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UK and US college leaders debate post-COVID-19 ‘next normal’

In a post-COVID world, evidence has emerged in the UK and overseas to show that students like blended learning, combining remote and on-campus, online and face-to-face tuition. The question now is, how can colleges make that work?

The broad thinking of a group of college leaders in the US and the UK committed to harnessing technology feel that this ‘next normal’ will be slightly different for each college, depending on location and student demographic.

It could and should also be different – personalised - for each learner, depending on their needs and preferences.

All leaders in the group, brought together this summer through a partnership forged between Jisc and its US counterpart, EDUCAUSE, believe that technology has a part to play.

John O’Brien, CEO at EDUCAUSE, feels that offering students more flexibility is key to ‘success’. He explains:

“As we start to think about the next normal, I think we're seeing a trend in which students are at the centre of the discussion, and they’re expecting more flexibility in their learning.

“Technology is a major part of this. For successful colleges, digital sophistication is going to be an institutional differentiator. It's what students are starting to look for and we think it's going to make the difference between organisations that survive or thrive in the next normal.”

Pam Eddinger, president at Bunker Hill Community College, Massachusetts, agrees:

“We need to individualise services. Education has to be much more nuanced.

“It is not a matter of whether a student wants to be online or on campus, it is a matter of what we provide for the student to enable them to study wherever they are.

“The burden, for those of us who do the planning for our colleges, is to be much more open to providing sets of unique ‘boutique’ services that can better serve the student and give them what they need to succeed.

“This is not a fun time to be in leadership because it's so much more complex, but it's certainly better for students.”

Debra Gray, principal of Grimsby Institute in the north-east of England, also wants to give learners more choice. She asks:

“What does hybrid and high-flex learning look like in my context, when my youngest student is 14 and my oldest is in their 80s, and I also have to deliver for everyone in between?

“Do I have the infrastructure to deliver that, with learners in the classroom, out of the classroom, and those wanting to do both at a time that suits them?

“I want to provide learners with the level of personalisation they need. It's their education, not mine - they are the consumers and they ought to be able to make choices and have some ownership of that.”

Responding to staff needs

Chancellor at Foothill-De Anza Community College District, California, Judy Miner, points out there’s also a need to offer flexibility to staff. She says:

“Our students are not monolithic, and neither are our staff. Half of my faculty want to continue to teach remotely and how do I accommodate that while providing a service to students?

“Fewer than 15% of our students said they want to come back to learn fully on-campus and about half said they want to stay online. I’m just thinking through the complexity of all these pieces coming together.”

Anthony Bravo, principal at Basingstoke College of Technology, also acknowledges the importance of technology in adapting to learner needs, especially in the context of staff skills.

“Ironically, our normal is actually trying to get back to where we were just before the pandemic, when we had face-to-face learning, very effective blended lessons, and online provision.

“What we're focused on now is specific training for staff - giving them new tools and techniques, looking at what the students particularly enjoyed during the pandemic, and making sure we're moving those elements into next year's curriculum.”

Bravo adds that, in his experience, students prefer face-to-face learning on campus, because it also allows them to socialise. Sally Dicketts, CEO of Activate Learning, agrees this is important, especially for young learners:

“The neuroscience around technology and learning is fascinating. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that our brains are mostly emotional, therefore, I would argue that to have students, unless they’re adults, constantly online will impact on overall learning, because some socialisation is necessary.”

Employability

South East Regional College in Northern Ireland has developed a project-based learning model across all disciplines and all levels and is looking to use this model for both online and on-campus learning in the ‘next normal’.

Michael Malone, director of curriculum and information services, says:

“A priority is developing transferable skills on project-based learning, such as digital literacy, which ensures the students know how to collaborate online and to do so safely.”

Collaboration is one of the desirable soft skills that employers value. Dicketts is also looking to employers for a steer on how the future curriculum can best meet their needs, especially for technical skills. She points out:

“Our purpose is enabling our students, whatever their age, to gain meaningful employment.

“The issue now is what will employment look like in 2050 and are we developing learning in a way that will challenge and/or compliment work? We've been working with employers to determine that.”

For more information, read the joint Jisc/EDUCAUSE roundtable report.