Higher Education Is Now Functioning With Much More Humanity

The new normal of teaching college classes

It's a challenge to maintain continuity in the classroom in a severely fractured academic year, but it's doable. Kacy Burdette/Getty Images
Headshot of David Rosowsky

The sudden shift to remote teaching and learning following the Covid-19 outbreak and global pandemic has been a remarkable experiment for students, faculty, instructional staff and colleges and universities at large. We are learning on the fly, from one another and through trial and error about how to teach online, how to communicate with students in and out of class and how to maintain continuity in a severely fractured academic year. While not perfect, we are now meeting our students where they live.

But there are a handful of early takeaways on distributed learning and the power of our institutions that can inform and improve how we deliver education and opportunity to our future leaders. I offer them with humility and tremendous hope.

Educators deserve extra credit 

Faculty have proven more adaptive than the industry (or even they themselves) may have thought. They were asked to do something incredible in the middle of the spring semester: make a super-charged pivot from the traditional classroom to online instruction, with little warning or preparation and in the absence of purpose-specific digital production studios. Professors, often with no prior experience in distance learning, are now teaching from their homes, without question and without demands. They have shown themselves to be resourceful, responsive and committed to effective teaching through new modalities, new technologies and new blends of pedagogy. Never before has there been such a clear statement by all faculty that we are here for our students and we will serve to the best of our abilities.

Never before has there been such a clear statement by all faculty that we are here for our students and we will serve to the best of our abilities.

Interestingly, expensive and sometimes cumbersome learning management systems and university offices responsible for distance and online learning may have played a lesser role in the rapid transition. Many faculty have done this on their own, relying on (and becoming indebted to) their unit’s IT support staff, employing simple technologies and approaches in the interest of expediency. (Pro tip: Your smartphone can serve as a pretty good scanner.)

Compassion is part of the curriculum

Students have responded quickly—they are, after all, digital natives—and generally positively. But there are equity issues we as educators have to take into account. Not all students have the same access to a computer and high-speed internet. Family settings vary, as do demands beyond schoolwork.

Professors should communicate upfront to students that they recognize their settings may not be ideal, work with their college or university to provide assistance and help identify equipment alternatives where needed and offer to be flexible and accommodating on assignments. While some of that flexibility may naturally subside with a return to more traditional learning circumstances, perhaps the prevailing lesson can be one of connecting with students with humanity and humility.

Critical assessment should be suspended

We seem to have, for all good reasons, made the decision not to attempt any assessment of online teaching or learning during this crisis. I believe this is wise. There will be lessons learned and best practices established. In fact, best practices may be most easily discovered, socialized, and implemented on our digital platforms. And the time will come when we address instructional quality, academic rigor, degree of student participation and learning outcomes of these new modalities. But now is a time to direct all energies and attention on how we can best serve students, rather than critically grade our own efforts.

For those instructors who, like myself, feel compelled to gauge their own effectiveness, set expectations lower than you would for on-campus courses, at least for the first time through. I self-assess after each class and track my progress and my misses. I’d candidly say I started at a C- and have moved up to a solid B+. My students, by comparison, have been A+ throughout. They are patient, flexible, and forgiving. They are also really grateful.

Learn to enjoy the ride

Teachers, you are back in school again—learning something new. Your experiences and new skills will be valuable when you return to the classroom, our students return to campuses and the world returns to its new normal. You will have a greater appreciation for alternate modes of instructional delivery and the flexibility online teaching can provide both you and your students and will newly be able to incorporate technology-based content delivery, office hours and advising. And as an industry, we will be more agile, more responsive and more aligned with the fast-changing world around us.


David Rosowsky is the former provost and svp at University of Vermont.
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