It may take weeks, months or years, but one day we will all be back on campus. We will greet each other as we walk across the quad, go to department meetings, teach students, head into our labs and check out books from the library. And we will do these things without grabbing for our wipes and face masks -- without wondering if we just made the mistake of our lives.
We will do these things again, but we will never return to the way things were. We will value our human contact more than we did before, acknowledging the gift of learning while being together, holding our dear ones close again with the knowledge that doing so is a privilege. But we have also been exposed to online interaction on a global scale, spending months and possibly longer engaging with each other online and doing collective work with remote tools. It is inevitable that we will incorporate some of the eye-opening new possibilities into our academic and extracurricular lives. Just as Sept. 11 forever changed air travel, so too has COVID-19 forever changed how we work, live and interact. Unlike Sept. 11’s impact on air travel, however, COVID-19's impact might make education easier and better.
Many of us, for example, have been surprised by the effectiveness of telemedicine. We aren’t yet ready for videoconference open heart surgery over our phones, but telemedicine can ease the friction of going to the doctor and increase many patients’ chances of getting care when and where they need it. The ease of having a conversation with our doctors has surprised and delighted us -- who wants to go back to hanging out in waiting rooms filled with coughing people and navigating forbidding medical centers after frustrating time lost in traffic?
Similarly, Zoom-enabled workouts and livestreamed yoga classes that we access with the click of a button make the idea of ever returning to hot, sweaty studios and big-box gyms seem ridiculous. In higher education, as in these other industries, we have also been introduced to the seductive ease of Zooming in a guest speaker to a class and FaceTiming with a student stuck on her homework. If telemedicine and virtual workouts will likely become more pervasive, what in the circadian rhythms of university life will also remain or become virtual? What have we learned that we don’t want to live without when life resumes post-COVID?
There is, of course, a common fear that new moves into online learning and online life will replace faculty and staff, making us irrelevant or at best secondary -- that online is about loss, not gain. Similarly, students and their parents may assume that online is always "lesser" than face-to-face instruction -- that it is a distant second best to sitting in ivy-covered lecture halls listening to the sage on the stage. And yet it may be worth considering whether the opposite might be true under certain circumstances: Might virtual education create opportunities for students to have greater global engagement and increased participation in class, even while creating new ways to accommodate emergency situations? In short, it might behoove us to consider how virtual capabilities might give us greater ability to shape our students’ learning experiences wherever they find themselves in the world.
The virtual lecture is already a decades-old phenomenon. Medical schools and engineering schools have long moved lectures online (and on videocassette before that). In so many cases, it makes much more sense to use faculty and student time together for active learning instead of passive consumption of material. As the old adage goes, “Everything after the third row is distance education.” Many faculty members and students are also discovering what others have known for a long time: that virtual office hours and virtual advising are more convenient for both teachers and learners.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Many students this summer will be doing virtual internships. In most cases, they are a second choice for students who would rather be in a lab or office or in the field. But with creative thinking, virtual internships can offer valuable experiences to students beyond summers and local semester-long internships. A U.S. business school student might do a virtual internship in Bangalore during the semester, or a student might virtually continue a summer internship after he is back in classes. Why relegate practical experiences to summers or a 20-mile radius from campus?
But what about the really difficult problems: Can there be virtual lab work, fieldwork, clinical training or studio art? We have seen many creative examples this semester. Professors have turned their home kitchens into laboratories and virtually included students in every step of experiments, allowing them to make mistakes even at the expense of countertops and sinks. Preparing for online summer courses, faculty are assembling kits of paints or circuit boards or lists of chemical compounds that can be sent to students who are learning at home.
Again, in most cases virtual is less than doing the same thing in person. But online experiences can help students achieve things that would otherwise be impossible on campus, and they can help them accommodate financial, medical and other hardships. A student studying abroad in Moscow may be able to fulfill a university requirement by simultaneously taking one course online at her home institution. An undergraduate might take a semester off to care for a family member without losing the momentum toward a degree. An anthropology course might have students doing fieldwork on multiple continents while virtually inhabiting the same classroom weekly.
Prognosticators often invoke virtual and augmented reality as panaceas that will perfectly recreate real experiences. Perhaps one day they will. Rather than trying to recreate our in-person experiences online, however, we should be thinking about what we can do online that enables forms of learning that expand the limits of what we can do on campus.
These are big changes, and they will require work, creativity and resources from faculty and administrators. But they are also great opportunities. It is important to remember that universities are always changing. As Cathy Davidson reminds us in her book The New Education, so many of elements of the university that we think of as foundational -- majors and minors, degree requirements and grades, electives and graduate schools -- all have their origins in Harvard president Charles Eliot’s radical late-19th-century reforms. And technologies as innocuous today as the blackboard caused riots when they were first introduced. Blackboards, in particular, seemed to be harbingers of an increasingly industrialized classroom.
Over time, reforms like these have made university education more inclusive, diverse and global. When we return to classrooms and campuses, we will fall back into familiar patterns. But we should also preserve some of the virtual solutions that saved us during the COVID-19 pandemic.