The rapid shift to remote instruction at universities and colleges necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic has been attended by predictions of the end of everything from residential college life to in-person instruction, from majors and degree programs to the professoriate itself.
I want to suggest that this rush to predict the worst possible outcomes for higher education teaching and learning is not only ill-advised but also flawed. We would do better to focus on changes that should come about.
I’m not contesting that the coming years will be very challenging, particularly for those of us at minority-serving institutions and under-resourced public universities. There is going to be very little money to go around, and the costly job of supporting all students’ equal opportunity for academic success is going to be harder than ever.
I’m also not overlooking the inequitable access to technology that has made the move to remote instruction particularly punishing for our most disadvantaged students. Neither of these lamentable facts however means that no good could follow in the wake of the current crisis.
My first objection to the prevailing form of apocalyptic future-talk is an empirical one: We just don’t have enough evidence to say anything meaningful about the future of instruction on college campuses because we don’t have the slightest idea what’s working and what isn’t now.
We have only been at this for a few weeks, and we have as yet no way to gather significant information about which students are learning, which platforms or tools are working best to support that learning, which courses work best in which remote formats, and so on.
My second objection is that it is hard to imagine how we could apply that information to another situation. This is an emergency, after all. No instructional designer or consultant in their right mind thinks that this moment will give us anything useful about the viability and value of online education, because we’re not delivering fully online courses — we’re delivering rapidly assembled just-in-time remote teaching to traumatized students by instructors who often are learning to use the digital tools as they go.
Yet my largest concern about what’s vogue for prediction is its baleful tone. If we engage exclusively in dire predictions, then don’t we run the risk of ensuring the bad outcome we fear? Shouldn’t we be imagining the best possible future to guide the choices we make now?
In that vein, I’ll offer a wish list of changes that should come about post-pandemic:
- Teaching will be less isolated. Faculty will turn both to their colleagues and to experts in instructional design and delivery, who have been waiting patiently for two decades now to help them rethink the “how” of teaching.
- Expertise in teaching and learning will be valued. Professionals specializing in the practice of teaching and the assessment and stewardship of student learning — including faculty specialists and dedicated support staff — will finally get some respect (and reasonable compensation) on university campuses.
- Course design will prioritize learning. Practices long known to enhance learning and promote educational equity will finally be within reach of instructors who had never been given incentives to substantially overhaul their courses. Examples of such practices include: Universal Design for Learning (a decade-old framework to improve teaching and learning based on the science of how humans learn), continuous low-stakes assessment (i.e., not relying on one or two comprehensive exams to test student learning); supplementing in-person instruction with digital tools that promote engagement and enhance learning; and allowing some flexibility for students to learn at their own pace.
- Institutions will expect the unexpected. Academic planning will include scenarios for how teaching will continue during unplanned events.
- Ed Tech will be regulated. Widespread adoption of educational technologies will force much higher standards of data privacy and protection.
- College teaching will require formal training. Doctoral programs will include robust preparation in evidence-based teaching practices that support educational equity.
And maybe, just maybe, students and parents and legislators and trustees will finally give up the tired story that professors don’t care about teaching and aren’t interested in the well-being and academic success of our students.
If the past month has taught us anything, then it’s how very much they (we) have cared, do care, and will continue to care about our students, their learning and their lives. Let’s all find some much-needed grounds for hope in that.
Jody Greene is associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at UC Santa Cruz.
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