The “chaotic” spring and “challenging” fall of 2020 left us little time for reflection—until now. Our efforts to sustain operations throughout those early storm-clouded days and those that followed have exposed some important silver linings. Despite the serious dangers and monumental challenges, there were also moments of pleasant surprise, ingenuity, fortitude, and adaptation across institutions.
I am an experienced distance educator, currently working with a research team investigating higher education during COVID-19. Our study explores the stories of staff, faculty, and administrators who were thrust into distance operations and who continue to navigate their socially distanced campuses. Though the crisis is not yet over, and its effects will continue into the foreseeable future, we in higher ed have perhaps re-discovered critical truths about ourselves and for ourselves that we can and should celebrate. We have also learned important lessons that can help us continue to improve.
We tapped our creative energies
We learned that we can learn new technologies, we can adapt, and we can do so quickly when agility is needed.
Though many of us are exhausted, we were able to use our ingenuity and energy to resolve tensions between expectations and reality, between availability and responsibility, between setting boundaries and giving ourselves permission to do so. We experienced, in the words of one participant, a period of “forced creativity.”
Structurally, we experimented with the academic calendar and re-thought physical space, including how to utilize outdoor spaces for learning. Operationally, we moved meetings to virtual versions for which some have noted greater efficiency and even greater attendance. When our fall re-opening plans hit the realities of social distancing, we established alternative communication methods that maintained our social ties and, in some cases, allowed us to meet more often for shorter periods and with greater focus and productivity.
We learned to influence our distances
Though we were thrust into distance, we have learned not only to navigate our distances but also to influence them.
While we may have called our experiences last spring “remote,” what we were doing then and what we continued to do in the fall term already has a name: distance education. Distance education scholar Michael G. Moore suggested in the early 1990s that distance is not only geographical but also pedagogical. We saw this distance in all our interactions, from international student relations to career fairs, library services to student advising, as masks, acrylic obstacles, and seating arrangements inserted distance in what we do. In-person classrooms were often quiet spaces, with markedly less chatter or small talk. Some faculty reported that during this past fall term, they had difficulty recognizing or responding to students because they cannot see faces.
We learned that distances can afford advantages. A student services office experimenting with a new social media channel reported increases in student engagement. Many of us were able to attend more conferences or more sessions as they became virtual events and costs declined.
We also learned that we can wield distance for our purposes. One professor who had never used her institution’s learning management system before campuses closed last spring continued to employ it in her fall in-person classes so that she was spared touching student papers in order to collect and grade them. She increased distance. A few faculty have reported converting their course delivery methods to virtual class meetings in the fall in order to see student faces. They reduced distance. Other faculty who reported a spring discovery of the power of online discussion to increase participation chose to implement them again in fall in-person courses. They harnessed the power of distance for learning advantage.
We rallied around our students
Through it all, we kept our students at the forefront of what we do, and we learned that online students are students, too.
The needs of the online student population are profoundly reflected in the work that institutions have done to accommodate these students during COVID-19. Many faculty found it necessary to adjust course timelines for these students who were affected by work concerns, fiscal strains, and the needs of children or other family members. Faculty in synchronous class time with online students reported addressing matters of emotional health and well-being as these learners struggled with the ongoing demands and responsibilities exacerbated by conditions of the pandemic.
What our collective distance experience underscores most forcefully is that higher education is a personal and human experience, a meeting of minds and not necessarily of bodies. Online students have previously been for many an incorporeal audience, often estranged from our on-campus communities, often viewed as a distinct population, and too often ignored. The portion of the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) designated for direct disbursement to students was not available to students enrolled in only online courses or programs. However, as stories across higher education continue to emerge, the common thread is concern for students, whether resident or distant, and most often with no distinction being made.
Higher ed will be addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic long after a vaccine becomes widely available. It has been a difficult time for all of us, yet we have adapted, experimented, and re-thought how we operate, how we serve, and how we educate.
As we continue to reflect, we have an opportunity to celebrate our ingenuity and our student-centered service. We also have an opportunity to examine our relationship with distance. Such reflections will help us to look back on this time as not only challenging but also deeply meaningful. As we move forward, we should look to make distant what is best distant and make proximal that which is best proximal for our students and for ourselves. We may find that the best calculus is an intentional combination of both.