On the surface, it is easy to focus on the constraints, pitfalls and financial burdens Higher education has faced since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As dean and chief academic officer at a liberal arts institution, I have found the fast-changing, ever-shifting landscape overwhelming. However, now that we just passed the one-year mark since the dramatic shift to remote instruction models in spring 2020, the situation in academic affairs is oddly calm. Faculty have continued doing what faculty at liberal arts institutions do—teaching and mentoring students. Last fall, I was in the trenches with faculty, teaching one in-person class on top of my administrative duties. From that vantage point, I was able to observe firsthand how our campus readiness preparations were working as well as how our adjustments in response to the pandemic might have a lasting impact.
It was a discussion in my Women and Politics course that inspired me to reflect more broadly on the current situation in higher education. My class was pondering what might prompt significant cultural change in relation to women and politics. The answer we landed on is that it is hard to embrace new ideas or reimagine our way of doing absent an exogenous shock such as the Great Depression, 9-11 or the end of the Cold War. While such shocks are jolting and even devastating, they can necessitate a change in one’s worldview and can bring positive change as a side effect. From that observation, we found ourselves talking about how COVID-19 has liberal arts institutions approaching education in ways that would have seemed impossible not six months prior. As we got off topic (in the best of ways), I was struck by the potential for positive change that the exogenous shock of COVID-19 has opened for higher education. I share a few potential positive long-term effects, the positive legacies if you will, in a hope to refocus us from what we can’t do to what the new landscape has made us more open to figuring out.
1. The value of community
While building community online poses challenges, virtual events have proven effective in engaging various university constituents. For example, we imagine that the pre-departure parent and student webinars our institution ran this summer will become a regular part of our orientation programming. Parents still will have questions about sending their students to college post-pandemic and such virtual forums proved effective for addressing concerns and disseminating information. They also helped build connections which can in turn mitigate the proverbial “summer melt” when students change their minds about enrolling in the institution. Indeed, the pandemic has taught us the value of creating virtual communities. We have had a variety of virtual alumni events including Netflix watch parties, book groups and virtual walking tours of international locations. Here, technology helps maintain and amplify existing connections. Meetings of the Board of Trustees as well as fundraising events also have been online and while in-person gatherings might still be preferable technology does provide a way to include members of community who live far away or are unable to travel.
2. Our common values
As dean and chief academic officer, I have always said we can never go wrong if we put students first in our decision-making processes. While the administration and faculty often have different approaches and priorities, a mission and values focused on student learning binds us together. At times, we lose sight of this common goal. The pandemic has brought our common values into stark relief, something I hope we are able to hold onto once we enter the “after times” post-pandemic. In particular, the pandemic has highlighted the need for both flexibility and empathy to foster student success. As part of our campus’s commitment to student success, we engaged with the ideas from Cia Verschelden’s Bandwidth Recovery two years ago in an attempt to build a greater understanding of the limited bandwidth that our students of color might have given the effects of institutional racism. The pandemic has amplified these effects and we have seen bandwidth constraints expand. These developments have created the need for faculty to distill the most important elements in their classes and commit to student proficiency in these areas. This distillation combined with flexibility and empathy, I would argue, promotes student success and is something that I hope our faculty will commit to carrying forward post-pandemic.
3. Technology, technology and more technology
Nothing like a crisis to convince instructors whose identity is based on effective teaching to learn how to use technology. Very few faculty I know had used Zoom, GoogleMeet or any other video conferencing tool prior to the pandemic. Sharing screens, breakout rooms and polling are now regular tools for remote instruction and while we hope to return to in-person learning, these types of tools will certainly further cross-campus collaborations. Indeed, our classes have been enriched by contracting several virtual guest speakers, something immensely easier to coordinate without the need for travel to campus. Similarly, the Associated Colleges of the South consortium has organized frequent meetings for administrators and provided faculty development programming for its member institutions’ faculty. These types of virtual collaborations will continue and flourish. Meanwhile, faculty have embraced annotation tools, learning games and whiteboarding technology. Given that our students have been digital natives for years, it is nice that the pandemic gave many faculty (and administrators) an incentive to catch up and ultimately embrace so many new technology resources.
4. The value of learning management systems
With the pandemic, clear, consistent, well-organized communication has become paramount. Learning management systems (LMS), software tools that provide organization and structure for course delivery, serve this function. I had shifted to Moodle, our institution’s LMS, at least seven years ago, but I, like many of our faculty, had never dug too deeply into its functionality. Now my syllabus, assignments, readings, discussion questions and email announcements are all posted on Moodle. Most significantly from a student success perspective, it is all at the students’ fingertips, including their grades. Our Center for Teaching, Learning and Scholarship has seen record interest in Moodle faculty development. It also has disseminated screen shots of Moodle exemplars across disciplines to illustrate how content is organized and presented and to promote greater consistency within and across disciplines. I anticipate that faculty will continue to innovate in these and other areas post-pandemic.
5. A paperless future
While printing has diminished over time with more open source materials, many of us educated in a different time could not envision students annotating sources online, let alone turning in papers and exams electronically. Nor could we faculty imagine grading them without printing. Because we initially thought the virus survived for a long period on surfaces, we figured out solutions. I did not hand out one piece of paper last semester, an environmentally friendly endpoint I would have never gotten to without the “shock” of the coronavirus.
6. How remote instruction can be a value-add for liberal arts institutions in some situations
While I do not anticipate liberal arts institutions will embrace remote instruction on a large scale after the pandemic, there are some situations where remote instruction could make sense. Our institution has already submitted a proposal to our accreditation agency to offer summer school courses remotely. Because we are a residential liberal arts college, many of our students return home for the summer to work or even take courses at their local community colleges while living at home rent-free. We can now provide students an option to learn at our institution at home. We had a record number of students enroll for remote summer school in 2020 suggesting that taking away the need to pay room and board could increase interest in summer instruction. Our faculty might embrace this option, especially since transfer credit is more difficult to assess.
7. Higher education can change
Outside critics often note that higher education is slow to change. Indeed, structures such as tenure and shared governance make rapid change difficult. As a political scientist, though, I would note that governments are also quite slow to change. That is, governments are often path dependent, influenced and even constrained by past legacies and normal operating procedures. As I discussed with my students, exogenous shocks like war, recessions or other crises are needed to prompt change. The pandemic is such an exogenous shock for a whole variety of institutions. The pandemic forced a nimbleness on higher education and higher education responded. It has not been completely smooth, and there are probably more aftershocks before we revert to a more stable path. Still, there have been positive developments in the space opened up and even necessitated by the shock—this is something to embrace and even celebrate. I look forward to the new path this pandemic has already set us on.
Verschelden, Cia. 2017. Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism and Social Marginalization. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.