Think Higher Ed Is Change-Averse? Three Pandemic-Era Innovations Will Prove You Wrong.
Imagine you can investigate rain shadows on Hawaiian mountains or observe lightning in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks—all without leaving your desk. That’s how students in Ronald Dorn’s physical geography lab at Arizona State University spent their fall 2020 semester. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic prevented them from traveling, Dorn’s students conducted virtual fieldwork through “geovisualization video games” developed by ASU alumni. The video games enabled them to virtually explore faraway physical environments, make observations and “level up” their grades. But what was really eye-opening was student reactions: They liked the games so much that about 30% of students went beyond the threshold needed for an A+. For professor Dorn, this was a defining moment. “[In the future, this video game model] would be a wonderful option for those who like learning that way. And for those that want to learn by being outside, they can do that, too,” he said. “I view this as a way to take advantage of what’s going on now and come up with completely new ways of helping students learn.”
Higher education is at an inflection point. While the sector can be slow to change, innovative approaches like professor Dorn’s underscore how higher education can be nimble and adapt to support students in novel ways. During the pandemic, many institutions and faculty rose to the challenge, implementing unconventional and cutting-edge pedagogies, as well as connecting students to much-needed support and engaging them in the most critical issues in today’s world. These shifts are set to have a dramatic impact long after this moment.
As a former state commissioner of basic and higher education, I’ve seen these advances firsthand. So too has fellow educator Jill Tiefenthaler, a former economics professor and past president of Colorado College, which is why I invited her to co-author this column. Here are three innovative higher education practices that we believe can—and should—endure beyond the pandemic:
1. Making the higher education experience more flexible.
Colorado College, where Jill served as president, is known for its unique “block plan”, in which students take just one class at a time for three-and-a-half weeks. Each block allows students to focus, delve deeply into the course content, and enjoy the flexibility to explore their interests and immerse in project-based learning.
During the pandemic, this kind of flexibility was critical for students. Unity College in Maine bucked higher education’s reputation for rigidity by quickly making big changes to its academic schedule and tuition structure to accommodate students’ needs. Now, instead of two semesters, Unity students participate in eight five-week terms—similar to Colorado College’s block plan—with the option of online or in-person courses. Students can also pay their tuition by the term rather than paying a full year’s tuition up front. The result: Unity welcomed its biggest-ever class in fall 2020, at a time when many institutions saw a drop in enrollment. Unity president Melik Peter Khoury put a fine point on this change when he said, “What Covid did is, it accelerated the innovation. Because in higher education we’re about tradition over innovation.”
Innovation eclipsed tradition in other ways too. Some institutions explored new approaches to grading during the pandemic. For the first time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology allowed upperclass students to take up to four classes on a “pass/no-record” basis (first-years already took all first-semester courses as “pass/no-record”). While MIT changed the policy to take the pressure off students dealing with mental health, financial, or other challenges during the pandemic, MIT’s vice-chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, Ian Waitz, believes it will also lead to more impactful learning. “What we wanted to do was encourage them to really explore and take classes that would set them up, as individuals, to the greatest extent possible for whatever they wanted to pursue,” he says. “We really want them to work collaboratively and focus on learning—and, to the extent we can, sort of remove competitive dynamics and the focus on grades.” Acknowledging that students’ circumstances sometimes require flexible schedules, tuition, and grades is a welcome realization within higher education.
2. Opening new pathways to foster community and connection between faculty and students.
Too often, college students can feel like nameless faces among hundreds in a big lecture hall, with little access to—let alone a relationship with—faculty. While the pandemic could have exacerbated this disconnect, some faculty used the shift to remote learning as an opportunity to try new, virtual modes of relationship-building. One study found nearly 90% of faculty reported having one-on-one conversations with students about mental health during the pandemic. Many of those conversations were facilitated by technology.
Andrew Freed, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University, created Life Check-in, an online discussion board where students could share whatever was on their minds—from food insecurity to excitement over a new pet. “What this channel does is allow students who are feeling very isolated and alone to reach out anonymously to a very big community,” says Freed. “I would always respond to them, but [also] other students would respond: ‘Hey, if you’re feeling isolated, you can try this.’” At California State University, East Bay, some faculty began hosting live, online office hours to coach students. This shift was so impactful for CSU-East Bay students—many of whom juggle work and family commitments that make it difficult to attend in-person office hours—that the student government recommended all faculty be required to offer virtual office hours. Even as classes return to an in-person format, using virtual tools to strengthen a sense of community among faculty and students can boost mental and emotional well-being for all involved.
3. Immersing students in real-world scenarios to seek solutions and apply their learning.
As entrepreneur Jay Samit has said, “New ideas for innovation grow out of the minds of each new generation. Having an institution of higher learning that can help young people put those ideas into action is critical.” During the past 18 months, some colleges and universities harnessed the ingenuity of their students to help address pandemic-related challenges, encouraging them to apply their learning in new ways. At Cornell University, engineering students used geo-mapping to design new solutions for vaccine distribution. At the University of Maine, in professor Katie Quirk’s creative arts course, “Documenting the Pandemic,” students explored how art sparks conversation and social connection during times of crisis. Two of her students created public art installations that amplified individuals’ experiences and feelings during the pandemic. At Florida International University, public health students analyzed real-time data on contact tracing to help the state’s department of health (DOH) make sense of its Covid-19 information. Project leader and assistant professor Gabriel Odom said, “I can’t think of anything better for a student to do…during a global catastrophe, [than] to… write a report, send it to DOH, and for the actual data to be used by leaders in our community.”
Relevant learning—the sort that is tied to current issues—should not be confined to the current health crisis. What better way to prepare students for the “real world” than engaging them in seeking solutions to the world’s most complex challenges?
As higher education, like the rest of the world, works to recover from the pandemic, leaders should identify, sustain, and scale novel approaches and support systems that put students at the center and empower their learning. The many mold-breaking ideas, tools and practices initiated during the pandemic demonstrate that colleges and universities can and should be crucibles of innovative, life-changing education. While the past 18 months have been enormously challenging, the true test will come after the pandemic, when institutions and faculty decide how to move forward. Will they return to their pre-pandemic practices and policies? Or will they apply the insights gained from this time and adopt a more student-centric approach?
Let’s resist the temptation to return to the status quo. Instead, let’s embrace the promising innovations that have emerged. Colleges and universities that are more flexible, community-focused, and empower students to be a part of the solution will create richer learning environments for today’s students, who are tomorrow’s leaders.
*This piece is co-authored with Jill Tiefenthaler, Chief Executive officer of the National Geographic Society.