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The Future is What We Imagine

Jun 30, 2020 9:24:37 AM

Like many of you, we at 42 Lines have been trying to make sense of what it means to be living in a time of pandemic.  As much as we attempt to go about our days and retain our sense of “normalcy,” we know that things are very different than they were on March 15, 2020, when colleges and universities began to shut down and send students home. 

Now, as colleges and universities begin to unveil their plans for the fall semester, we’re reminded of just how monumental the task ahead will be. Balancing the need to keep their education communities safe with the need to enroll and serve students hasn’t been easy. Schools are embracing an array of models. Limited, socially distanced in-person classes, restructured calendars, remote instruction, and various flavors of blended teaching—a combination of in-person and online instruction—are all on the table. (For daily updates of institutional decisions, check out this handy database.)
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And we have seen both creativity and collaboration in how universities approach the fall semester. In a special report on online learning, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Colgate University has divided its semesters into two grading periods so that students who may not be able to finish can still receive partial credit. And they will offer a January and June term to students who need to make up course work—free of charge. The Virginia Community College System is taking advantage of open educational resources and experimenting with course sharing across its 23 campuses. And researchers at several institutions are running simulations to understand just how social distancing and other mitigating measures will affect classroom dynamics. 

It’s an astonishing undertaking. As Jody Greene, Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at UC Santa Cruz has pointed out, “the pandemic has required every educator in the world, with very few exceptions, to focus attention not only on what but on how we teach.” In “Imagining the Post-Pandemic University,” she considers the ways in which we might use this moment to embrace pedagogical methods that have been right at our fingertips for some years now. What would it mean, she asks, to abandon timed, high-stakes exams, record lectures that students could view at any time, or, perhaps most radically, imagine “more effective, interesting, and engaging ways to teach large numbers of students at a time, perhaps through hybrid models developed specifically to support student learning.” 

That will likely not look like the classroom as we imagine it now. It may look like something quite different. From a purely technological point of view, we have the ability to do all of these things: portfolio assessment, annotated lecture videos, and new learning models supported by new delivery techniques are all tools that we can use today to explore new ways of delivering education. 

Such re-imagining, of course, requires the participation of everyone across our education communities. John Warner, a faculty affiliate at the University of Charleston and a blogger for Inside Higher Education, argued for a renewed “commitment to online courses, coupled with support for students who lack access to the necessary technology and resources to learn online.” 

Michelle D. Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, whose latest book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology was recently published by Harvard University Press, reminds us that “just as we teachers now need, more than ever, to see our students as whole people, our institutions need to recognize that faculty members are not just course-delivering machines, but human beings who are struggling to make sense of, and cope with, all that has happened.” 

As institutions continue to weigh the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic on teaching and learning, making sense of all that has happened is no easy task. Finding a path to the future will require the best thinkers in higher education to do what they do best: analyze the facts, hypothesize a solution, and imagine a resilient future that puts people first. 

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