Liberal Arts Institutions’ Classrooms Becoming Virtual--A Necessary Paradigm Shift Now Underway in Light of COVID-19!

 

It is amazing how the situation on the ground at our universities and colleges is changing every day. Institutions are attempting to go online via Blackboard, Moodle, D2L (Brightspace) or whatever else they have available. Most universities will now claim that they have switched to online learning. In speaking with presidents, students, parents, and faculty, the results of this venture are mixed. Some faculty are way ahead of the rest while others are mightily struggling. The consensus, however, is that online learning--no matter grad or undergrad--is here to stay. Paradigm shifts in higher education happen in strange and mysterious ways. This period will truly be seen as a paradigm shift in the strangest of ways.

 

Some suggest that we are on the verge of truly creating virtual universities. I agree to a point. My heart and experience tell me that the “in person/classroom” will always be operative in the liberal arts institutions. I know that there is much foreboding that these institutions will not survive; I have heard this my whole career. Yet, they are still amongst us! Repeatedly, they adapt and survive in interesting ways. The current crisis will mark a significant evolutionary gain in how these institutions adapt to the current crisis to face future crises and to change the face of higher education.

 

While the traditional liberal arts classrooms will not “actually” become fully virtual, they will need to do so when circumstances cause them to do so. The following diagram might help explain what I have in mind.

 

On this scale, the lower numbers tend to be more traditional. As one moves up the scale, the transformation to a virtual enterprise gradually takes place. IT is already present at the lowest levels but often in the background in support of the in person approach. As one moves up the scale, IT becomes front and center as the highway on which the entire enterprise runs. Students will always be present in the classrooms (1) but the ability to go full virtual (10) must become a reality for these traditional institutions.

 

I liken this scenario to the old-time radio dial that you can dial up or dial down depending on what music you wish to listen to. In the future, institutions need to have the ability to dial-up or down the virtual reality scale due to a crisis or the needs of various entities. For example, some faculty will never go fully online while others will. However, online will now become an important tool for every class.

 

Where do we turn for assistance in moving the curriculum and our faculty to a more robust presence and capability?  Higher education has had tremendous experience in online programming for adults. For traditional students, not so much. The current crisis in our country is setting the stage for a tectonic shift in pedagogy across the curriculum. Faculty are at different places in their adaption to online courses. Some traditional faculty are reluctant to adapt technology to their classroom or adapt their classroom to the possibilities of technology--while others are quite adept at flipping their classrooms.  

 

Creating this virtual reality possibility from supporting the current model (1) to becoming the virtual campus (10), is a unique but necessary opportunity. While IT has been with our institutions since its inception, it usually was out of sight and out of mind—except for the most ardent of advocates. This terrible virus is changing the role of IT. IT will no longer be a back-office operation but the highway on which all things in higher education (and all of education ) run. Those institutions able to anticipate the bends in the windy road ahead and adapt will survive; those unable to do so will fail.

 

 

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