Chapter 9: When the Dust Settles, Higher Education Won’t Be the Same

by Ángel Cabrera, Ph.D.

Posted on March 29, 2021

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This has been a truly extraordinary year. We have navigated through one of the most difficult periods in our history, impacting us personally and professionally. It is impossible to exaggerate how devastating COVID-19 has been. 

As of March 2021, the novel coronavirus had cost the lives of more than two and a half million people around the world, including more than 500,000 just in the United States. In economic terms, it has caused the worst recession since World War II. According to a report from the Gates Foundation released in September 2020, the pandemic had at that time already pushed 37 million people below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day. In the U.S., the pandemic sent unemployment to historic high levels in the spring of 2020. The situation has since improved, but unemployment is still double what it was before the pandemic, hitting low-income communities and communities of color particularly hard. 

As of this writing (March 2021), about 8.5% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated, and the number of deaths is dropping from more than 3,000 daily in January 2021 but is still significantly higher than last summer and fall. The U.S. government anticipates that most people will have access to a vaccine by this summer, and many universities, ours included, are planning for a full return to campus operations by the fall. Assuming that public health conditions allow us to do so, the world we will be returning to will not be the same as the one we remember, and it is our responsibility to ensure that some of the permanent changes will be for the better. 

For colleges and universities, the outbreak of the pandemic brought immediate and sweeping change in just about all we do. If you had asked me in early 2020 how long it would take for Georgia Tech to convert all our classes to distance learning and most business and service operations to be remote, I would have told you to give us at least five years and ample resources to plan and execute the changes. In March 2020 Georgia Tech, like many of our peers, converted all classes to distance learning over a two-week period without advance warning. The prospect of hanging, as the saying goes, does indeed concentrate one’s mind wonderfully. 

If transitioning all activities of a major research university (tens of thousands of students, thousands of faculty and staff, hundreds of millions of dollars in research) to a mostly remote format overnight was a formidable challenge, the preparations for students to return to campus in the fall proved to be just as complex. While the approaches varied by institution, virtually every college and university in America, and in fact the world, went through their own version of this, as we struggled to deliver a quality educational experience for students, conduct important research, and serve the economic and human development needs of our communities in an unprecedented public health crisis and under acute budgetary pressures.

If transitioning all activities of a major research university to a mostly remote format overnight was a formidable challenge, the preparations for students to return to campus in the fall proved to be just as complex.

In our case, soon after the campus had been evacuated in March 2020, I appointed a recovery task force to guide and oversee the resumption of campus operations. Our approach prioritized employee health, providing critical services, and preparing for the resumption of in-person campus-based instruction in August 2020. We shifted many of our courses and our administrative services to online delivery or a range of hybrid forms. We configured classrooms and workplaces. We established new cleaning protocols. We arranged quarantining and isolation space for residential students who needed it. And we built from scratch a novel COVID-19 surveillance testing system that would allow us to collect and process up to 2,500 samples from students, faculty, and staff daily. The more than 250,000 samples we have collected so far enabled a data-driven preemptive approach that allowed us to keep positivity rates below 1% quite consistently. 

Higher education institutions have proven to be far less rigid than many assumed. This experience, while traumatic, has awakened our processes of innovation, has forced us to experiment with alternative formats of learning and working, and will permanently transform how we see ourselves and deliver on our mission. While there is a lot of uncertainty associated with this crisis, there are also great opportunities for change, innovation, renewal, and reinvention. 

Combining Technology with Classroom-based Learning 

Before February 2020, less than half of all professors throughout the U.S. had taught through remote delivery. Now, virtually all of them have. When the pandemic forced educators to suspend traditional teaching methods, universities pivoted on a dime to extend access and flexibility to their students. 

Granted, course quality varies greatly. Effective online learning involves thoughtful instructional design and planning. At Georgia Tech, for example, we have created successful online master’s programs in computer science, cybersecurity, and analytics that today serve more than 16,000 students. The first one, the Online Master of Science in Computer Science program, began seven years ago as a collaboration with Udacity and AT&T and is today the largest program of its kind anywhere. 

The massive and sudden pivot to remote teaching in spring 2020 didn’t have the benefit of a design period of any length and, in many cases, it simply involved videoconferencing and collaborative online tools to mimic what happens in a face-to-face on-campus classroom environment. Yet, for all its limitations, the experience has shown faculty and students how learning can happen through technology. It will open an unprecedented wave of innovation in which classroom and technology mediated learning will be combined in ways we are yet to imagine. 

At Georgia Tech we set up a 10-15-hour training program, the Georgia Tech Remote Teaching Academy, to help faculty facilitate the transition and empower them to apply novel forms of virtual interaction and online instruction. We also updated our equipment in our lecture halls and classrooms to accommodate remote and hybrid and enable new approaches to teaching and learning.

The push to remote instruction will not signify the demise of the classroom. On the contrary, it will highlight the precious value of faculty and students sharing a physical space.

