In higher education, as in so many other areas of our lives, the COVID-19 virus has turned the world upside down. At least in the short term the impossible has become the ordinary. The sudden, world-wide switch to distance learning is unprecedented in the history of instruction. Teachers, who had always viewed their role as reproducing the pedagogical techniques of their undergraduate professors, are now engaging in forms of teaching that are utterly new to them. Professors, who had never imagined that the world of teaching extended beyond their own classroom or that there was anything theoretical to be learned about their craft, are turning in desperation to teaching centers or are scouring the internet for the work of scholars of teaching and learning. Educational systems around the world with different traditions and pedagogical philosophies are suddenly facing the same challenges. Everything solid in the realm of instruction is melting into air.
The result of all of this frantic improvisation has not been pretty. No one in their right mind would have suggested that faculty in mid-semester should suddenly move en masse to a new medium and complete their courses in a radically different mode without a period of preparation. Both teachers and students are suffering, and in the short run, we must set our sights on the humble goal of getting to the end of our courses with as little damage as possible.
Yet, in the midst of all this chaos we have gotten a glimpse of what teaching in higher education could be. We have seen a world in which finding the best way to teach our students became a central focus of our educational institutions, in which old forms of pedagogy were abandoned when it was clear that they did not work. We have seen faculty become aware that they needed new approaches and new theoretical frameworks, and scholars of teaching have stepped forward with solutions to problems that are emerging. We now know that our institutions can, at least in a moment of crisis, rise to face their responsibilities to students and to society. None of us wish to ever repeat this experience, but it does demonstrate both the depth of our resources and the adaptability of our intellects.
It may be important to keep all of this in mind in the months and years ahead. If the last three months have taught us anything, they have demonstrated the precariousness of our visions of the future. But it is, nonetheless, highly likely that higher education is going to remain in crisis for some time after the virus subsides. If we are entering a long period of economic regression, we will have to do more with less funding. Our students and our societies will not be able to afford to waste resources on courses that do not producing any learning. Business will not be as usual. The flexibility that has been exhibited this spring must become the norm, not the exception, as must the broad recourse to the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Hopefully, all this will be part of a broader debate about roles and responsibilities in higher education as the immediate threat ebbs. But for now the task is to get through the current academic year as effectively as possible. I have no particular expertise with on-line learning, and, in this time of rapid adjustment to new ways of teaching, I do not want to take up space that should be occupied by those who are better prepared to help teachers get through the immediate crisis. Therefore, I have postponed several posts that would have otherwise appeared in this blog, and I will most likely continue to do so, at least until the end of the present school term.
In the meantime, I can only express my admiration for all of you who are trying so hard to support learning in this most trying of semesters and my hope that you all stay healthy.
David Pace, April 2020
The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning has provided resources for those adapting to on-line learning. Here are a few of them:
Project to study the impact of COVID-19
A group of researchers at the University of British Columbia have launched a milt-institutional, multinational study of the experience of this sudden switch to on-line instruction. Those interested in being involved should contact Dr. Silvia Bartolic at email@example.com for more information.
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