“You can walk into any classroom and it looks the same as it did 200 years ago,” says Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed. However, that’s all changed, as the pandemic set into motion different modes of learning. Institutions have been forced to rethink where and how learning happens. 

Lederman had a conversation with his colleague Scott Jaschik about the current hybrid model of learning and whether there is a way of learning that trumps the traditional “butts in seats” model. They also examined some of the pre-pandemic learning models that are gaining ground now. 

The many challenges the pandemic brought forth

While the pandemic created new ways of learning and greater flexibility for students, it also brought inefficiencies to light. One of these issues was the “digital divide,” the difference in levels of access many students had to computers and Wi-Fi. Students also had different levels of access to safe and secure, quiet places to study.

“We even saw some colleges [trying to combat this] by setting up Wi-Fi stations in their parking lots,” says Lederman. Enrollment data showed that students from low-income and minority groups were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and dropped out, he adds. Institutions increased training and support for faculty members to match higher student expectations. However, 

“the quality of [the instruction] we saw delivered was not great at the beginning. There was a lot of variation, and the [instructors] who had more exposure to online learning were able to pivot better and faster than those who did not,” 

says Lederman. 

The pandemic also forced institutions to address the financial implications of operating universities, as well as how they use campus space. “Perhaps there’ll be fewer office desks and potentially fewer buildings,” says Lederman. We’d also expect a decentralization of facilities across the board, from dorm rooms to coworking spaces. 

It’s not the end of face-to-face learning

Universities had no choice but to integrate online learning into their programs last year when we were all sheltered in place due to COVID-19. This actually propelled things already in play pre-pandemic. For example, prior to the pandemic, a third of all students, mainly older, working, or location-bound students, had taken at least one online course.

The number has grown steadily in recent years. “The enrollment of online learning had been growing at a time when enrollment in general in higher education was flattening and declining,” says Lederman. He added that more students had been signing up for online courses because of their flexibility and convenience.

While more students have been signing up for online classes, many still prefer a split of in-person and online classes (a hybrid model of learning). They cite socialization and collaboration as important components of in-person learning. 

Brightspot strategy conducted a survey of more than 400 students in the U.S. The study found that of those students attending face-to-face classes, 15 percent were more likely to rate their academics as “far above average” compared to those learning only remotely. Hybrid learners were also 33 percent more likely to recommend their university to their friends. 

Virtual and physical spaces should be integrated

During the pandemic, virtual interactions became the norm for a sense of community. Dr. Thomas Ellett, chief experience officer at Quinnipiac University, says one of the most popular initiatives they tried was a virtual roommate program, which they plan to continue for commuter students moving forward. “It certainly wasn’t the same,” he said of the past year, “but creativity reigned.”

Students held reflective yoga sessions after hikes, attended events centered around food trucks, and participated in group outings for residence hall pods called “pods on the quad.”

Outdoor space has become more of a feature at Jackson State University too. “Here in Mississippi, it doesn’t get that cold,” Dr. Powell shared. “We’re getting ready to put down an outdoor study space so students can use some of their green areas to study and interact.” The school’s newly renovated commuter lounge also features an outdoor extension, which makes it more discoverable for students who didn’t know it was there before.

The materials used to build a space can also make it feel more accessible and safer. Carney explained that by using glass and allowing transparency into rooms, students can see what happens in academic departments they may not have had prior exposure to. They can also evaluate an environment before deciding to enter.

In terms of integrating physical and virtual spaces, she said, “[remote work] is not going to go away with COVID, so we’re trying to understand how we can improve on what we’ve been doing so that people who are connected remotely have the same sense of belonging in that discussion as the people who are literally around the table.”

Haymes has a vision of a hybrid learning system where students can attend university remotely while also having access to a physical education hub where they can network with fellow students and access resources like reliable wireless internet. Mesh Cowork has already set up these types of satellite offices, which can be designed to suit student needs and reflect an institution’s culture. The hope is to increase capacity at schools in a way that will benefit underserved students and higher education institutions alike. As Haymes sees it, “We now have a seat for every student in the United States who wants to go to school.”

By using recent advancements in hybrid learning and continuing the community-building work of these panelists and others, higher education could become more equitable than ever before.

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