As the pandemic continues to play out in the United States and countries around the world, institutions of higher education are continuing to innovate and adapt. It is not certain when universities will be able to go back to having their entire student, faculty, and staff population back on campus. Even when everyone is allowed back on campus, we are not sure what precautions will need to be taken and what percentage of students, faculty, and staff can be on campus at one time. Whatever the future holds, we have learned a few lessons that will permanently change the landscape of higher education in the U.S.
In person, on campus presence is not always necessary
Being in the virtual world, we have learned that things can be accomplished faster and more efficiently through virtual means than face to face. Many of the services that required students to be on campus, such as financial aid, change of major, and academic advising, can now be provided online. Students come to campus for three major reasons.
The academic experience, including attending class and interacting with faculty and classmates; administrative tasks, including advising, registration, financial aid, etc.; and the social experience, including attending clubs and student engagement activities. What students enjoy most and what has the most impact are the interactive aspects of their academic and social experiences. The mundane administrative activities can be permanently moved to a virtual environment.
Students are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for
Students have adjusted remarkably well to the new learning environment. While most students are not particularly thrilled with the isolation and lack of in person social interactions, they love being able to get their administrative chores done online in a more efficient and timely manner. This gives institutions an opportunity to explore what services and instruction need to be offered in person and what can be offered more effectively in a virtual format. Students who were born into the Information Age are self-sufficient. Just as video game developers keep challenging and improving the technological proficiency of this generation’s youth, higher education institutions should challenge and expect more from their students.
Faculty and staff have discovered more ways of ensuring student success
As faculty and staff interact with students in the virtual environment, they are discovering what works and what does not work for students. For example, students are more engaged with teamwork and problem solving in Zoom sessions rather than listening to a lecture by their professor. When professors move students into Zoom breakout rooms to interact in smaller groups and discuss real world applications related to the lecture, they are learning that students are learning well and doing better in their courses. Staff in offices that provide services to students are discovering that the bureaucracy and red tape that we put our students through to get administrative tasks done are unnecessary, and students often prefer interacting with automated chatbots to having to meet with a staff member in person.
If higher education institutions don’t use this time to reinvent the way they operate, they may just return to their old ways once things return to normal and reverse the progress that has been made during these difficult months. The lessons learned due to the pandemic can and should be used for a transformation of higher education that is long overdue.