Constructive Disruption in Higher Education
Every college and university is having conversations about what to do for the fall term, if not the summer, and considerations and decisions are slowly being made public, with understandable caveats. Even as approaches emerge, one thing should be top of mind: institutions have the opportunity to reconsider the familiar modes of both teaching and learning, and in doing so, improve the efficacy of both. This is not just necessary to manage the current challenges posed by the pandemic; it will help them prepare for a changing market and the possibility of future disruptions.
One of the earliest institutions to announce their prospective plans for the post-pandemic fall semester was Beloit College. While Beloit did not use this description in its public communications, Inside Higher Ed framed Beloit’s decision to move from a 15-week semester to a sequence of two seven-week modules as a “Rethinking [of the] Academic Calendar.” By questioning and ultimately rejecting the utility of the traditional academic schedule during this time of disruption, they are hoping to adapt to meet the needs of their students.
This untethering from the traditional academic schedule is reminiscent of another impactful, if less dire, disruption to traditional scheduling: the growing ubiquity of streaming television. It is not simply the availability of previously aired television programs online that was the important innovation, but the creation of new content able to leverage freedom from the 30- and 60-minute storytelling format. Critics for NPR noted last year how the made-for-Netflix update of the Twilight Zone benefited from being able to match episode length to the story being told, rather than shrinking or expanding the story to fit a predetermined run time; a host of other television commentators agreed.
During this era of relying on Netflix and other digital technologies to live, work, and study through the pandemic, it seems timely to consider if there are lessons to be brought into whatever the new normal ends up being in the fall or beyond. The Covid-19 pandemic has created one of the most collectively disruptive moments in the history of American higher education. It has forced untold students and instructors to learn and teach in a way for which many were unprepared, all under medical and economic threat. There can be, however, an opportunity to recover from this disruption better able both teach and learn.
Consider what it would look like for course scheduling to be based on how long it would take for students to achieve a course’s learning outcomes rather than an arbitrary 15 week semester. Prior to the pandemic, institutions were already reconsidering the traditional semester length in their online offerings during the academic year. Even leaving aside online or hybrid formats, summer courses, winter terms, and other approaches to scheduling offered flexibility and student-centeredness that traditional semesters do not.
Consider further how online and hybrid pedagogies might create resilience and flexibility for the teaching and learning process when planned intentionally, rather than imposed by a global crisis. These pedagogies do not rely solely on synchronous co-location for learning to take place, so they can accommodate changes to place and scheduling more easily than traditional approaches. Enabling learning to occur at the student’s pace and in the student’s place can be a boon to students who need more flexibility at any time, but especially when the rest of their world has become more inflexible.
The pandemic has laid bare the challenges–not all students have access to laptops, the internet, or simply quiet places to study–of integrating technology and unexpected approaches to scheduling into the teaching and learning process. However, doing so can benefit students directly as well as indirectly by helping institutions maintain academic operations through disruptions to come.