Five questions for post-pandemic postsecondary education
Now that we are in the summer months, I want to extend my congratulations to all the academic administrators, educators, and students for navigating through a difficult year of uncertainty. While the shift to remote learning has been challenging for some people, the past year in post-secondary education has also shone a spotlight on Canadians’ resiliency and the power of learning.
Faculty and universities were able to pivot and create meaningful and engaging online experiences. Students leaned in and explored new ways to connect with their classmates and teachers. Through it all, the lessons learned will be invaluable as we continue to move forward through the pandemic and beyond. As we now prepare to return to a more ‘normal’ view of post-secondary education, here are five important questions that academic institutions need to consider as 2021-22 approaches.
1. In-person learning, online or a hybrid model?
While online learning may have been difficult for some in the beginning, educators and students came to recognize the benefits and possibilities created by a shift to virtual classrooms. A recent survey conducted by The Strategic Counsel showed that of the 1,341 university students who took part, one-in-five indicated that “if given the choice, they’d still take those courses mostly or entirely online.” Over the past 18 months, many of these courses were created out of necessity and they performed well under the circumstances. But given time, additional resources and purposeful planning, will institutions continue to engage and invest in these online-first students?
2. How has the student experience been reshaped by the pandemic?
Outside of education, post-secondary student life is highlighted by a sense of community – living in residence, meeting new people, orientation week, and campus events foster a shared experience during a transformational time in students’ lives. Beyond camaraderie, classmates and fellow students provide social support networks during trying and difficult times. The pandemic has undoubtedly affected the mental health and wellbeing of students. What role can academic institutions play in creating inclusive and inviting spaces for students to learn and social settings where they can come together?
In class, how can academic institutions better connect with their students to ensure their needs are being met? The gains made over the past several months in bridging the gap between educators and students need to be furthered. Better communication and open dialogue will only lead to more engaging learning and more effective teaching.
3. Will international students return to Canada in the same numbers?
We all know that attracting international students plays an important role in the Canadian educational landscape – from increasing our country’s global reputation in education to providing approximately $6-billion in student tuition. Between the 2020 and 2021 academic years, Canada saw a decline of 20-to-30 percent in international student enrolment. Will our country’s border restrictions and a lack of recognition for some internationally developed vaccines further delay international students’ “return to normal?” Will unvaccinated international students be allowed to enter the country?
With some countries easing border restrictions, some students may forgo the route of Canadian PSE altogether to enrol elsewhere. While the desire to live and work in Canada following graduation will continue to be a driving force in some international students’ decisions, others may not be able to afford another year of delays and uncertainty. Can institutions lean more heavily on online learning to buy more time and attract students from overseas while promising a return to in-person or hybrid learning down the road?
4. How will altered student demographics affect education?
Greater numbers of non-traditional learners are seeking to reskill and upskill due to the employment challenges brought on by the pandemic. Will more professional students emerge, looking to specialize in fields like public health or nursing? How will institutions pivot to grow their offerings in order to serve these students’ needs and their unique life situations? Reaching new learners must be done strategically and purposefully through careful consideration of market trends and jobs in demand. But it cannot come at the expense of existing programs. An academic institution’s expanded offerings – in terms of high-quality content and delivery – must enhance its reputation, not undermine it.
5. What will be the long-term financial implications of the pandemic on post-secondary institutions?
Administrators will be faced with many decisions in the coming months, which will have important ramifications on the futures of their schools. How will the reallocation of funds for post-pandemic measures, and health and safety precautions affect budgets? How will the after-effects of the pandemic change plans for capital projects? Will COVID contingencies affect programming, infrastructure and research grants? Will the delay or cancellation of future facilities impact an institution’s ability to attract new students?
Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it continually evolves to serve people and communities; it adapts to circumstances, and it moves forward. While commentators and pundits point to a “return to normal,” perhaps we should be prioritizing flexibility and defining a “new normal.” The past few months have shown that gaps clearly exist in education – groups are under-served, rural communities are limited in terms of access and much more. Education can do better. We can do better. COVID-19 did not introduce new problems, as much as it exacerbated and heightened ones that already existed. While there may never again be a pandemic of this magnitude, there will always be sea changes that have the potential to drastically affect how we live and learn.
So the question to ask isn’t how postsecondary education and institutions return to normal; it’s how we take the lessons learned from the past 18 months and shape where we go from here, instead of rehashing the same missteps we have been making.
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This article originally appeared on LinkedIn