Thinking About Place in Higher Education Under COVID-19

The second of three emergent themes.

May 27, 2020

A second theme that emerges in thinking about the coming academic year through the lens of 15 Fall Scenarios is an evolving understanding of place. While only three of the scenarios are explicitly about location (Students in Residence, Learning Virtually; A Low-Residency Model; and A HyFlex Model), the rapid industrywide pivot from residential to remote learning has revealed some new things about the idea of place in higher education. It turns out that many of the practices related to location that we had previously understood as driven by some fundamental and underlying truth about how higher education works, were, in reality, merely practices that were determined by habit and tradition.

The most obvious change in how higher education is likely to think about place in the future has to do with staff, and specifically where staff work. While remote work may have been growing in pockets, possibly driven by high housing costs close to universities, working on campus was very much the norm. Many if not most schools had telework policies, but these were usually considered as exceptions, deviations from the norm of working on campus.

While flexibility regarding where and when to get one’s work done has long been a purview of faculty, staff were still expected to mostly physically show up. This idea, that productivity benefits from propinquity, was by no means limited to thinking about higher education staff. This was, pre-pandemic, a widely held belief across a range of industries and occupations. Just as the future of work in technology, finance and media is likely to be more (maybe even majority) remote, so might we see a change in this basic assumption for academic staff. COVID-19 has revealed, to the great surprise of many, that productivity is a function of motivation and communication and technology and incentives and culture and a myriad of other factors, with location being only one of many considerations. In some cases, it may still be the most important consideration -- staff working directly with students, for example -- but it’s not a given.

That said, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see as much of a push to return as many people as possible to campuses as can be accommodated. There are many advantages to being present with colleagues, from the serendipitous conversations that lead to productive work to the ability to manage difficult conversations and work habits in person. As with online learning, the jury has yet to yield a judgment in the value of teleworking for large numbers of college employees. At the very least, we know that campuses will be very different places if large swaths of academic staff work remotely.

How other aspects of higher education’s relationship to place will change once the pandemic passes are equally unclear. The biggest question mark for everyone in the online learning community is will COVID-19 accelerate or inhibit the growth of distance education? There are reasons to believe that both results are possible.

Looking at this question from where we are now, it is likely easier to make the case that the forced pivot to remote learning will end up setting back the perception that online learning is a destination that higher education should be aiming for. One thing we know we can say about remote learning is that it has been difficult for many of our students. How difficult? This is yet unknown. Anecdotal evidence suggests that numbers will be high. Only after the spring semester is fully done, and the survey results and data on student success and fall return rates are analyzed, will we know how challenging things have been at schools across the country. To the extent that online education is tarnished by the remote learning brush, the image of online education will surely suffer.

On the other hand, what COVID-19 has shown some students and faculty is that online learning is not some mysterious practice. Given the right students, enough time and the proper resources and assistance, online learners and educators can thrive together. Professors have at least caught glimpses of the connections that can be built with learners when communications are not limited by the few hours classes meet in a physical classroom but can extend to virtual communications on asynchronous discussion boards and synchronous online class meetings. Online courses, when designed well, can allow all students in a class (even the quiet ones) to have a voice. Faculty have seen that remote teaching is not perfect. But they have also been given an indication of how good online education could be, if only there was more time to prepare and more resources (like learning designers) to provide some help.

Where thinking about place is certain to change on the other end of the pandemic, whenever that should come, is around the affordances of face-to-face interactions. The gravitational pull of students and faculty back to campus may be strong (many staff will stay remote), but what is done on campus is likely to change. The emergency shift to remote learning has demonstrated both the value of social closeness (the opposite of social distancing) on educational cohesiveness and engagement, as well as the reality that some things work very well when accomplished digitally.

For instance, time on campus may be seen as more precious, causing face-to-face interactions between learners and educators to receive greater care and attention in design and implementation. Tasks that can be moved to asynchronous online platforms, such as content delivery and assessment, likely will be. Office hours and advising appointments might shift to synchronous meeting platforms. Class time will be reserved more for interaction, collaboration, creating and coaching.

None of these ideas are new, and indeed they have long been advocated for by educational developers and learning designers. Blended learning has long been thought of as an ideal. What will be new is that these practices might find much more widespread acceptance and adoption. COVID-19 certainly has highlighted the divide between residential and remote learning, with much more of the teaching and learning experience existing across modalities.

The result may be that even after the pandemic has fully passed -- meaning an effective vaccine is available and universally distributed -- that the relationship between higher education and place will likely be permanently altered.

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