In 1920, T.S. Eliot memorably wrote: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Academic innovators should only steal from the best.
Times of crisis ought to inspire creativity, critical reflection, transformation, and renewal.
When we look back on the pandemic, we will see that it produced a raft of innovations that should inform future practice – and that will help make higher education what it aspires to: A catalyst for equality and social mobility.
During the pandemic, a number of colleges and universities responded to the crisis with extraordinary boldness: Not simply shifting courses online, but, rather, radically rethinking their admissions practices, their curriculum, and the student experience.
What have these innovators done?
1. These institutions divided the Fall and Spring semesters into two parts, allowing students to take immersive courses or semester long courses.
Dividing the semester isn’t a wholly new idea. Within the City University of New York system, Guttman, Kingsborough, and LaGuardia Community Colleges offer 12 and 6 week terms in the Fall and Spring. Students take fewer, but more intensive courses in the 12-week parts, and if they failed a course, they can make it up in the following 6-week part, or take something else. This was attractive to faculty because they did not work all four terms.
In the midst of the pandemic, Barnard and Columbia adopted a somewhat similar approach, consisting of two 7-week Fall terms and 7-week Spring terms.
Juggling five online courses simultaneously strikes me as unreasonable. For non-traditional students who must balance schoolwork with jobs and family responsibilities, the traditional model can be overwhelming. It’s time to consider alternatives.
Shorter, more intensive and immersive courses are not only more compatible with the realities of online learning, they also can contribute to a greater depth of engagement in a course’s subject matter. Such courses work during the summer. Why not during the regular semesters?
2. These colleges and universities created shared academic experiences.
Big problem courses, which tackle a significant societal challenge from multi-disciplinary perspectives, offer one way to connect students and faculty in a common intellectual endeavor. Possible topics are obvious: The pandemic, racial justice, climate change and sustainability, politics in a polarized society, or the experience of “otherness” and difference.
The most innovative of these shared courses incorporate an experiential or service dimension in which students do something, for example, conduct interviews or surveys, engage in field research, or respond to a local problem.
3. These institutions offered courses that speak to this historic moment.
These include classes that address criminal justice reform, disaster management, environmental and climate change and sustainability, or monuments and memorials, the depiction of historical figures and events in the public sphere and the aesthetic responses to historical traumas. But faculty might also offer experiential learning opportunities: to document the pandemic, meet with social entrepreneurs, and engage in public service and social impact projects.
4. These institutions delivered robust co-curricular experiences.
Examples include skills-building workshops, leadership training, financial literacy programming, virtual field trips, digital meet-and-greets and networking opportunities with alumni, employers, and others, as well as online innovation institutes (offering financial, legal, and technological coaching).
5. These institutions made Summer 2020 as accessible as possible.
As a way to keep students on track to graduation, many institutions made Summer 2020 courses free or extremely cheap. Why not make summer a more integral part of the undergraduate experience, and begin it earlier, so that students can still participate in internships or take part in summer jobs.
How might these imaginative responses to the pandemic help to shape our thinking about the post-pandemic future of higher education?
The pandemic has underscored the importance of equity, safety, flexibility, and responsiveness. It awakened many institutions to their students’ vulnerabilities and needs. It also underscored the importance of belonging, connection, and community.
Here are ways we can build on these insights.
1. Let’s make our education more flexible.
One way to ease work, family, and school conflicts is to adopt a structured schedule that divides the day into consistent time blocks. These typically consist of a morning, an afternoon, an evening, and, sometimes, a weekend block, allow a student to plan their work schedule.
Another way is to adopt a highly flexible course delivery model that makes essential courses available in a variety of modalities. Many of today’s extraordinarily diverse post-traditional students would benefit from the ability to take courses in multiple ways, whether asynchronous or synchronous online, hybrid, self-paced, low-residency, in-person, or in an emporium approach.
Perhaps the most exciting innovation would be to consider offering more modularized courses and intensive, immersive classes. This would not be the Colorado or Cornell College model of one-course-at-a-time – but it would give students more of an opportunity to focus on a smaller number of subjects at any one time, while still being able to study a broad spectrum of topics with a wide range of professors.
2. Let’s implement common academic experiences.
To foster community and a sense of belonging, we need to provide students with more common experiences. There are many ways to do this. We might place students in a learning community or a Meta Major or a cohort organized around a common theme, interest, problem, or broad career goal. Or we might engage large numbers of students in a “big problems” course or a first year research experience.
The pandemic underscored the human need for connection. Let’s not allow our students to feel isolated, disconnected, or alone.
3. Let’s encourage faculty to offer courses that are relevant and timely.
There is no reason why our curriculum shouldn’t be responsive to our times. Let’s offer more courses that place current events, developments, or controversies in a fresh academic perspective. Students are most likely to be engaged and motivated when the subject that they study strikes them as relevant.
We might also consider scaling these timely courses and giving them a community service or experiential learning dimension. These courses offer a chance to create communities of learning and of practice.
4. Let’s make Summer an integral part of the academic year.
One way to help students graduate quicker and to reduce the actual and opportunity costs of higher education is to make Summer (and accelerated intersession courses) a normal part of the student experience. For a variety of reasons, fewer students now hold summer jobs; let make sure that their summer is as productive as possible. We might consider starting the summer term earlier to make sure that it’s compatible with summer internships and traditional study abroad or its more recent variant: faculty-led overseas research trips.
5. Let’s make co-curricular activities and experiential learning bigger parts of the undergraduate experience.
Let’s help our students build more career-relevant connections, with alumni or potential employers or mentors, and give them more opportunities to undertake virtual internships and complete digital projects, which students can include in an electronic portfolio. Intermediaries like Riipen and EduSourced can help campuses develop identify virtual internships and digital projects that can be integrated into individual classes.
6. Let’s significantly strengthen our systems of student support.
Enhancing support is not simply a matter of placing a writing center or a math or science learning center online. It’s about creating an integrated system of academic, personal, and technical support that can identify barriers to student success, respond proactively to early signs of trouble, and reach out electronically or in person with emergency aid, nudges, coaching, or more intrusive interventions when necessary.
To overcome the academic and non-academic barriers to student success, a coordinated system of support must bring together academic advising, career and pre-professional counseling, disabilities services, financial aid, academic tutoring and other learning support services. This support network must also be in close communication with provosts, deans, department chairs, and individual faculty members to address systemic problems, including achievement and equity gaps in programs and specific courses or sections.
We might also learn from the major online providers, who have put in place coaches and mentors to accompany students through their program of study and, at their best, are highly responsive to academic and personal problems that students encounter. Expanded use of well-trained peer mentors offers a cost-efficient way to scale services.
8. Let’s expand opportunities for students to enhance their career-readiness.
In his most recent Gap Letter, Ryan Craig, University Venture’s managing director, calls on colleges and universities to get serious about equipping students with the digital skills that will enhance their employability. These include both “hard” skills, like training in project management, research methods, or spreadsheets, and “soft” skills, like active listening and conflict resolution.
Craig also urges our institutions to aggressively pursue those whom 4-year institutions, in the past, served poorly or not at all, especially those who were previous employed in the service sector, who desperately need inexpensive, fast pathways to skills-based certificates and professional certifications.
In addition, Craig advises post-secondary institutions to adopt a more proactive approach to career services, including partnerships with business service companies and staffing firms.
All solid advice.
Let’s not let the past define our future. In the wake of the pandemic, campuses, more than ever, will need to demonstrate their value proposition. Pace-setting institutions are already showing the way. Let’s follow their example.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.