At the same time the pandemic impacted colleges and universities, policy-makers and administrators were imagining the future of their institutions in the light of changing demographics, emerging technologies, new financial and performance regimes, emerging issues of equity and inclusion as well as the normal challenges associated with people, places and buildings. All of a sudden, the future was no longer a straight line from the past and the race was on to meet student needs in creative and imaginative ways. Tomorrow became today, reinforcing Karen Slaughter’s idea that “forever never lasts as long as we had hoped”.
The key message is that higher education systems are resilient, agile and robust and demonstrated a real capacity to respond to a challenging crisis. Most students and faculty soon found themselves teaching and learning in new ways. Certain research activities were severely compromised – with laboratories, studios and workspaces closed, new ways of working had to be found and some work was put on hold. But other research initiatives thrived resulting in major advances in areas, such as mental health, physical health, space exploration and emerging green technologies like carbon capture and utilization all during the pandemic.
Administrators and policy-makers got many things right. Here are five:
- A focus on ensuring students had continuous access to learning.
Colleagues in government and across our college and university administrations, worked hard and quickly to ensure that the pivot to remote teaching worked and that faculty and students had access to technology and support services. As part of this work, the many governments changed the rules on online learning and international students, and new investments were made in broadband and technology supports in a variety of countries. As the pandemic continued, provincial governments invested in supports for the mental health of students and in new approaches to micro-credentials and skills-based learning.
- Support for technology-enabled learning at all levels.
It became clear early in the pandemic that Indigenous communities together with remote rural and northern students may have unique challenges in securing access to online learning. In part, this is because affordable and fast broadband is not available, but also because many do not own the appropriate technology or have an appropriate space to study. Creative solutions, involving loaning or gifting technology, utilizing public networks and strengthening broadband capacity were found and continue to be worked on. Governments making large investments to speed up the implementation of these solutions.The private sector also stepped up, with many EdTech providers making their resources much more affordable and accessible.
- A recognition of equity, diversity and inclusion as challenges for students and faculty.
Although the pandemic affected just about every student to varying degrees, some struggled more than others. Some Indigenous students, students with exceptionalities, international students, recent immigrants, single parents whose children were being “home schooled”, struggled with the impact of lockdown and the pandemic on their ability to study and on their mental health.
Student support staff, faculty, administrators within our colleges and universities made smart, compassionate and sensitive decisions that helped students manage and cope with their challenges. Additional funds for mental health support were provided by several governments around the world and new approaches to assessment made course completion possible. The adoption of creative approaches, such as using video to do competency assessment for apprenticeships, made it possible for some to secure their “ticket” despite the challenges. Others created new supports and processes for students with disabilities or for those unable to complete their internships of work placements. This creativity was shared with others around the world.
- Making investments in future skills and workforce development.
Several governments around the world, including Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have issued a call for skills-based learning investments. They are looking to create momentum behind the task of reskilling and upskilling the workforce, getting people back to work and accelerating apprenticeship. A strong focus on micro-credentials, rapid learning and what is known as gap-based learning (assessing prior learning and then teaching to the gap between what the student can demonstrate and what they need to demonstrate) are all apparent in these new initiatives.
- Building a hybrid future.
Policy-makers as well as college and university leaders are looking at the lessons of the pandemic, their response and the implications for the future. Already, several jurisdictions have committed to a virtual learning strategy for higher education and made strategic investments to support this work. Others are also exploring how technology-enabled learning and services developed and strengthened during the pandemic can form part of the strategic future of higher education. It is clear that, once face-to-face teaching returns, blended learning and hybrid learning will be a part of the landscape.
A growing number of student services – counselling, career guidance, program and course choices, writing and essential skills, financial and registrarial services – will increasingly be offered both in person and online.
Many administrators found the demands, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, very challenging and complex. New agreements about workloads had to be reached with unions, new arrangements for remote working and new skills had to be acquired all in record time. In any change process, there is indeed some resistance to change, but the speed, scale and complexity of change that colleges and universities achieved in the last year warrants praise and admiration.
It is not over yet. More challenges are ahead: the challenge of whether or not international students will return in the fall of 2021 or sooner; faculty and staff burnout; growing concerns about cybersecurity and privacy; new forms of accountability; and of course, fiscal sustainability.
What the policy-makers, administrators and institutional leaders demonstrated was agile leadership and a strong ability to focus on what matters most. They also demonstrated an ability to learn from failure and to respond effectively to challenges and concerns.
As they begin to explore the implications of “building back better”, no doubt we will see more change and more innovation. The system has shown adaptability and resilience. Now is the time for bold, courageous leadership to ensure that colleges and universities are better after the pandemic.