Sunday, September 20, 2020

What if ...? Planning for uncertainty

Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash

Many discussions about the digital transformation of the past months centre around whether online is "better" or "worse" than the physical classroom. These either/or discussions seldom lead anywhere since it is not about any form being better of worse but about how we teach and learn in different environments and circumstances.Of course many teachers and students long to return to the familiarity and convenience of the campus because that has been the norm for so long that it is seldom questioned. The digital transition was a stressful time and many teachers and students will therefore associate online education with feelings of isolation and good enough solutions. However, the digital element is here to stay and most if not all universities will need to learn how to blend online and on-site teaching in a more seamless way. Of course there will always be advantages of meeting, working and discussing in a physical space, when possible and applicable. That qualification is so important to stress. Digital spaces can extend the reach of education and be so much more inclusive than the physical space. The physical and digital can complement each other. It's not a competition.

But what if everything went online forever? That is the topic of an article in Inside Higher Ed, What if Everything is Online Forever? Many activities simply cannot be done online, but those that can may stay that way. It is very likely that a lot of university staff have discovered that they can work more effectively at home and be reluctant to return to the office, especially as long as the threat of covid-19 remains. Will the role of the campus diminish as more activities move online? What if there is no return to "normal"?

What about online learning? Here is what I think. As soon as possible, face-to-face learning will return. Everyone -- students and professors -- misses the classroom. Residential learning, however, will be forever different. Post-pandemic, what we will see in higher education is a new integration of residential and online learning. Face-to-face classes will come back, but online will not go away. The new residential class will have digital components. The line between face-to-face and online will blur.

How do we plan for such an unpredictable future? Another post in Inside Higher EdHigher Ed’s Next Black Swan? speculates further. We fondly hope that a vaccine for covid-19 will be available in the coming months but it may take years to develop a vaccine that really works. During that time a new virus could take off. We all need to develop plans A, B, C and D and realise that a combination of online and campus is the best we can hope for in the coming months and maybe even years. How many universities are asking this question, for example:
What would we do differently if we knew that the next four years will look -- from a public health perspective -- much like the fall of 2020?
What happens if international student mobility becomes impossible? What about climate issues? The future is impossible to predict and therefore we need a greater sense of resilience and flexibility to be able to meet whatever comes our way. 

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