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If the past nine months have shown us anything, it’s that change can happen rapidly in higher ed. This is not always a good thing even if at times it proves necessary. In order for colleges and universities to thrive after the pandemic, we think it’ll be crucial for them to see the lessons of the past nine months (and near future) as long-term investments in deliberate, purposeful change.

Calls for radical, nonincremental and fundamental change in higher education are nothing new. The concept of disruptive innovation that drove much of the MOOC hysteria in 2012 and 2013 argued for rapid, radical change to avoid being overtaken by disruptive start-ups.

Still, change in response to exogenous factors and external trends is perhaps the one constant that is shared across the postsecondary ecosystem. The difference today, as we plan for the post-pandemic period, is the necessity with which these changes must occur.

The events of 2020 brought into focus many of the existential risks for each college and university, and we think it’s crucial that the steps that colleges and universities needed to take to maintain academic continuity during the pandemic not be thought of only as temporary responses to an emergent public health crisis. Instead, we think many of these changes will need to be considered permanent transformations made in recognition of a fast-approaching future.

One way of thinking about these changes is to shift the language from change to adaptation. Much of the successes that happened in the fall occurred when faculty thoughtfully and purposefully adapted their courses to the new remote mode. Instead of the rapid translation to emergency remote teaching, this adaptation required understanding the challenges and limitations of remote learning, and working to take advantage of these affordances.

Change in higher education post-COVID will likely need to follow a similar path: one of adaptation rather than translation or radical reinvention. In other words, instead of simply thinking our job is to now translate higher education to the new reality of remote education, whatever that might mean, we need to think carefully about how we adapt to the affordances of digital learning while maintaining the fundamental and foundational strengths of the in-person experience.

What might that adaptation look like?

Part of the answer should be found in some of the lessons learned over the past nine months. COVID-19 revealed many things about the strengths and challenges of higher education. We think three are worth highlighting here, though there are many others.

The first is that while higher education does many things, the essential core of every college and university is teaching and learning. The coronavirus tsunami that crashed into higher education in 2020 washed away almost every non-teaching and learning activity. Faculty activities such as research and committee work were placed on the back burner, as pivoting to remote instruction required everyone’s full time and attention.

Social and cultural activities on campuses were mostly put on hiatus. Campus residential housing and other student life operations were greatly curtailed. While some varsity sports continued at some schools, teams played without students (or anyone else) in attendance. Almost everything in higher education either stopped or was circumscribed in 2020, save teaching and learning. Classes kept going. Courses were started and completed. Credits were earned. COVID-19 has taught us that the one thing that colleges and universities do that cannot be interrupted or sacrificed is teaching and learning.

The second is also about teaching and learning. In Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, we argued that the most important (and least recognized) postsecondary story of the last decade has been a growing but inconsistent shift toward an institutional focus on aligning organizational structures to advance student learning. In that book, we suggested that how the structure of universities change in response to research on how individuals learn deserves its own academic discipline (or interdisciplinary field).

Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education came out at the start of 2020, only months before COVID-19 caused everything to change. What we have come to understand is that the scope and intensity of institutional changes to advance learning that we documented in our first book will be inadequate (at least on its own) to the challenges facing colleges and universities post-pandemic. Our thinking on the direction of organizational investments has not shifted, but the scope and intensity in which these investments must be made have. Where prior to 2020, schools perhaps had some time to align instructional methods to the research on learning, the need is now much more apparent.

The third challenge is that most (maybe all) colleges and universities were not ready for the first two. At most schools, advancing teaching and learning is a priority among many other priorities. Investments in developing institutionwide infrastructures designed to advance student learning have been unevenly distributed across the postsecondary ecosystem. The result during the pandemic was clear and often heartbreaking. Students with the least resources and the most significant barriers to learning were disproportionately disadvantaged by the pandemic-necessitated pivot to remote instruction.

Professors were called upon to not only transition (sometimes instantly) their courses with highly variable levels of institutional support, they have also been required to provide their students with emotional and social supports that were previously distributed across campus entities and professionals. Well-understood and accepted pedagogical practices, such as universal course design and a system of delivery that is flexible and resilient, have been shown to be at best unequally present both within and across colleges and universities.

COVID-19 will force a similar ecosystemwide adaptation that past trends and events (GI Bill, baby boom, women’s enrollment explosion, the internet) have all driven in the past. The demographic, economic, political and social trends that were at play prior to the pandemic have been accelerated and concentrated, and if not navigated correctly will threaten both the resilience and the relevancy of every postsecondary institution.

Learning the lessons of the pandemic will not be easy for colleges and universities, as COVID-19 arrived during a time of unprecedented stressors and emerging scarcities. Going forward, however, those who lead our institutions of higher learning will have little choice but navigate their institutions through a time of profound change.

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