Why I Have Hope for the Future of Higher Ed

By Karen Gross

It would not be the least bit unusual to feel pessimistic about education in general and higher education in particular. Enrollments have been declining at many institutions across the education landscape. Budgets are tight at many. Shootings on campuses or unexpected deaths of students are far too frequent. So too are hazing and harassment. Discrimination is on the rise. The equity gap is widening. Faculty and staff are disenchanted and stressed; so are students. Mental wellness is a challenge for many. In short, the future doesn’t look bright. And the media are having a heyday sharing all the negative news.

Yet, I still have hope.

What alternative is there? If we don’t have hope, we stagnate and fail to make forward progress. Add to this that, philosophically speaking, hope is an attitude we hold that enables us to navigate difficult times with a forward-focused approach and a belief in the possibility of a better future.

Pandemic positives

There is a third reason that I see hope in education. It has to do with what we experienced and how we responded to the pandemic. It may seem counterintuitive to many, but we need to shift the lens through which we view the pandemic’s impact on education.

Most people have been focused on the pandemic’s negatives and how we eradicate or lessen all that has happened to students. There is an embedded assumption that we need to move “back to normal” to restore what the pandemic stole.

But this assumes that education was, pre-pandemic, in good shape, which is far from the truth. Even pre-pandemic, there were deficits in education that led to student failures in college and lack of access to quality postsecondary education for far too many low-income students. Pedagogy was suboptimal in many classrooms; lecturing was too common. Demographics also impacted educational enrollment in a period before the pandemic started. And though there were approaches being researched and tried before the pandemic to improve higher education, many of these ideas were not implemented widely or fully. For example, social and emotional learning was gaining traction as were community schools and trauma-sensitive schools. Studies showing the value of enhancing the student-teacher relationship as it improves learning and self-control were available and used by some academic institutions.

But we have ignored the positives that occurred within the education landscape, As part of a book we are co-authoring, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychology Edward K. S. Wang and I have gathered a wide range of positives that actually occurred during the pandemic in terms of learning and psychosocial development. Yes, there were positives although they have often not been named or recognized. And these positives have not been replicated or scaled.

Here are just a few examples of these positives. With educators working online, they were able to see students engaging with their families and that often disclosed dysfunction that, but for online learning, would not have been observed. So, in a real way, educators had an opportunity to understand more fully who their students were/are. Consider too the fact that some students who did not engage in classroom discussion when learning was in-person, were able to participate more fully and more easily online; for these students, it is likely that the absence of teasing or peer pressure were eased online. With both in-person masked and socially distant learning and in the online environment, educators exercised increased strategies to engage and connect with students as well as connecting them to each other; the absence of the “normal” engagement approaches allowed for new avenues for connection. This prompted more project-based learning, pod learning and interactive activities, all educational positives.

What if we try to identify as many of these positives as possible and reflect on how did they come about? Then we can look at how to replicate and scale these positives for the betterment of higher education moving forward.

Begin with how the positives came to pass. Think about this phrase and its applicability: Necessity is the mother of invention. We know that in times of crisis, we develop strategies to cope and deal with what is before us. We may not know why what we develop during a crisis works, but there is no question but that crises create opportunities to change the status quo. Crises force us to act quickly too, because change is afoot and will not await the traditional timetables for change.

And, that happened in education at all levels. Educators figured out–not systemically to be sure–how to teach online (some for the first time). These educators wrestled with new ways to present materials. These educators struggled to engage students who were not all in the same room–engage them with the material, engage them with one another and engage them with the educator.

Take this example. Some college students were signing into classes, but were not engaging with learning. Their names, not faces, appeared. They muted themselves. In reality, some professors did not even know if the students were “there” in terms of paying attention. Some professors realized that “teaching as usual” was not an option. There needed to be different incentives, different approaches, different forms of engagement.

While new to online platforms and learning with their colleagues, professors tried new pedagogies. Some professors tried using polling to measure learning and class engagement. Some tried using breakout rooms, allowing students to process information and solve problems. Some turned to videos within the online environment and then encouraged discussion. Some used the chat room and other writing tools, recognizing that different students had different learning styles in the online world (something that was true pre-pandemic). Some had efforts to get students to “tune” in by having true/false questions, the answers to which involved showing or not showing faces on screen. Some professors came online early and left late to enable students to ask questions. Some professors used email and online platforms to message students between classes and make connections. Some had virtual office hours. Some had phone calls with students. The ways professors made online learning work, when they were previously unaccustomed to this learning modality, was remarkable.

These are all approaches which, absent the sudden crisis and need to move online or into hybrid mode, would not have happened. Yes, online learning did exist pre-pandemic, but it was not deployed in many traditional academic environments. And, in the process of changing how they taught their students, professors experienced changes too in how they viewed their roles and responsibilities as educators. In a sense, the shared Pandemic experience allowed students and educators to engage more fully and with greater understanding of each other.

