The third theme that has emerged for us in thinking about the future of higher education through the lens of the 15 Fall Scenarios framework has to do with learning. What COVID-19 has helped to clarify is that among all the activities in which colleges and universities engage, learning is at the very core. This is a theme that we explored at length in our book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, and which we think the emergency pivot to remote education has brought sharply into focus.
Claiming that learning is central to the mission of colleges and universities might sound, on initial hearing, us stating the obvious. Of course learning is what colleges and universities are all about. Who could argue with that? The reality is that while a focus on learning was never absent from every school, its centrality and prominence can vary significantly across institutions. While many colleges and universities hold dear to the mission to advance student learning, others tend to give it less weight (usually than research) in promotion and tenure.
Institutions of higher learning also have missions beyond that of advancing learning. These missions include the creation of knowledge, service to communities, accomplishments in athletics, and others. During the first months of COVID-19, the diversity of institutional missions were necessarily circumscribed, with most of the energy and resources of schools shifting to teaching and learning. The pandemic has catalyzed an all-hands-on-deck approach, with various parts of often decentralized organizations working together to ensure academic continuity in the form of remote learning.
This is not to argue that learning improved uniformly during the pandemic. The speed and the scale that schools needed to move from residential to remote education necessitated a more modest set of goals. In the emergency, keeping classes going was more important than advancing the state of the art of student learning. That said, many faculty took the opportunity to adapt to the new remote reality in ways that few could have predicted. The learning that went on in remote environments was complex, challenging, and exhausting for all involved, faculty and students alike. It required more time, more effort, and constant adjustments. As we’ve talked to colleagues across the country, we’ve heard stories of success and of challenge. The investment of effort required to teach remotely well may be one of the lasting lessons of this time.
To support this work, many campuses threw resources into the process of developing and running courses, and of supporting students and faculty, than was customarily the case. Across the higher education ecosystem teams that pre-COVID-19 were in charge of online education, instructional design, educational technologies, educator development, and learning innovation were now placed at the center of academic continuity efforts. Campus units that had worked on areas related to digital learning now found themselves at the center of institutional strategies for instructional resilience. Instructional designers and educational developers were more and more acknowledged as a necessity. Expertise in online education that may have resided in individual schools or programs, outside of the core residential undergraduate experience, was now in high demand across the campus. Non-faculty educational staff, and the units that they work in such as centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) and academic computing groups, came to be viewed as essential for the continuity of the institution.
How much this rebalancing of priorities towards the educational mission will remain once the pandemic passes? As we move forward, the ability to rapidly shift between residential and online instruction may begin to be understood as a core competency. At many schools, faculty from across many different types of institutions have developed different working relationships with CTLs and academic computing units, just as staff who may previously have been one step removed from the teaching and learning enterprise were trained in the basic principles of course development and instructional design. Professors with interest or experience in online learning were often trained and deployed as peer mentors. All of this hard-won pedagogical experience and newly formed learning expertise will hopefully point to the possibility of greater investment in innovations in teaching and learning well after the pandemic subsides.
Perhaps more importantly, coronavirus has helped make visible the challenges of many of our students across the country. One effect has been the growing spread of the adoption of the idea of caring for the whole person (cura personalis, in the Jesuit tradition) across higher education and throughout all aspects of the campuses. An under-appreciated aspect of teaching and learning during COVID-19 is the degree to which instructors and staff also filled in as coaches and mentors. Learning is very difficult in the best of times, and incredibly difficult when our students are anxious, stressed, and uncertain—conditions that were synonymous with life during the pandemic.
Throughout all this, faculty and staff have shown incredible care for their students, even while they have had to manage the unique circumstances of their own lives during the pandemic. Going forward, the experience of teaching under COVID-19 will likely cause many faculty to be more attuned and aware of the non-academic challenges that their students face. An orientation towards a teaching approach that explicitly emphasizes the caring for and well-being of learners may outlive the pandemic. This altered relationship between professors and students may ultimately be the true teaching and learning legacy of COVID-19.