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Philip DiStefano: What higher education has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

The future is a hybrid between the two worlds where the best teaching and learning happen no matter where or when.

A fresh dusting of snow covers the Flatirons and the University of Colorado Boulder campus. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

It’s been a year since COVID-19 struck our world, and we all underwent a tectonic, generational change.

Such a monumental societal disruption causes us to re-examine all kinds of institutions, including higher education. 

Last March, as the pandemic spread and confusion gripped our nation’s college campuses, University of Colorado Boulder took immediate, decisive action and moved to a remote learning environment for the safety of our community. Like every other college, we had to put a Band-Aid on a large wound while we figured out a longer-term cure.

Philip DiStefano

We shouldn’t mistake that sudden, necessary change for lasting transformation. However, it has become clear: We won’t go back to the way things were. 

Before the pandemic, universities mostly required in-person learning, and professors and students had to be on the same schedule. Since the pandemic, remote learning and living have become normalized, and students have taken advantage of flexible learning environments such as pre-recorded lectures, class discussion boards and other online activities. The growing pains were initially onerous, but the advantages of the new environment became clear. 

We heard from students and professors that the technologies often enhanced the learning experience. The flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous learning benefited both the teacher and student. 

We also learned from the pandemic that students still crave the in-person experience. We can’t replace the humanity of the campus experience with technology. The give-and-take of intellectual discourse is more effective in person and, as one of the top research universities in the world, we want many of our students to have the experience of getting their hands dirty in our labs and art and performance studios.

The future is a hybrid between the two worlds where the best teaching and learning happen no matter where or when. 

What does this look like? Think about the option to attend in-person at the scheduled time or online later in the day with a recorded component. If you have another activity or obligation during your regularly scheduled class, you can watch the recording later and still engage with technologies like online polling and comments. Professors also have the flexibility to decide whether in-person attendance is required during a given course. 

Fairly or unfairly, universities are criticized for being slow to change and making decisions in ivory towers. We saw the pandemic as an opportunity to flip the script and further promote our transparency. 

We began hosting weekly town halls where students, parents, faculty and staff from anywhere in the world could ask any question they wanted of myself, the chief operating officer or the chief academic officer. The feedback was so positive that we plan to continue the virtual town halls post-COVID.

We also used technology to meet and collaborate with community leaders, such as the Boulder City Council and local public health authorities, as we worked together to overcome challenges. A university is part of a broader community, and we share in the experiences of those around us.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Finally, one of our biggest challenges and priorities has been to bring greater diversity to our campus – to make it look more like America. We have been making steady progress, but I believe by adopting new technologies and ways of learning we can reach more people. We now have direct experience tailoring higher education to a variety of life circumstances and to those with different education needs. 

 As we look back at the past year, we’ll certainly see missteps. But we will also see possibilities for lasting transformation. In-person education will continue as the bedrock to teaching and learning, but with greater flexibility, accommodating a broader spectrum of students.

With disruption comes opportunity, and we are building a better, lasting system that works for more people.


Philip P. DiStefano is the chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and serves on the governing boards of the NCAA, PAC-12 and Association of American Universities.


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