The pandemic is taking higher education back to school

Hi all!

Our semester is about to start here at Tufts University, which means time for reflection and thought about how the pandemic has and might change the way we approach higher education:

A New Kind of Fall Semester?

Mandatory vaccinations and continued indoor masking means that the Fall 2021 semester at colleges and universities might approach normal. But after 18 months of online and hybrid teaching, can we ever really get back to how things were before COVID-19? Do we even want to?

If there’s anything truly endemic to higher education, it is probably its grounding in tradition. Few other industries regularly dress up their staff in robes (for graduation), continue to support massive libraries of hard copy books or celebrate bizarre and antiquated rituals surrounding odd events like baccalaureate or investitures.

Personally, I love these idiosyncrasies of academia, but they do distinguish us in our collective reticence for adopting technological innovation in contrast to industry, government and other non-profit organizations.

Back in 2013, prognosticators and journalists the world over predicted that the old-fashioned ways of professors would finally fall as massive open online courses (MOOCs) began to proliferate. Finally, these experts predicted, colleges would embrace the internet and experience the kind of fundamental change that the book publishing industry, retail shopping, journalism and many others did in recent decades.

Since this MOOC scare, just about every college and university has adjusted to respond to the power of the internet to connect and convey, to teach and learn. But those changes, for the most part, happened on the edges. Elite colleges barely even got into the online business. My own school adopted a policy that undergraduates could not count more than two online courses towards a degree.

Pragmatism borne of emergency

Then, the pandemic struck and the movement to Zoom and online education has been wholesale and complete. The pragmatism borne of an emergency has placed millions of college students into online classes, both synchronous and asynchronous. The sky has not fallen. Early surveys and my own anecdotal experience have shown that students largely enjoy and many even prefer the online modalities, particularly synchronous and hybrid learning.

As a professor, I enjoy being in a classroom with my students, I enjoy lecturing, class discussions, group activities and field trips. Students will also undoubtedly continue to seek out the in-person college experience. But students will vote with their feet now that they have had a taste of online learning.

We face today an inflection point in higher education: we cannot return to the old model of purely classroom teaching with some modest accommodation towards online learning. The dire predictions from 2013 did not come true immediately, but they are now upon us. The lecture hall and age-old traditional in-person classroom experience will no longer be the acceptable norm.

With the vestiges of online stigma now erased, colleges will need to offer a diverse configuration of instructional modalities to the students who demand them.

No longer hemmed in by archaic formulae for teaching, the internet can now be fully embraced for its power and potential to enhance teaching. But that does not mean an end to in-person learning. It just means we will need to reconfigure the in-person elements of learning to maximize their benefits.

I have had the opportunity to run a low-residency graduate program at Tufts University and believe that the lessons we have learned in making those reconfigurations can be generalized more broadly throughout higher education.

For that program, low residency meant students began by attending an in-person, one-week intensive course on campus. During the week, we offered purposeful social programming, team-building exercises, orientation to the campus and its multitude of resources, introduction to faculty and a one-on-one meeting with an academic advisor.

After that week, students learned remotely for a year, taking synchronous courses through Webex (similar to Zoom) and through the use of a course management system and many emails, phone calls and WhatsApp messages.

Then, at the end of the year students came back to campus for another week to celebrate what they learned, deliver final oral presentations, discuss and debate the key themes of the program and participate in the rituals of academia with a graduation ceremony (robes only optional).

My students wanted a campus experience, but due to work and family obligations, travelling to school and spending hours sitting in a classroom (the pre-COVID norm) were not feasible.

Low-residency approach

As the higher education world moves ahead with largely in-person education this semester, let us remember that the in-person classroom experience is not for everyone and let us develop opportunities to better embrace this kind of low-residency approach.

Even for colleges where the campus experience is central, we can still have an active dorm life, dining halls, clubs and so forth.

In these environments, the life of the classroom can change to reflect the lessons from the pandemic and allow for more online engagement and allow professors to teach in creative and innovative ways that do not always require a physical presence in a classroom.

In some cases, this might mean a hybrid experience, with some students participating remotely while others are present in class. Other times it could require that students meet in-person for certain lab-based experiences but participate fully remotely for lectures and discussions.

The exact configuration – synchronous or asynchronous, in-person, hybrid or remote – will need to respond to the individual pedagogical needs of each class and each discipline but can no longer be defaulted to in-person mode after all that we have learned over the last 18 months.

For colleges, some centuries old, this shift will be difficult but necessary. An opportunity to truly enhance learning and deliver better on our common missions is upon us and students will not be satisfied with business as usual.

(An earlier version of this essay was published on University World News)

Have a great weekend!

Justin