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Many Are Reacting, but Who Is Visioning the Future?

As we prepare for the fall term, most colleges and universities are reacting to the evolving pandemic, responding to changing conditions. But who is creating a vision for the future?

August 12, 2020
 

These COVID-19 times are disrupting our lives, our work and our learning. They lead us into a transactional role in shifting circumstances. The pandemic takes a turn while researchers discover new insights into causes for contagion and an ever-expanding list of symptoms and afflictions. In a reactive way, we change our plans to minimize these rapidly proliferating effects. In each instance, we are tending to the short term -- to what we need to do in September, October and November. There are piles of developing pages and pages of policies and plans that are built on the foundation principle that the virus will go away. Our focus is almost exclusively on the next 120 days.

I am not suggesting that we don't need to respond to the realities of contagion and the grim outcomes of getting our responses wrong. But, in the crush of this crisis, who is charting a course for higher education at the other end of this 2020 dark Coronavirus tunnel? Is there an end to the tunnel in the next year? What lies ahead?

Two of the country's top infectious disease experts present a sobering look ahead. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota, weighed in on the future in a recent CNBC report. "We will be dealing with this forever," Osterholm said. "COVID is here to stay," added Frieden.

Osterholm, in another interview, goes further in his explanation:

We will be dealing with this virus forever. Effective and safe vaccines and hopefully ones with some durability will be very important, even critical tools, in fighting it. But the whole world is going to be experiencing COVID-19 'til the end of time. We're not going to be vaccinating our way out of this to eight-plus billion people in the world right now. And if we don't get durable immunity, we're potentially looking at revaccination on a routine basis, if we can do that. We've really got to come to grips with actually living with this virus, for at least my lifetime, and at the same time, it doesn't mean we can't do a lot about it.

Lest we forget, COVID-19 is not the only new deadly disease just beyond the horizon that will threaten our society, there will be many more to come, perhaps some will be even more virulent than the one we currently are confronting. We hope that in higher education, we have learned lessons from this COVID-19 experience. There will be differences with new threats -- some mere nuances, others, perhaps radical differences in the way in which new threats impact our field.

If we can take a moment to pause from our immediate plans for saliva tests, dormitory isolations, HVAC modifications, protecting the vulnerable and the myriad of other considerations; can we focus a bit further ahead? What awaits us in 2021, 2022 and beyond? How will the survivors in higher education be different from those colleges and universities that will close their doors or be forced into mergers in the coming two years?

At its core, the practices and expectations most threatened in higher education are the in-class and out-of-class, up-close, face-to-face interaction. The social experience is at risk. The centuries-old classroom experience is now a threat. To address these threats, our view of sustainable models must certainly include distance and virtual engagements.

CNN recently examined perspectives on the future of colleges and universities:

Face-to-face learning and residential education can provide a rich experience that helps students and faculty form supportive networks and learn valuable social and behavioral skills. Online delivery can provide valuable access to higher education if it is delivered well. But much depends on whether each college designs and implements high-quality online courses. The long-term shifts sparked by Covid-19 have threatened the traditional business models of public and private colleges and universities. As a result, the remaining institutions capable of face-to-face education and a true campus living experience will become the province of students with high family incomes or outstanding academic ability.

How do we replace campus face-to-face interaction with dispersed or virtual face-to-face, up-close, personal interaction? Beyond our already-proven online learning pedagogies and practices, can we leverage advancing VR, AR, AI, and associated technologies to create a more meaningful and satisfying personal experience? Who is leading the visioning on your campus? Do you have a role, a responsibility, to step up and help lead in articulating the changes that will enable your institution to survive -- even thrive -- in serving the students of the future?

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