Author: Peter Felten, Center for Engaged Learning, Elon University (U.S.)

Sitting at my home “office” (formerly known as the kitchen table) a few weeks into a stay-home order, I received an email from Kasturi Behari-Leak, a scholar and leader whom I admire deeply. She invited me to consider writing a short essay on what I see happening in and to higher education from my perspective, as part of a larger set of HELTASA commentaries aiming to bridge global perspectives on the pandemic and higher education.

What I see from my perch at this table in Elon, North Carolina, seems perhaps more like a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink than some sort of bridge to greater understanding about the present and future of higher education in and beyond the United States. The response to COVID-19 in the U.S. academy has been chaotic, messy, and inconsistent. Even the delicious surprises from this experience – resilient students and academic staff, creative pedagogies emerging from computer screens, and deep learning – have come at a real cost. We have a lot of cleaning up to do. In the leftovers, however, some patterns seem to emerge.

In the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and learning in higher education across the United States – and also in many places around the world – evolved rapidly, if unevenly, due to the convergence of three trends.

First, the growth of “new majority” students diversified higher education institutions. In the U.S. today, more than 55 percent of undergraduates are women, 45 percent are students of color, 40 percent are aged twenty-four or older, and more than 25 percent work full-time while also attending school full-time. These are not the mythical students depicted by Hollywood who spend lazy days on the quad and long nights squandering their parents’ money in parties; instead, new majority students bring significant capacities to campus but also often face long-standing inequities and barriers to attaining their educational aspirations.

Second, student-staff partnerships have spread across higher education. These partnerships take a wide range of forms in classrooms and curricula, but all are rooted in an ethos of respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility that leads to deeply collaborative teaching and learning. In a recent analysis of student-staff partnership globally, Mercer-Mapstone contends that in many institutions and in some countries, co-creation has begun to be embedded in the structures, policies, and practices that make up the foundation of undergraduate pedagogy – shifting from isolated projects to a flexible yet systematic strategy that transforms the education of all students (p. 9).

Third, experiential and integrative learning have moved from the periphery toward the center of the undergraduate experience. In the United States, a research-informed set of “High-Impact Practices” (HIPs) have swept across the higher education landscape in the past decade. The eleven HIPs – ranging from work-integrated learning and undergraduate research to e-portfolios and community-based courses — immerse students in relationship-rich authentic learning environments with relatively few formal structures to guide them in deciding what and how they should transfer what they learned in the classroom into their new context: “The dynamic uncertainty of most HIPs leads students to be thoughtful and creative about how they adapt and apply their existing knowledge” (p. 54).

When these three trends aligned symbiotically, they created the possibility of expanded student agency in higher education. Students partnered with academic staff to transform classrooms and curricula into sites of critical inquiry into both emerging and enduring questions of their disciplines, their local communities, and our broader world. This required students – as individuals and collectively — to push against existing boundaries in the academy and in society, taking steps toward decolonizing their institutions and themselves. The pace of these efforts varied widely, but a new vision of student agency in higher education seemed to be emerging.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Across the globe, the pandemic has most profoundly affected people from communities that have been historically marginalized. In the United States, for instance, one prominent study reveals that while African Americans are 13 percent of the population, they account for 27 percent of the COVID-19 deaths. No comparable data is available about U.S. undergraduate infection rates or fatalities, but if marginalized communities are suffering disproportionately from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, it stands to reason that new majority students also will be taking a particularly hard hit. In addition, these same students typically attend higher education institutions that are facing the biggest shocks from the pandemic because they lack the large private endowments and deep political influence of the most elite universities.

At the same time, the pandemic sparked an abrupt shift from face-to-face to online teaching. Nearly all U.S. higher educations made this switch in the span of just a few days, giving students and academic staff almost no time to prepare. Although no studies have yet reported on the student or staff experience with that transition in this country, many personal essays and news articles suggest that this unexpected change prompted both individual teachers and academic programs to make quick decisions about pedagogy on their own – leaving most partnership practices behind, despite the best intentions and efforts of the academic staff involved. This underscored the lack of agency many students have in their own educations. In the pandemic “remote” classroom, students often note that they no say in pedagogical and assessment decisions. At a time when many students (and others) feel that their lives are out of control, the remote university classroom is one more space where students have little voice.

Although the pandemic has magnified existing inequities and undercut partnerships and agency, it has reinforced the significance of experiential and integrative learning. In the time of COVID-19, the idea of an Ivory Tower that is separate from the world is ridiculous. Even in disciplines and courses that seem to be above the fray, every student is immersed in a social, economic, and medical environment packed with urgent questions and wicked problems. The very qualities that make an experience a High-Impact Practice – situating students in complex, dynamic environments that require creative application of knowledge and skills to make meaning across disciplinary boundaries – are ubiquitous in students’ lives. COVID-19 robbed us of our familiar classrooms, but it also plunged all of us into situations that provide rich, trans-disciplinary opportunities for critical analysis and integrative learning.

The distinct challenge – and the profound opportunity – of teaching and learning today is to embrace the uncertainty and significance of the pandemic as a way to transform education. Rather than retreating from the chaos of the pandemic into the seemingly safe harbor of our disciplines, we should partner with our students to move our classes and curricula into the world. Doing this requires putting students, not disciplines, at the center of the teaching and learning enterprise. That does not obviate staff expertise or the research mission of higher education; instead, by focusing education on the urgent questions and problems of our students’ lives, we will reinforce the importance of disciplines as primary means to understand the world. Students will dive into disciplines that help them make sense of questions that matter to them, and students will partner with us to co-create new lines of inquiry and exploration that resonate with the emerging needs of their communities.

Re-centering our pedagogy and curricula also will create space for a more holistic, humane education that embraces the full humanity of all of our students. Rather than treating education as something that happens to  students, together we will live into education as a process and a way of being that not only meets the educational goals of individuals and institutions but that also contributes to the common good.