Early in March 2020, I drove from the Big Ten university, where I taught for forty years, to Bedford, Indiana, where I had been asked to talk to a high school class about the transition to college. Like so many towns in our state, Bedford has been devastated by the loss of jobs and the opioid epidemic. But the juniors in the AP class were bright, engaged, and ready to talk. Their worries were those of prospective college students everywhere — meeting academic demands, making friends, being away from home, and accumulating debt. One student provided a bulleted list, including “failing my classes – not being smart enough – not being able to make new friends – not having a life and letting school take over.” But I could easily imagine most of them surmounting such difficulties, succeeding in college, and making a real contribution to their community.
What none of us fully realized on that morning was that a new obstacle had just been placed in their path – the disruption of a year and a half of their education by the pandemic. For years educators have expressed concern about how much proficiency students lose over the summer vacation. Yet, despite heroic efforts by teachers, that gap in the learning process pales in comparison with that currently being generated by the COVID crisis. And, as Zachary Parolin, and his colleagues reported in a recent study, the pandemic is almost certain to increase the already disturbing imbalance in learning outcomes for rich and poor.
Students without computers, internet access, or even a quiet space in which to learn will find it extremely difficult to continue learning, and those who are most in need of a supporting school environment — poor, minority, rural, and LGBTQ – will bear the greatest burden. (See Decoding the Ivory Tower post “COVID-19 and the Unindicted Co-Conspirators of Academia.”) As Christopher Morphew, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, put it, “Eighteen months of summer melt when you’re already three grades behind is virtually impossible to come back from.” (https://www.propublica.org/article/the-students-left-behind-by-remote-learning)
Yet, over the next decade some of these students will overcome such obstacles and be admitted to universities. But there they will find themselves in courses that were designed for their predecessors who had uninterrupted K-12 preparation. Faced with successive cohorts of students without essential skills, their professors may feel that they are forced to choose between two appalling alternatives: to drastically increase their DFW rates or to “dumb down” their courses to allow students to pass without really mastering the material. The first alternative imposes an immediate penalty on groups who were already suffering the effects of educational inequality; the second simply postpones the disaster until a future date at which these students will find that they lack the personal and professional skills increasingly required for a decent life in contemporary society. Both options will deepen the injustices that plague our society and could have massive negative consequences for our civic and economic life in the decades ahead.
Fortunately, there is another possibility. Universities can identify precisely what skills are missing in post-pandemic students and create programs that help them catch up as rapidly as possible. They can restructure their curricula to produce clearer pathways to success. And they can replace outdated pedagogies with classroom strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective at reaching larger portions of the student population.
The foundations for such a systematic response to the post-COVID challenge has already been created. In the late 1990s the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching began recruiting cadres of professors from across the disciplines for its Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The participants in this program turned their research skills to the problem of identifying more effective ways of reaching at-risk college students. They allied with thousands of professors and professionals in teaching centers around the world to create the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and a network of journals, workshops, and conferences that advanced this work. And these practices became actualized in effective projects such as the Gardner Institute’s Gateways to Completion program and in new approaches to helping students overcome obstacles to learning, such as Decoding the Disciplines.
The result has been an enormous expansion of our potential to increase student learning. The value of this scholarship was demonstrated in the spring of 2020, when university professors, many of whom had never heard of SoTL, began to frantically search for strategies to help them make the transition to online instruction. They discovered that there already existed a large peer-reviewed literature that could provide them with the framework they needed to respond to their students’ learning needs in this new environment.
This initial adaptation to the demands of online teaching can be a model for reshaping classroom practices and institutional structures to provide a second chance to students who have been deprived of educational opportunity. The implementation of more effective pedagogical techniques can help them make up for the losses they experienced in the COVID era. And the infrastructure created by the scholarship of teaching and learning can be directed toward understanding the specific intellectual and emotional needs of students whose education has been stunted by the pandemic.
There will, of course, be resistance to pursuing such a path. Academic traditions that go back to the Middle Ages resist adaptation to new conditions. Existing institutional structures often do not legitimize and reward attention to teaching and to student needs. Many administrators, faced with the COVID-generated economic crisis, will respond reflexively by firing faculty, increasing teaching loads, slashing the budgets of “nonessential” units, like teacher centers, and subscribing to the illusion that the transformation of universities into technocratic trade schools will solve all problems. And professors, threatened by the retrenchment of their institutions, may be tempted to turn their energies to increasing their research portfolios in hope of finding employment elsewhere.
Yet, our academic institutions have enormous incentives to find new ways to reach the COVID generation. Administrators, faced with gaping economic deficits, are well aware of how valuable student retention is to their bottom line. Professors, who want to share the fruits of their disciplines, need strategies for getting their students to the expected level of proficiency as rapidly as possible. And parents, taxpayers, and all the other stakeholders in higher education have a major interest in preventing the decimation of successive cohorts of college students.
The future of the students I met in Bedford, like that of millions of their contemporaries, depends on college administrators and faculty accepting this challenge and finding new ways to overcome the legacy of COVID. If they do not, universities will be providing an already skeptical public with more evidence that institutions of higher education are not worthy of the enormous support that they require, and, more broadly, that elites do not care about the welfare of much of the population. And our university system will be complicit in the transformation of the young people of the 2020s into a new Lost Generation with disastrous consequences for the entire society.
David Pace, “Decoding the Ivory Tower,” February, 2021
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