The Low-Density University

Our next book.

April 15, 2020
 

We have started working on our next book.

We had not planned to move so quickly into the research and writing of a new book after the publication in February of Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. But then a global pandemic happened and everything changed.

Or more precisely, everything we’d written about in Learning Innovation took on a new urgency. The observations we made about the turn to learning and the need for higher education to be prepared for the next inflection point were quickly tested by an event that has challenged higher education like no other.

This has all of us in higher education thinking about its future. The challenges and opportunities that have always been there are perhaps now even more visible. The shift to remote learning reinforces the need for thoughtful, engaged teaching regardless of the mode of delivery, just as it has highlighted many of the inequities and inherent problems within the higher ed related to equity, access and accessibility. But, as we wrote a couple of weeks ago, it has also highlighted the great strengths of our community and colleagues who have worked tirelessly to maintain instructional continuity in the face of a daunting social and economic disaster. These are strengths we need to nurture and stabilize even as we address the challenges.

How we do this is complicated, especially as many of us are now shifting our focus to the more immediate challenges posed by the summer and fall. Many schools have announced that all summer classes will be taught in a remote mode. Others, like Boston University, have started sharing potential plans about the fall. We’re all thinking about what is next: What will our schools look like when we begin again in the face of the new normal? How do we decide what models will be worth considering in an unprecedented situation?

These are the challenges and opportunities we hope to address in our next book. We’re excited to once again be working with Johns Hopkins University Press on a book that begins to explore the effect this moment in time will have on the future of higher education. One of the dominant questions of the book is how might considerations of campus density impact future planning?

What does this question mean in this particular moment? Today, perhaps more than ever, we all are familiar with the traditional segmenting into categories of residential or online, face-to-face or distant. The challenges facing higher education prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt change not just how we teach in the current moment but how we think about these categories far into the future.

In the months and perhaps years to come, the dichotomy between a campus-based and a remote postsecondary educational experience will likely break down. What will replace the fully residential to fully online continuum is not completely clear, but the new principles in which colleges and universities will organize the bundle of instructional and student life options may very well be based on issues such as campus population density, time and sequence, iterative teaching and learning practices, principles of active learning and engagement, and students needs and dispositions, rather than on location (on or off campus).

Our new book will explore all of these models, but the one we’re perhaps most interested in right now is how we might move from optimizing for location to planning around density. The idea that online education is optimized for one population such as adult working professionals, while residential learning is ideal for traditional-age students who have the resources to avail themselves of the opportunity, has lost much of its explanatory and predictive value. University leaders will need to bring a different framework, one of density not location, in their planning for their institutions.

What do we mean by density? There are at least three scenarios, with a fourth being a hybrid model between them: no density, low density and normal density.

No density is the scenario that higher education is in now (April 2020), in which stay-at-home requirements are in place and all but nonessential public and private places of convening are closed.

Under a low-density scenario, students and faculty and staff may be able to return to campus at full capacity but will need to adapt to a variety of approaches for addressing density concerns, from social distancing and remote instruction to HyFlex course models.

The normal density scenario is the pre-COVID-19 reality for university operations, with the difference that colleges and universities will need to be able to quickly shift to low or no-density operations should the public health situation change.

Explicit in the argument of this book is that higher education will not return, in the foreseeable future, to pre-COVID-19 norms and structures and operations. At least not completely. Even as the peak of the pandemic recedes and campuses are able to reopen, the changes adopted during the pandemic will have far and wide implications.

By suggesting that one model for thinking about the future is a density framework, we hope to transcend traditional dichotomies of face-to-face and online, residential and remote. Both distance and face-to-face education will continue in the future, but both, we argue, will be different. The line that separates residential and online education will never be as bright, as the determinants of the mode of educational delivery changed.

On one hand, it’s easy to see how issues of density affect the instructional or curricular side of the institutional bundle. On the other hand, density questions directly impact co-curricular and student activities. More importantly, issues relating to student life (housing, athletics, health, etc.) are intimately bound up with the organization of student learning (credits, courses, majors, etc.) for residential students, and vice versa.

Planning around student density requirements will require that curricular and co-curricular operations evolve in tandem. Additionally, we will explore the challenges and opportunities that a density model will create for colleges and universities committed to equity and access, not to mention student well-being, accessibility and accommodation. Whichever way the next few months play out, planning for density will be one of the core tenets around which colleges and universities will develop their strategies around economic viability and institutional impact for at least the near future.

As we’ve mentioned, the density framework we are proposing is one of many that we believe will be part of future planning for colleges and universities. Many of the knowns will become unknown. Many of the unknowns are not yet known.

Our sense of the traditional semesters and quarters may need to be reconsidered. Our focus on content areas may adapt to address issues of student engagement in online modalities. Our sense of continuity between semesters and quarters may find value in the challenges of iterative disruption. Our understanding of who our students are and what they need to engage in these new modes may deepen. Let’s hope.

For the two of us, the traditions of higher education are incredibly meaningful and inherent in its greater value. For the future of higher education to be successful, we need to find a way to balance these traditions with the changing reality and likely density of our campuses.

What do you think? Is density a driving concern on your campus? Please let us know in the comments or by reaching out directly.

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