Higher education—one of the most important factors in America’s security because it is the engine of technical and economic innovation—is likely to look the most radically different post-pandemic.
The dislocation of students and faculty and the rapid shift to online education amount to a sudden and radical experiment. Perhaps no other industry has been forced to shift so much of its core function so quickly. The effects will be long-lasting.
In addition to seeing a permanent move toward more distance education—something that may or may not be good for students in all disciplines, but we just don’t know—the “idea” of college will change. The “university as garden” model of long afternoons reading on the quad will have to give ground to more pragmatic ideals of the “college as job training” model.
I’m not convinced this is good for democracy, which needs citizens well-educated in the philosophy that undergirds our values of individual rights, especially as we face unprecedented government health surveillance. But also because this time to steep oneself in the study of, essentially, what it means to be human is critical for living a good life—and living a life of meaning beyond mere work.
Evaluating the ‘new’ teaching medium
We ought to be thoughtful as we make this shift to take care to find ways to preserve this part of education and to not let this new medium for teaching strip away what keeps our rights and identity as a people. The founders understood that an educated public was a political necessity for democracy first, and an engine for economic growth second. That doesn’t happen by accident. The many ideas of what freedom is have to be taught and explored by each generation in order to safeguard the American experiment.
In my experience, the content of a class is less important than the relationships you build with students.
I’m not saying online education isn’t capable of this, but I’m skeptical. Personal interaction is core to who we are and core to education. In my experience, the content of a class is less important than the relationships you build with students. Great teaching looks more like great coaching. It’s about motivating students to practice and push themselves because they’re excited by the questions raised in class, not for a grade. Students forget content, but they remember the skills that employers and graduate schools want from them if they’re excited by education to chase the content and form of study that suits those best, and if they’re coached through the inevitable failures along the way to mastery.
So I hope we start to evaluate education by this standard as well as its capacity show video, use virtual whiteboards and auto-grade tests. The metric needs to be whether and how these bells and whistles can make meaningful human contact with students possible so they can learn to learn, learn to write clearly, and develop the resilience and leadership skills that are what teachers guide students to find in themselves. Teachers know that what they do isn’t so much transmitting knowledge as it is using knowledge to guide students confidently into the greater unknowns beyond the classroom.
After all, if it were just about content, there wouldn’t be new stories every day about how much students need their teachers to help them stabilize emotionally amid all of this unknown.
Finding a bright spot: Assessment changes
But there is bright spot I see. Most universities have switched to pass/fail grades for this semester. I hope this sticks post-crisis. There’s strong evidence that grades actually impair the ability of students to perform at high levels and encourage students to take more challenging projects. Grades have also been shown to reinforce socioeconomic inequalities that, in turn, depress performance and post-graduation success among the same groups.
In the end, students today graduate into a world where the skill they’re most asked to show is the ability to take well-judged risks (there’s the unknown again) to adapt to fast-changing conditions in business or unprecedented problems in the public sector (see COVID-19). While there’s a lot of room to play with versions of semi-gradeless assessment, the standard should be how well an approach promotes a student’s internal motivation to perform instead of fear of a bad grade.
It is new world for real now. How we educate the students who will guide us through the midcentury demands priority attention from governments. Teacher pay and student loan reform are a part of this. College presidents and superintendents need to support deep questioning of how well both old and new methods keep our humanity at the center of education. It is that, more than anything, that will shape our new future because it’s our humanness that pushes us to excel under impossible conditions as we bring to bear the many medical, engineering, governmental and other skills we have to care for each other in each new future that comes crashing down on us.
Matthew Schmidt is an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and the winner of the prestigious Bucknall Award for Excellence in Teaching.