University in the Time of Pandemic

Speculating about the impact of the disruption of higher education caused by the pandemic has become a cottage industry. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what will happen, and nearly every aspect of university life is in question: the academic calendar, modes of instruction, public health measures, residence halls, finances, admissions, student life, curriculum, teaching load, workload, and research, to name the first few that come to mind. In the last couple months, the publications that cover higher education have been replete with predictions about how one or more of these aspects of higher education will be affected by the pandemic, and what the future will hold for each of them specifically and for universities generally.

            One feature they all have in common is that they are all guesses, more or less educated guesses, which is not surprising since they are speculations and predictions. No one knows what will happen, and there are so many variables buried in all of these issues that it is pointless to make predictions. It is not pointless to plan, but predictions are a waste of paper, or electrons, or whatever medium enables online printing. Rather than speculate on what we cannot possibly know, it occurs to me that it is worth thinking about aspects of the impact the pandemic has already had, and that affect everyone in higher education in one way or another.

The facet of the pandemic that has affected the most people around the world is almost certainly the fact that instruction has largely shifted to an online format. This affected thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of universities, and taken together, many millions of teaching staff and students. For the spring term that has just ended, this is of course old news. There is every likelihood, though, that to some significant extent, teachers and students will be expected to undertake their teaching and learning online for the upcoming fall term, and possibly for the whole 2020-2021 academic year and beyond. Some universities have already announced that courses will be online for the fall semester; some have announced that a significant proportion of their courses will be taught online for the fall and for perhaps some number of subsequent semesters; others, though at the moment they intend to teach face-to-face in the fall, may well find themselves resorting again to online teaching because it may prove to be impossible for one reason or another to hold classes normally.

Teaching staff and administrators face several issues that are posed by online instruction, all of which speak to a single overriding concern, and that is the quality of instruction that universities provide to their students. We all, presumably, agree that we have an obligation to our students to provide the strongest, highest quality instruction possible, and that responsibility changes not at all whether instruction is online or in person. We might argue about whether in general, instruction in person is better than online instruction, but whether that is true or not, if we are to teach online, then we owe our students the same as we would owe them if teaching in person. We owe them the best we can do.

Some of the challenges we face in doing the best we can do are technical, in the sense that the technology necessary to teach and study online has to be available and it has to be reliable for all its users. If both of those are not the case, then to expect online teaching and learning is futile and, I am sorry to say, rather cynical. Presumably, we all have enough respect for ourselves, for each other, and for our students, and we are sufficiently committed to the responsibility to provide our students the best instruction possible, that every effort has been or is being made to provide and support the technology that is necessary for successful teaching and learning online.

Even if the technology is available and reliable, it will mean little if the instruction itself is not adequate. This poses several challenges for administrators, technical professionals, and faculty members. As many of us know by now, teaching a course online is not the same as teaching in person, and teaching a curse well online places demands on faculty members that in-person instruction does not. One of the most obvious issues for teaching online is instructional design. A successful online course has to be planned and organized differently than an in-person course. One cannot simply place one’s lectures or notes online, have a few Zoom meetings, and expect that students will be able to learn as well as they would if one were in a classroom with them. I exaggerate for effect, but I hope the point is made.

Fortunately, there is decades of experience that people who have taught online have made and can make available to teaching staff who need guidance, and that includes most of us. There is guidance available on how to organize a successful online course, on principles for interacting with students, on evaluation and testing, on discipline-specific needs, and on all the other factors that contribute to the teaching and learning experience. It is incumbent on teaching staff to avail themselves of that experience, ideally through workshops that might be offered at one’s university, or that can be accessed online. It is equally incumbent on university administrators and technical professionals to support their teaching staff in making access to such guidance available. If administrators do not assist their instructors in these ways, and if teaching staff do not make the effort to educate themselves in online instructional design and other relevant matters, then it is unlikely that we will meet our responsibility to provide the best possible education we can to our students.

The pandemic has, of course, raised other issues as well. For professional staff, for example, the normal rhythm and structure of the workday has changed, and if universities do not reopen normally in the fall, the effect of those changes will continue. Because the workday is no longer circumscribed by the hours one is in the office, some supervisors, one hears, have come to expect their staff to be available at times well outside the normal workday. This is somewhat similar to students who seem to think that their instructors are available to them at any point in the day or week. Instructors need to guide their students concerning when and how they can expect communicative engagement, and one hopes that supervisors can similarly guide themselves to a reasonable expectation concerning the work of their staff.

There is a broader question here that these sorts of issues reflect, and that has to do with the nature of the university as an academic institution. With respect to professional staff, while we would hope that our supervisors are reasonable in their expectations of our availability, we also want to be careful not to overdetermine the limits to those expectations. We do not, to put the point a different way, want to punch a clock. Similarly, while teaching staff need to focus on organizing course structure in ways that meet the needs of online teaching, we do not want to turn teaching into a routine, formula-driven exercise in which the insights and creativity of the faculty are derailed in the service of a misguided interest in efficiency and evaluative clarity.

Those of us who have or have had the privilege to work in universities, by which I mean higher education institutions generally, are among the most fortunate of wage earners. Teaching staff have, as a matter of course, far greater control over the conditions of our work than most people who work for a wage. A strong university, because of the nature of teaching and scholarship, is an institution that thrives on creativity, flexibility, high standards of learning, moral commitment, and mutual respect among colleagues and between staff and students. We do not always live up to those characteristics of strong universities, but they set the standard for us to reach. However we respond to the demands that the pandemic and responses to it have placed on us, we will meet our responsibility to provide the strongest education we can for our students if, in responding to the challenges, we keep in mind the high standards of our academic calling.


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