While vaccines for COVID-19 are rolling out across the world many of us here at home are still feeling the effects of the pandemic in our personal and professional lives. In higher education, spring semesters at many institutions will be delayed, students are struggling with anxiety, and instructors are on the hook for grades. But there is also great cause for optimism. Because 2021, while it will have its challenges, also brings new opportunities.
Over the course of the past year our education communities have adapted and evolved. Students and instructors have overcome one challenge after another as they worked together to discover new ways of learning. Administrators and staff found the resources their communities needed to keep learning alive. And now, that shared experience informs a shared sense of purpose as we work together to transform education.
Why be optimistic about education? Here are just three reasons:
Technology brings people together.
Without technology, our experience of 2020 would have been far worse. While we all struggled in varying degrees with a sense of isolation, without technology those separations would have been insurmountable. With technology, we were able to reach across cities, counties, and countries to connect with friends, families, students, and instructors . We discovered that when technology is accessible and effective, it can encourage learning and engagement. Asynchronous classrooms have provided instructors and students with a new way to collaborate, across time and space. For many, this new appreciation for what technology can do has been a surprise. Many who were resistant to technology in the classroom are now more readily accepting of its potential. That shift will be critical to new innovations going forward.
“Flexibility” is about more than continuity.
The pivot to hybrid, and in many cases, fully online education was embraced in some form or another by almost every education provider in 2020--thanks to institutions, large and small, that paved the way for online learning. In higher education, faculty and instructional designers worked hard to deliver as seamless a learning environment as possible—with the goal of providing access and continuity to students whose education was disrupted. For the most part, the effort was a successful one. Learners had more choice in how they accessed and experienced course content. They had more control over how they learned—with the ability to revisit lectures or participate in online discussions that they could more easily track and digest. And they could learn at any time and from anywhere.
Digital learning has the potential to expand access
For the past 20 years, the U.S. has made slow but steady strides in addressing educational inequities. Digital learning has the potential to help expand access to learning: it can be more cost effective, it can reach differently abled students with new modalities, and it can break down barriers of class, race, and circumstance. But for these technologies to be truly enabling, they must be supported by ubiquitous broadband access, appropriate policies, and more creative funding of resources like schools and libraries. When technology enables learning, it has the power to change lives. If policy makers embrace this vision in 2021 and beyond, we could see long-entrenched barriers to education finally begin to crumble.
What will the post-pandemic university look like?
Like you, we can only guess. But envisioning a new future is the first step to creating a new reality. Teaching and learning will continue. For it to evolve in a way that serves the common good will require the hard work and attention of all of us. We look forward to this journey. And wish you a bright, successful new year.