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In my opinion

Why we must, and how we can, make the post-pandemic university a more intellectually productive learning commons

There’s no need to create a teaching schedule for the fall. Students have been telling us how to create a learning environment that makes sense. We should listen to them.

BY ANDRE COSTOPOULOS | JUL 05 2021

As we prepare to return in person on campuses this fall, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine our universities as more inclusive, more flexible and ultimately more intellectually productive learning commons. Some of the ways in which we were organized pre-pandemic, and some of what we did as teachers and researchers still make sense, but some don’t. Whatever we are preparing for, it isn’t fall 2019. This will be different.

To do so, we need to shift our view of campuses as assemblages of rooms in which sections are taught and exams are held, as we currently do, to learning commons in which learning and assessment are facilitated. We don’t need to create a teaching schedule for the fall, we need to create a learning environment that makes sense in a post-pandemic world. Our students have been telling us how. We should listen to them.

The pandemic has greatly accelerated two changes that were already ongoing in the before times. First, it has made it impossible to deny that university teaching is no longer about content delivery. The transition to online teaching has confronted us as never before with the reality that our job is not to give students information that they couldn’t otherwise get, it is to help them deal with the avalanche of information and conflicting claims that threatens to drown them each day.

Ask students. They will tell you. The lectures are for reviewing in fast forward when you are ready, or if you need to, or for replaying a segment a few times for clarity. The instructor is for learning how to evaluate and work with the information, for exploring it, and for learning about key insights. We need to more clearly separate the material from the teaching.

Second, the pandemic has shown students and everyone else that flexibility is not only possible, but viable, and even necessary. Teaching can and should happen in various modes. Some students do much better in person than online, and some do much better online. Others are indifferent and want to choose the option that is most convenient for them. More importantly, while the move to remote learning has created barriers for some, it has removed them for others, and it has expanded access. A move back to exclusive in-person learning will put those barriers back up, for no defensible reason.

We have the opportunity to create universities in which students have access to course and program materials at any time, and in which they are supported by teachers in pursuing their learning goals in a number of settings. Some of this support will happen in classrooms, but much of it will happen online, in the quad, in small seminars, in offices, or in library study spaces. These things were possible 10 years ago. Now they are necessary.

If we are going to provide the flexibility that students now recognize and demand, we will have to make a few changes.

Our programs, for example, don’t need to be collections of standard delivery three-credit courses. That model evolved in a pre-internet world, and the conditions in which it made sense don’t exist anymore. It was possible for us to pretend those conditions still exist, and to remain attached more to the model than to its purpose, as long as the pandemic hadn’t blown it up.

We don’t need to ask ourselves what courses we want our students to take. We need to ask ourselves what we want students to know when they have completed our programs; what do we want them to be able to do, what questions do we want them to be asking, and what sorts of contributions should they be able to make. As faculty, librarians, teaching assistants and tutors, we need to help guide our students to those outcomes.

We need to ask ourselves what tools are available for us to help guide our students to those goals, and for inspiring them to learn. We need to be available to support them in their learning. There are many ways of making material available to students and of guiding them through insights.

We don’t necessarily have to teach courses. We do, however, still have to teach our students and deliver our programs. We have to recognize the work involved and create an incentive structure for instructors that rewards all contributions to teaching in its various forms.

We all need to organize the discussion about how to implement a new teaching model in our respective areas of our postsecondary institutions. Our administrators need to be unafraid to allow new forms of program organization to develop and take hold. We work within regulatory constraints in different jurisdictions, but even those constraints are often much more flexible than we give them credit for and there is much reimagining that we can do, even without changing them.

If we do this right, our universities will remain relevant and thriving centres of learning and exploration through the pandemic transition, full of people interacting in person and at a distance, pursuing learning objectives and research goals, and helping each other grow and learn. We won’t be doing this primarily in classrooms, or perhaps not at all.

If we don’t do this, and if we don’t do it quickly, we will again be managing changing schedules and delivery modes, expectations, and anxieties. We will spend our time getting by, rather than growing as people and as communities. We will spend our time telling students why we can’t do what they ask us to do, and that they know is possible. We will find ourselves defending a structure that is no longer the best solution to the problems it is trying to solve, and for which there are obvious better alternatives. Worse, we will be defending the structure for the sake of the structure, rather than for the sake of the objectives it was intended to support.

André Costopoulos is vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta.

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  1. Susan Learney / July 7, 2021 at 14:10

    Absolutely. Some of us pioneers in online learning have had these thought for over twenty years.
    It’s all doable.

    • Andre Costopoulos / July 7, 2021 at 18:35

      Exactly. These ideas are not new, and there are people around with the expertise to guide others.

  2. Sondra Mantle / July 8, 2021 at 15:27

    This is a great read, André. The point you make that students have been telling us what they want in a learning environment is so true – survey after survey, the feedback is there and I hope we can show that we are listening. There is no greater time to make these changes!

    • Andre Costopoulos / July 8, 2021 at 16:16

      Thank you Sondra,

      The point about listening is very important to me, and as you point out, we do have the tools, such as multiple surveys. We need to pay attention. As faculty members, we also need to pay attention to each other when we discuss the various and very real constraints under which we have to make changes.

  3. Stewart Rood / July 10, 2021 at 09:04

    Nope, we do need a fall semester schedule. For undergraduate programs, the course structure provides defined units of progress and assessment. And as before Covid, the courses should not be uniform ‘standard delivery three credit courses’ and a dynamic and enriched program is primarily provided within courses. Each course can provide a unique blending that may include conventional and flipped lectures, discussion, independent and group work, and static and interactive assessments. Experiential components such as labs, tutorials and even field trips provide complement and digital delivery can augment some course components.

    Long ago, we experimented with a course-free ‘Colloquium Studies’ model that was a total disaster. Undergraduate students (and faculty) need a structure with defined units of completion. And advanced components such as an undergraduate thesis and graduate studies already involve more diverse structures with minor reliance on conventional three credit courses.