special Issue on Insights Gained While Teaching Chemistry in the Time of COVID-19”  that will be diving deeper into teaching in this time, and how effective it can be. In a society that is so incredibly enamored with technology, I wonder if it is only a matter of time before this fully remote option for a new way of learning becomes the new norm.
If this option was offered to students permanently, it could become possible to earn a Tulane degree from anywhere in the world. That could be very convenient, but would have its challenges. Could colleges provide students who are in engineering classes with heavy lab coursework find a suitable simulation in order to get what they need from hands on experience? The online setting for teaching engineering classes can be done. For example, The Arizona State University Undergraduate Engineering Program is ranked #39 in the nation, and they are ranked extremely highly in online engineering degrees, offering fully remote courses to students. Arizona State University is ahead of its time with engineering online learning, and their online engineering curriculum is thriving at this time. At Tulane, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Robin Forman said, “Tulane faculty and students have responded brilliantly to the current crisis, and the transition to the virtual format has been very successful, with many faculty and students reporting that the experience is much better than they had ever expected.” The main problems that have been reported have been due to Internet issues and audio from computers during Zoom video sessions, but the Tulane Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching, the Innovative-learning Center, and Tulane Information Technology are actively combating these issues. 
Next, it must be taken into account how this online learning option could change the future cost of tuition for college students. It is highly unlikely that people would be fine with paying the same amount for online learning as fully in person classes. This semester at Tulane, small fees (for example, the rec center fee) have been waived, but the cost of tuition itself has remained the same. If colleges were to drop tuition for remote students, so many students could have a chance to get an education that they could not afford in the past, which would be a major positive. At the same time, the argument could be made that colleges may not be able to afford to offer the same product for their students if their revenue from tuition was suppressed. In addition to colleges facing this issue, K-12 schools are also adapting to the circumstances given to them. These schools do not have near the resources of college institutions, as many are public schools that rely on government funding to survive as it is.
Whether we like it or not, looking back in 5-10 years, this pandemic could be seen as a fundamental change to the education system, where it was realized that not all learning needs to be done in person. As is with any technological change, there are going to be naysayers and obstacles to overcome, but online learning could be an affordable and efficient option for future generations to come.
 Holme, Thomas A. “Journal of Chemical Education Call for Papers: Special Issue on Insights Gained While Teaching Chemistry in the Time of COVID-19.” Journal of Chemical Education, 2020, pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00378.
 Serrano, Alicia. “Tulane Transitions to Online Classes with Great Results.” Tulane News, 25 Mar. 2020, news.tulane.edu/news/tulane-transitions-online-classes-great-results.
 Travis, Mary Ann. “Tulane Students Zoom in to Reconnect.” Tulane News, 28 Apr. 2020, news.tulane.edu/news/tulane-students-zoom-reconnect.