The push to remote instruction will not signify the demise of the classroom. On the contrary, it will highlight the precious value of faculty and students sharing a physical space. Many of our faculty have discovered that there are a great many things you can do in a lecture hall that are more engaging than lecturing—interactive problem solving, group discussions, teamwork. Many of the innovations that we are likely to see in the next months and years will involve lecture halls and their integration with other learning technologies. 

The process has also taught us how technology can help provide much needed flexibility for students who cannot fit in traditional forms of education—from those working or participating in extended internships to those studying abroad, doing field work, or juggling various family demands. And flexibility applies not only to students, but also to staff and faculty who are discovering new ways to make how they work work for them. 

We have seen what is possible, have been forced to question long-established assumptions about remote learning and work, and have developed the self-confidence to explore new pedagogical models. That’s a path of no return. When we leave COVID-19 behind, its effects in transforming higher education will be long-lasting. 

In 2015 Georgia Tech launched the Commission on Creating the Next in Education to envision the university of the future. Their report, “Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education” included an ambitious proposal called the Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education. In addition to a place to receive a degree, a college must be a platform for an increasingly diverse population of learners to have learning resources for a lifetime. These ideas are now closer than they ever have been. 

We are entering a world where there will be multiple pathways to pursue a baccalaureate degree. Flexible options for adult learners with family and work obligations, corporate-sponsored tracks in partnership with employers, and collaborative pathways for the globally mobile will be the norm. Students will be able to hop on and off while building portfolios of creative activities and collections of digitally available credentials on their way to a degree.

Students will be able to hop on and off while building portfolios of creative activities and collections of digitally available credentials on their way to a degree.

Employees will enjoy more flexibility. While many organizations had work-at-home options before COVID-19, employees took advantage of them at their own risk, as they often came with an aura of skepticism if not suspicion about productivity and lack of accountability. We now know better. The pandemic forced many employees—and their managers—to work remotely. They all were surprised to learn how one can be even more productive working remotely given the right circumstances. Remote work also raised new concerns about maintaining work-life balance when boundaries disappear and about how to build the social capital that is essential for work in the absence of a water cooler or a cafeteria. Our immediate priority now is to defeat the pandemic so we can safely gather again in the office and meet face to face, but the experience of the last year cannot be undone, and I don’t see us going back to where we were pre-pandemic. 

The pandemic has also revealed important inequalities that we need to address. Broadband access and living quarters where one can concentrate and work have become essential tools. When we switched programs to a remote format, we learned that those were not available to many. While every student has access to many of the same resources when living and studying on campus, the same is not true when they were sent home. The promise of the Internet to democratize access will only be realized when broadband access reaches every household—including lower income neighborhoods and rural areas. 

Finally, the pandemic has highlighted just how essential the research function of the university is and how important it is that we figure out ways to focus much of that research in addressing issues that affect our society. We have learned how much we depend on science and technology to understand and overcome the crises that threaten our livelihoods and lives and how important it is that, at times when public messages are politicized, universities assume their responsibility as trusted voices to help society understand the threats and consider possible courses of action. 

During the past year, we have seen students work alongside professors to develop innovations with immediate impact around them—developing new diagnostic tools, vaccines, and antiviral treatments; analyzing and visualizing data; designing and producing personal protective equipment and medical devices. Along with much needed basic research, universities are showing every day how their research can be mobilized to find solutions to urgent problems that affect us all. Many research groups will be changed for good by the experience and will be far more focused on advances that can help us address the most vital challenges we face as a species and as a planet.

Many research groups will be changed for good by the experience and will be far more focused on advances that can help us address the most vital challenges we face as a species and as a planet.

Very early in the crisis, on March 24, 2020 The New York Times published a short video that highlighted some of Georgia Tech’s work. At the end of their video, Saad Bhamla, assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spoke from the hospital where his son, Eli, was about to be born and explained why he didn’t hesitate to jump into this rapid creative effort to create new solutions. He said, “What will we tell my son when he grows up and asks about what we did when society needed us?” I believe Saad, along with thousands of researchers around the world, can be very proud of what they did. I hope it helped people recognize anew the value of science and technology and the importance of continuing to invest in them. 

In April 2020, Association of American Universities (AAU) presidents and chancellors issued a news release, a note of thanks to all university communities including physicians, nurses, researchers, scientists, faculty, staff, and students. We also thanked our students, parents, alumni and other donors, and fellow Americans for their continued trust in us. It said, “Your investment in our institutions is paying dividends as we fight COVID-19 in laboratories and hospitals; teach students in every town, city, and state; and contribute to our local, regional, and national economies. America’s leading research universities play a unique and powerful role in our nation’s health and well-being. We are proud to be on the same team.” 

I have no doubt that we will prevail and that, when it’s all over, we will look back at these times not only as a crisis, but as a crucial moment of personal and collective learning and growth—a challenge that we faced together, that taught us profound lessons, that made us stronger, and changed our colleges and universities for the better.