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The delivery of higher education abruptly changed with spring break 2020. After a rushed move to remote learning, classes are settling into more nuanced distance learning modes worldwide as we come to the close of the shortened fall semester at many universities.

Meanwhile the COVID-19 pandemic has moved into a new, even higher, wave of infections. State budgets for education have dropped in many locations at the same time that enrollment revenues have fallen. More departments are closing; faculty and staff are furloughed; and institutional solvency fiscal numbers have headed south.

When will we return to normal -- or to near normal -- or to something else entirely? The foremost expert in infectious diseases, NAIAD director Dr. Anthony Fauci, told the Journal of the American Medical Association that it may be the end of 2022 before we are able to return to near normal.

Universities are pondering when and whether the comfortable and close proximity of students, staff and faculty will safely return. How long will members of the community fear closeness because of this virus, evolving mutations of the current strains, or some other virus or pathogen? Philippa Hardman in University World News describes the dilemma well:

In many ways, universities stand at a fork in the road. On one hand, they can begin, as the pandemic fades, to return to "normal" -- delivering the traditional learning and community experiences to the groups they have long served. On the other, the opportunity in the alternative route is a deliberate fusion of physical and digital learning with purposefully chosen education technologies designed to enhance the quality of learning (not just to store documents). This requires both careful technology choices and a proactive approach to learning design.

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), it is clear that business and industry have moved to more deeply integrate virtual and remote work into their operations. One dramatic example is Facebook’s purchase of REI’s brand-new, never-used corporate headquarters building in Bellevue, Wash., for $368 million. REI had determined that for reasons of corporate efficiency and employee preference, they didn’t need the physical headquarters. They have revised their entire mode of operation.

Educause has addressed this area through their list of top 10 IT issues, technologies and trends 2021. They suggest the choices are among three scenarios: to restore the pre-COVID standing and operations; to evolve with what has been learned through the pandemic; or to transform the institution by applying new knowledge and 4IR solutions:

The Educause Top IT Issues list has been refactored for 2021 to help higher education shape the role technology will play in the recovery from the pandemic. What different directions might institutional leaders take in their recovery strategy? How can technology help our ecosystem emerge stronger and fitter for the future? The 2021 Educause IT Issues project explores these questions using a very different approach from previous years. Anticipating potential ways institutions might emerge from the pandemic, this year we offer three Top IT Issues lists and examine the top 5 issues within three scenarios that may guide institutional leaders’ use of technology: restore, evolve, and transform.

David Ramadan, former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, strikes a strong position on this in his article “Stop spending on bricks-and-mortar and start investing in online education”:

Today I am advocating for investment in virtual learning. And to that, I tell my former colleagues in the Virginia General Assembly: It is time to stop spending on bricks-and-mortar and start investing in online education. Faced with billions of dollars in bonded indebtedness for higher education, Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to restructure debt can save as much as $300 million and offer significant relief for schools facing fixed costs, declining enrollments and lower revenues … In truth, we are living in uncharted educational territory. But when it comes to Virginia setting the right course, the way ahead is clear.

What is the right path for your institution? Is it possible to return to the pre-pandemic normal? Will that approach sustain you through 4IR? Can you somehow maintain a balance of the “old” normal with the “new” normal? Or is the best path for your institution to embrace the future and advance astride business and industry as they move into 4IR?

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