What if everything stays online forever?
This won't happen. Right? The vaccine will come. And until the vaccine comes, we will learn how to be safely physically present.
And not everything is totally online now. A combination of de-densification, masking and hybrid courses has allowed most schools to bring back at least some students.
We can eat at restaurants if the tables are outside and spread six feet apart. Online grocery shopping has become exponentially more popular, but that activity was starting from a low base. Most of us still get our groceries by driving to the supermarket.
For many folks, working online was never an option. Some jobs can't be done remotely. Food for large numbers can't be prepared or served from home. Cleaning is a hands-on job. So is every form of construction and maintenance. My wife goes to work at the hospital every morning, as telemedicine only works with some patients at some times.
But what if everything that can be done online stays online?
If you have been working remotely for the past six months, what's to say that you shouldn't work remotely for the next six years? At some point will employers (including universities) decide that the savings of having a remote workforce outweigh the benefits of having most everyone in one place?
We used to have most of our meetings face-to-face. Nowadays, almost every meeting is through Zoom or Teams or some other web-meeting video platform. Even when it is safe to return to face-to-face meetings, will we want to? Online meetings are more efficient (no traveling or settling in), more egalitarian (nobody is in the front of the room or head of the table), and faster (as nobody wants to linger). Traveling for work was one of those things many who worked used to do.
In academia, a fortunate few were able to travel to disciplinary and professional conferences. People in business traveled for on-site meetings and sales demos. Airports were full of business travelers. Convention halls and hotels were booked years in advance. Will business travel return? How much is the in-person academic or professional conference a "nice to do" rather than a "must-have"? Are academic conferences as much of a habit as a necessity? Could it be that we will discover that getting 80 percent of the benefit for 20 percent of the cost of an online vs. in-person conference is a sensible trade-off?
What about online learning? Here is what I think. As soon as possible, face-to-face learning will return. Everyone -- students and professors -- misses the classroom. Residential learning, however, will be forever different. Post-pandemic, what we will see in higher education is a new integration of residential and online learning. Face-to-face classes will come back, but online will not go away. The new residential class will have digital components. The line between face-to-face and online will blur.
COVID-19 will greatly accelerate the blended learning shift that was already underway before the pandemic hit. Experiments in flipped teaching will become the new norm. The LMS will be universally utilized as a platform for collaboration and interaction, rather than a repository for course materials. Lectures will be recorded ahead of time, with in-class time used for discussion. Office hours will be more numerous and will move mostly online.
When it comes to how we work and how we learn, I don't think we will return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
There may be no going back to the way we were.