Reflect on these examples.

Some students expressed frustration with their learning through online behavior like noticeably demonstrating disinterest; they multitasked or used their cell phones or were eating and drinking, suggesting the need for a professor to engage with them offline. And, seeing this behavior encouraged some professors to pause, take note and reach out, likely because they themselves were struggling to remain engaged.

Some students were unable to connect to the materials or the class and farmed off the work to outsiders. Recognizing this risk made professors create assignments that were unique and unavailable to purchase; they also designed engagement and its impact on class grading to operate differently so that students were unable disregard in-class participation.

Some students were dysregulated or disassociated, whether online or in-person; this means they were unable to concentrate and learn as a consequence of their traumatic pandemic (or other) experience. Some of these students were angry over the change in their educational experience and wanted no part of the new offerings. Some simply checked out even though they were present. Some acted out by stomping around, throwing paper, banging on their phone, being loud and argumentative and this could be witnessed online or in person. Professors and staff had to intervene and engage differently with these students, including through interventions with staff with experience in mental wellness.

The pandemic also brought policy flexibility with experimental efforts, pilot initiatives and changes in grading and discipline. Addressing NEBHE’s fall 2022 board meeting, Inside Higher Ed’s Doug Lederman noted that after trillions of dollars in federal aid helped higher education make faster adaptations during the pandemic, now, sadly, institutions and educators are returning to the old ways. In some ways, we can see parallels to the speed with which Covid vaccines were created; federal funding, collaboration and need were compelling forces.

Here’s the point: Educators teaching during the pandemic made changes to what they did and how they did it–even if they would not have made changes but for the Pandemic’s intervention. What they did not realize or understand is that the changes they made should not be limited to the Pandemic world. They employed approaches that are valuable still: engagement; connection and communication. And these changed learning strategies are trauma-responsive, even though they likely were not used with trauma amelioration at the forefront of professors’ minds. Indeed, the trauma literature abounds with references to the need for trusted individuals, ongoing connection and increased communication.

One strategy was to visualize this change in the midst of a crisis is to reflect on the following illustration. Pre-pandemic, things were like the lower left corner of this painting, largely ordered although certainly not homogeneous. During the pandemic, things changed, and the usual rules and formats and engagement changed and we became disordered in a sense. The order pre-pandemic was disrupted. We needed professors to change; we needed students to change; we needed institutions to change. And the changes were made as we went. We built the education plane as it was flying.

What does this all mean?

We need to identify the positives that occurred in education during the pandemic. Then we need to find ways to share these positives so they can be replicated and scaled. And we need to develop stickiness— how to make change last and endure so that we can see long-term improvement. Now, stickiness is tricky; how we can make social change is a topic worthy of future discussion.

As I reflect on the positive changes engendered by the pandemic, I am struck by the statement that accompanies an ancient Japanese form of pottery repair named Kintsugi. The broken shards are pieced together with gold and then it is said, “More Beautiful for Being Broken.”

In a very real way, inspired by Kintsugi, we need to make peace with the pieces the pandemic left behind and gather the positive shards and allow them to be part of education moving forward. This following illustration that I created is an effort to speak to the beauty that can be found if we piece together what is broken. And, by analogy, so it is with education.

With the Kintsugi philosophy in mind, here is what I see. I see that positive change happened in higher education during the pandemic, and for complex reasons, we have largely ignored it. Instead, we are enamored with the negatives the pandemic produced, which are plentiful to be sure.

We would be wise to look at the positives, some of which were detailed above, that occurred–within and outside individual classrooms and within the higher education community. And we can then name what happened during the pandemic us to move forward. If we do this, we can use what we did to better education for our students today and tomorrow.

A crisis created opportunity for change. Let’s not let that opportunity go to waste to play off a hackneyed phrase. That, at the end of the day, is my hope. And it is not chimerical hope. It is hope grounded in this reality: if we are willing to work to acknowledge and then use the positive change we created, we can improve higher education.

Karen Gross is former president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She specializes in student success and trauma across the educational landscape and teaches at the Rutgers School of Social Work. Her most recent book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Solutions and Strategies for Educators, PreK-College, was released in June 2020 by Columbia Teachers College Press and was the winner of the Delta Kappa Gamma Educator’s Book of the Year award. All artwork in this piece is by Karen Gross.

Author’s note: I have written for The New England Journal of Higher Education for over 15 years. All the pieces I have written have been shepherded through the publication process by John Harney. Even when my ideas were outside the proverbial box, his questions and editing suggestions were spot on and thoughtful and supportive. I know he is retiring. This essay is dedicated to him, because not only is it out of the box, but I wanted one last opportunity to share my thoughts with him and garner his valuable feedback. So, this essay is my thank-you to a marvelous editor who allowed my voice to be heard.





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