I’m often asked when I think life at colleges will go back to “normal.” If “normal” means a return to what education looked like before the pandemic, I think the answer is that it won’t. But that’s a good thing for our industry and, more importantly, for students attending college now and in the years to come.
In many ways, how students attend college has changed. From where learning takes place to how students interact with their instructors to what student engagement looks like, the learning environment is very different than it was both pre -and during the pandemic.
The rise of digital
As an education and publishing services company, we have witnessed the gradual shift from print to digital materials and online learning. Although early student experiences with ebooks began as reading a simple .pdf, it has now blossomed into having access to a comprehensive suite of digitally interactive tools; many being created as digital-first products. As the offering got more sophisticated and the benefits of digital learning became more apparent, use increased.
The pandemic changed everything, though. In 2020, that gradual shift became immediate and something important happened along the way. Despite the challenging circumstances, more instructors began experimenting with their courses, learning new ways to support active learning and engagement. They used new tools and discovered an exciting way to enhance learning.
The importance of student engagement
In 2020, engaging students in a new virtual environment was incredibly challenging. Many instructors were teaching a class full of blacked-out zoom screens, not knowing if students were learning or even paying attention to the material. Introverted students and students that didn’t have easy access to digital tools suffered. Further, the etiquette of how to ask a question during class, or how to best respond to instructor questions were not always clear. Even though classes have moved into a hybrid offering, we continue to hear new questions from instructors with greater focus on issues of equity and learning pathways.
With the need for stronger engagement, for peer review for students in all locations, or even to learn new low stakes ways to assess knowledge, instructors are using features within Achieve (our digital learning platform) at a higher rate than ever before. We’ve also seen an increase in benchmarking student progress -- whether it be by using assessments, in-class polling with iClicker or new cross-disciplinary tools to drive and measure learning.
The return to campus
During the pandemic, while many adjusted to and even thrived in an online environment, many students experienced an unhealthy isolation by learning in homes by themselves and not engaging with materials and classmates. Like many, they yearned for a return to normal; a more traditional college experience. We are slowly seeing a return to campus. Though it certainly looks different for every college, it's been great to see so many campuses filled with people and activity. I’ve heard from quite a few folks on our team that the energy, excitement and buzz among students and faculty is palpable.
In-person learning and student activities hasn’t been quite this prevalent since the onset of the pandemic, and many -- including us -- have longed for the connections that come with face-to-face interaction. Not all campuses are running at full capacity, but what we’re seeing now feels like the best of the virtual and in-person experiences being used together for a hybrid experience. For example, being able to access instructors via virtual office hours has made attending college more accessible for many students and we’re seeing that trend continue despite in-person classes resuming. I believe that the new “normal” includes the best of both worlds.
We’re getting back to more familiar routines and a healthier ability to connect, but what we’ve learned over the past few years can’t be ignored. I think that what we’re seeing happen in higher education is not unlike what we are witnessing in the workplace -- and some of the best solutions are taking a bit of the best from both worlds. Just like how employees are eager to see their colleagues, travel and host in-person gatherings, students are excited to be back on campus, with their one-time reluctance being replaced with excitement to get back to customary college activities. The lessons learned from the pandemic have allowed for space for both, and I believe there will continue to be a place for hybrid learning and the advantages it brings.