By Dr. Michael M. Crow *
When I was a kid and something unexpected would go wrong, my father always turned to the same phrase. “Do I have your attention now?” he would ask.
Over the past several months, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced educational institutions around the world to rapidly adapt to new realities and an uncertain future. It is a crisis that poses to educators and policy makers my father’s old question: “Do I have your attention now?”
Crises like this one should get our attention, because they highlight many of the problems in our education systems, and in our societies. It is no longer possible to prize exclusion over inclusion in education, ignore gaps in access to knowledge-expanding technologies, or refuse to enhance traditional learning systems with digital tools.
At Arizona State University, the pandemic forced us to move more than 75,000 learners online in a period of about 48 hours. Since then, we’ve rapidly developed sociotechnical capacities that have allowed us to expand and project our environment of learning, teaching, innovating and discovering in ways that we hadn’t previously considered possible.
Many higher education institutions are focused on how survive in this new normal, in which class delivery and the entire business model for education has been turned on its head. The logistical questions of how to safely resume activities —How far do students need to be sitting apart in classrooms? What options exist for international students? How can we keep our campus clean and safe?— are critically important. At the same time, our long-term response to this crisis cannot be one of passive reaction. Higher education institutions across North America and the world should be working together to accelerate our innovation. All of our educational enterprises should be adaptable, flexible, and adjustable, as they encounter every kind of need for change. This collective rewiring of educational models doesn’t mean abandoning the intellectual heart of a university, but rather modernizing it to adapt to the needs of a global, high-speed, technically advanced society.
The situation of many universities around the world right now is one of ships being battered around in an ocean of 40-foot waves. Most of us are still floating, but we know the storm is still raging, and there are some 100-foot waves out there. We can do our best to anticipate the impact of one of those waves, to prepare for that impact, but we’re better off if we work together in that process. Universities should be linking up, thinking through shared problems and collaborative solutions.
Next semester at ASU, we’re planning to resume in-person classes on campus, in conjunction with two other learning modalities, which we call full-immersion synchronous and digital immersion. Digital immersion allows students to take classes at their own convenience using asynchronous technology, what we traditionally think of as an online class. Full-immersion synchronous learning, on the other hand, allows students who can’t or don’t want to attend classes on campus to do so via technologies like Zoom. These students are getting the same content from the same professors at the same time as their peers on campus. Within this synchronous learning environment, we’re investing significant time and resources to build ways to simulate in-classroom engagement, both socially and academically.
As we think about ways to move forward, the health and safety of our university community is the most important factor, and our plans will adjust in accordance with recommendations from health experts. But we plan on offering these three modalities because it’s crucial to give learners as many options and as much flexibility as possible, meeting them where they are, no matter where that is.
Meeting students where they are also means making sure they have the technology and internet access they need. At ASU, we were able to make sure all of our students who had to transition to remote learning in March had access to a laptop and internet, but this crisis underlines our society’s responsibility to universalize internet access.
Our responsibility as higher education institutions is not only to our current students, but to an entire community of learners, formal and informal, on a path toward universal learning. In March, we launched ASU For You, a collection of online, largely free resources—everything from virtual field trips to lab simulations and even tools for parents teaching children at home and professionals considering a career change. The goal was to empower Universal Learners, with the idea that education is not a point-to-point process, something to complete within a defined period, but rather a lifelong journey.
When we approach higher education as a competition of exclusivity —with institutions taking pride in educating few students and rejecting many— we do our communities a fundamental disservice. Instead, we must view higher education as an abundant system. An abundant systems perspective recognizes that higher education becomes more valuable for individuals and society when it is widely adopted, and therefore should be accessible for everyone who wants to commit to it. In other words, excellence and accessibility in college education are not only compatible, they are synergistic.
As universities in North America, we should be focused on creating innovation networks across borders, dedicated to sharing knowledge and innovating for the wellbeing of our linked communities. With la Universidad de Guadalajara, la Universidad Tecnológica de México, la Universidad Tecmilenio and el Tecnológico de Monterrey, we recently launched Acceso ASU, a binational collaboration that allows students to seamlessly transfer credits between the institutions while working toward a degree at ASU. The result is increased choice and diversity of experiences for our students and increased connectivity between our universities.
Covid-19 has demonstrated that we have underinvested in educational innovation, underprioritized educational accessibility and underserved our communities as a result. As my father would say, those failures now have our attention. The next question, with 100-foot waves on the horizon, is “What’s the path forward?”
I believe educational enterprises can answer this question by working together to meet rapidly shifting challenges with a commitment to adaptability, flexibility, innovation, and accessibility. We have an opportunity to educate more people under more circumstances than we ever have before. Let’s build a system that can weather any storm.
* Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University (ASU) named the most innovative university in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelcrow