Higher Education, Thinking

Time and Space

There were a few flurries on my way to work this morning and with them came the inevitable barrage of email messages asking, “Are we closing?” Last year at this time, we did not honor the notion of a snow day because we were set up for flipping online at any moment. Everyone had equipment at home. Everyone had to be ready for all contingencies. Snow days were an old-fashioned notion that should no longer interfere with education. This year things are different. We’re back in the classroom and we want our snow days back!

Whew! As a New Englander, I am a big fan of the found moments that snow days can bring. Time to finish a project, uninterrupted. Time to shovel the snow, a task I still enjoy. Time to take a nap that I never expected to take. Except we had our first snow day on Friday, and none of this was true. That snow day was a meeting filled workday for me. Darn that Zoom/WebEx/TEAMS/GoogleMeets platform. Oh well, snow days were a nice idea.

Of course, when we all moved online in 2020, the idea that you couldn’t continue education from any location became suspect. We all stepped up the COVID-19 challenge and found a way to continue providing the best possible education in multiple, but mostly remote formats. We doubled-down on (constant) cyber-connectivity and forged a new educational path together. We adjusted to the realities of our crash courses in online instruction (and the skills we hadn’t fully mastered), the lack of sufficient coordination of online and on-ground experiences (which, made getting access to a quiet space on a computer when needed, a challenge of our students); and the experience of “zoom fatigue” that wore everyone out. We should be proud of our flexibility and responsiveness, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that even as we venture back into the classroom, our world has fundamentally changed.

It is time for us to recognize that our expectations about education and work have radically shifted and we now expect flexibility. This is why a faculty member who, prior to COVID-19, thought teaching online was totally inappropriate for their discipline, now writes at the first sign of snow – “Can I switch to online for the day?” This is why departments who have offered a few online classes for years, now don’t know how to choose who gets to teach online and who does not because now everyone wants a course or two online. They don’t understand why there might be limits to what we should offer. This why some students are irritated that they can’t get that one last course online so they can finish up, while they start a new job or relocate or otherwise juggle their education with something else. This is why people in higher education who do non-instructional work that can be just as effectively completed from home, do not understand why administration might say no to a fully remote schedule. And so on.

These shifting expectations have thrown a wrench into our typical planning processes. Sometimes our conversations get a bit heated because we are looking at each question or need from a single person’s perspective. Without fully defining the overall goals, opportunities, or problems we want to solve with flexible working and learning opportunities, decisions will appear capricious or stubborn. There is a lot to sort out here and I am really doing my best to envision the whole, even as the best paths are still eluding me. What is most important to recognize is that the questions we are asking reveal a fundamental shift in how we define higher education. That shift will have unintended consequences, so we’d better think things through. Here are a few linked thoughts that I’m wrestling with:

  1. What is the value of learning on campus? Is it essential or is it a nice to have? Does it need to happen daily, weekly, monthly? For whom is it essential? Why? If the answer is campus is less valuable than we once thought, then how many classrooms do we really need? If on-ground learning is less than essential to a good education, then do we lose the developmental part of higher education (helping teenagers become adults) that we have so heavily invested in in the United States?
  2. Is it possible to reimagine our working/learning flow in a way that makes it easy to transition between on-ground and online environments? Do we have the resources to ensure that all students and faculty have the proper equipment? Do we have the resources to make sure that all faculty understand the important differences between online instruction, remote instruction, and hybrid courses and how pivot between them? How do we make sure the transition doesn’t undermine students who really only do well in one of these modalities? How do we make sure that switching does not negatively impact other things like attendance at events or participation in co-curricular programs or signing up to live in the residence halls? Again, does being on campus matter?
  3. Is it important for faculty and staff to be on campus all the time? What are the things that make it important to be physically present? What messages are we sending if the dominant experience of our campuses is walking down hallways with closed doors/empty rooms? If we look for greater flexibility, how much office space do we need? Should we go with more shared offices and create alternating schedules? How many buildings do we need? Parking?

I know lots of folks have been thinking about this for a long time. Some have transitioned to mostly online universities, while others consider the classic campus experience to be the very definition of what a college education should be. Those of us at regional comprehensives have played with small pieces of these questions for years, but now it is time to fully think it through. It is complicated for us, because we serve such diverse learners looking for very different experiences. Whatever answer we end up with will involve a complicated matrix of variables. But we all got a big dose of “it could work differently” last year. Now that we’re back, we are wondering why it doesn’t.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.