It’s that time filled with retrospectives on the soon-to-be-completed year. This year’s crop of reflections seem confounded with speculation about how the world will be the same or different in the upcoming year.
Our colleague, Deborah Tannen, is quoted in one piece – “Instead of asking, ‘Is there a reason to do this online? we’ll be asking, ‘Is there any good reason to do this in person?’” Another in the same article speculates that there will be a return to a faith in expertise, in contrast to the past few months of anti-science, anti-evidence-based policymaking. What can universities learn from 2020?
A surprise to many universities was how quickly staff adapted to teleworking. Some of the lessons seem especially useful to an urban university, in which many staff and faculty have lengthy and complicated commutes into their offices. One of the benefits of teleworking is more discretionary time; for some, as much as 2-3 hours a day. This can be a real quality-of-life boost, especially for those community members with family care duties.
There are reports of better productivity in remote work. But the downside of this greater productivity is perhaps an enhanced sense of isolation. We do miss each other being in the same space. But, given the enhanced productivity and greater discretionary time, what’s the right blend of in-person and remote team work?
COVID-19 had not allowed us to experiment to determine the right periodicity of face-to-face interactions to retain the social cohesion of work groups. Would everyone coming into the office one full day make sense? How can we retain some of the benefits of learnings during the pandemic while avoiding the costs?
Similar thoughts arise in considering the teaching and research within universities. Over the past few years, any walk down the hallways of faculty offices reveals that there is much teleworking that has been common to the modern academic research life. Now that we’ve also discovered that remote teaching can sometimes be productive, how can we discover the right blend of in-person and remote? For example, both faculty and students have discovered that zoom office hours seem to be almost as efficient as face to face meetings. A added advantage of the electronic connection is that it can occur at any time that is convenient for both parties, wherever they might be at a time. Another comment applies to small classes, where several faculty have noted that it’s almost impossible to be the disengaged student in the back row. Others have noted that using asynchronous delivery of factual material in video form seems more efficient, allowing students to review the material multiple times. But zoom fatigue and social isolation abounds, in our current blend of media.
What we haven’t yet perfected, as a teaching/learning community, is determining how much time is required for all the readings, asynchronous, and exercise preparation. Students are reporting the current work often exceeds that of an equivalent in-person class. If we learn more optimal mixes of asynchronous and synchronous, in-person and remote, we can imagine faculty spending more time in small group discussions with students, synthesizing lessons from the readings and the asynchronous content they’ve consumed. Getting that mix correct seems important. This is a sine qua non of our future wise use of technology.
Universities coping with the pandemic permits consideration of new flexibilities. The M-W-F class might not meet in-person three times a week. Students might be freed to have more out-of-class learning experiences – internships or group project work connected to courses.
With the likelihood that this pandemic will gradually be controlled, we need to consider what blends of remote asynchronous, remote synchronous, and in-person might permit more effective experience-based learning.
Imagine research-based classes, where some of the students are working in a group away from DC and others are working in DC, under the direction of a faculty member guiding the research. Imagine study abroad students continuing to take some courses from the DC campus, while they are experiencing the immersion in a new culture. The new BS degree in Business and Global Affairs, with its movement of students and faculty to locations outside the US, seems well suited to such designs. But, thinking broadly, any course where the learning can be enhanced with experiences of remote learning outside the Hilltop campus, seems ripe for new thinking.
We can look forward to designing new ways for universities to do their work, but we need some freedom to experiment that the pandemic’s demand for full remote work did not permit.