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OPINION

The coronavirus allows us to reimagine the college experience

We can start by turning the residential‐versus‐remote comparison on its head and asking: What are the shortcomings of the residential experience and advantages of the virtual one?

A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard on the closed campus.
A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard on the closed campus.Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg

This spring, COVID‐19 forced colleges and universities to abruptly shift to remote teaching. For those of us who helped facilitate the transition at Harvard University, along with our counterparts elsewhere, seeing the efforts made by our faculty and staff colleagues to ensure that students could complete their coursework was nothing short of inspiring.

Of course, the immediate nature of the shift presented many challenges, from faculty and students’ learning how to engage in online classes for the first time to inequities in access that made it difficult for some students to participate. By semester’s end, many of us were tired: of Zoom classes and meetings. Of isolation from colleagues, family, and friends. Of uncertainty. We yearned for the in‐person experience. We missed the relationships forged in the classroom and outside it, the mentoring, the social activities that bind us together as a community.

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The “return to normalcy” that we all yearn for will have to wait. Recent announcements by many universities, including Harvard, heighten the sobering reality that we must prepare for a fall semester that will almost surely include remote teaching in some form, even if students return to campus — given physical classroom constraints, social distancing requirements, and access for students (particularly internationals) who cannot return in time. And as we contemplate that scenario, we wrestle with doubts that anything but a full‐fledged traditional residential experience can possibly be good for our students.

But such thinking reflects a deep‐rooted asymmetry, focusing as it does on the shortcomings of remote teaching and the benefits of residential education. We must pivot to a new mindset. As we strive to do so, we can take an important lesson from another industry’s transition to digital offerings.

For years, newspapers’ approach to the digital world involved simply creating PDF versions of the print product. That model evolved where now publishers have expanded their audiences by leaning in to digital’s unique benefits: making news available anytime and anywhere; creating rich multimedia content; drawing on a wide range of sources in addition to staff journalists; sourcing readers for comments and facilitating conversations among them; and personalizing news feeds.

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We needn’t settle for the PDF equivalent of higher education in the fall. It’s time to reimagine the educational experience.

Rather than yearn for the past, we should seize the opportunity before us. Even the most ardent supporters of higher education agree that the system is in need of change, citing challenges to do with high cost, low engagement and personalization, and insufficient global exposure, among other things. Simply returning to in‐person teaching, even if that were possible, wouldn’t solve those problems. The pandemic gives us a chance to move forward with a new vision.

We can start by turning the residential‐versus‐remote comparison on its head and asking: What are the shortcomings of the residential experience and the advantages of the virtual one? Some of the latter are scalability (and no capacity constraints), interactivity (with a click), and many‐to‐many interactions (the defining hallmark of digital technologies). So how can we leverage these and other advantages to create a learning experience that won’t just be better than the spring, but different? Several considerations can guide us.

There is no reason to maintain outdated logistical constraints. The traditional daily academic calendar — 90‐minute sessions, three classes per day — was designed for a live residential experience. A calendar designed for remote teaching offers more flexibility than we have ever been able to accommodate. We could stretch and split it to accommodate differences in time zones, increase time for reflection, and reduce platform fatigue. We could consider unbundling the full‐time model to accommodate students who are juggling increased personal responsibilities and varied circumstances. That could make the fall semester a more feasible option for some.

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No longer constrained by time and space, we can develop truly novel high‐value pedagogical offerings. We can create multidisciplinary courses on such topics as pandemics, crisis management, climate change, and media and society, because with remote learning, the need to assemble faculty from different departments in one classroom no longer applies. In the event that students are not on campus, we should treat geographical dispersion not as a liability but as a chance to create a learning environment that is literally global in scale. Courses on health care leadership, smart cities, democracy, education, business, and many other topics can incorporate students’ local experiences, data, and field work from multiple locations around the world, boosting all class members’ global awareness and contextual intelligence.

Remote students can more actively engage with the world around them. Alumni can serve as mentors, coaches, and advisers. Courses can feature live conversations with the most prominent experts around the world—not just as club events, but as part of the curriculum; not as a luxury, but regularly. We’ve already seen this in several of our courses this spring.

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Remote learning can be more personal. Eliminating the need to co‐locate will enable us to draw on a larger pool of faculty and staff advisers from across the university for student mentoring. The increased attention will bolster both academics and mental health. High‐enrollment cross‐school courses can free up faculty time, and they can be complemented with small‐group seminars and tutorials. Digital platforms allow more, and more‐personalized, data on students that can be harnessed to their advantage. And students can more easily tailor digital learning to their own pace and needs.

We can create new opportunities for social connection. Recreating the non‐academic campus experience – the serendipitous interactions and daily immersion – is the most challenging part of a remote campus. But we already saw some of those interactions this spring, from virtual dinners to talent shows to religious observances to exercise. And digital platforms can bridge schools, communities, and clubs in ways that go beyond residential interactions, again by eliminating the need to co‐locate.

This isn’t a view of the distant future. We can begin to make some of these shifts as soon as this fall. In the spring, forced to move online with little warning, we were tied to our existing curricula, calendar, and structures. The fall provides a chance to move ahead unencumbered by those constraints and incorporating what we learned in the spring, as many faculty who used remote teaching tools for the first time are now further down the learning curve. Can a remote experience entirely replicate an on‐campus one? Of course not. But neither can a campus experience replicate all that’s possible with remote teaching. The semester won’t be perfect — but it can be an important step in the re‐imagination of our industry, providing more‐equitable access, cross‐boundary interactions, and novel curricula that reflect the unprecedented changes to our world.

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The pandemic broke down organizational resistance to online learning; suddenly we had no choice. The folly will be if we treat the current situation as a nuisance or settle for merely improving the spring’s experience and forgo the opportunity to create an entirely new one. If we let loose our ideas and energies on the opportunity before us, we might reimagine not just remote education, but education itself.

Bharat Anand is the vice provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University.