Fall has always been a magical time on college campuses. Energy and anticipation are in the air as new students arrive on campus for the first time and seniors return for their final year. After a quiet summer, colleges and universities are once again packed with people and alive with activity. The excitement is palpable, and for those who work on a college campus, the beginning of the fall semester can be truly invigorating.
This fall, of course, is different. The infectious excitement that has historically characterized the beginning of the fall semester has quickly given way to infections of a different kind. Despite all the optimistic planning and preparation that went into many institutions’ return-to-campus plans, some schools have quietly made a last-minute switch to remote learning. Other pivots have been widely publicized after several institutions experienced significant spikes in COVID cases shortly after bringing students back to campus.
The COVID crisis of the spring appears to have given way to what futurist Bryan Alexander calls the “Toggle Term” of the fall. When the pandemic first swept across the United States in March, it proved to be a test of institutions’ emergency preparedness, with some institutions faring better than others. This fall there was a strong desire to return to “normal”—whatever that might be—but in the absence of that, institutions and their leaders appear to be working toward a state of pivot-readiness, prepared for whatever twists and turns the virus has to offer.
Being fully prepared and ready to pivot may seem ideal in the midst of a pandemic. In the context of higher education, however, it has generally been invoked to mean that institutions may need to shift from a desired state to a (presumably temporary) altered state and will eventually shift back—not that the change is permanent, as one might expect from a pivot in another type of business. This simply is no longer enough.
Institutions—and institutional leaders—must come to terms with the fact that we are never going back. The current pandemic may continue to disrupt our lives for years to come, or it could fade away as quickly as it came. No one really knows, nor does it much matter. The pandemic has already exposed cracks in the foundation of higher education and has highlighted new possibilities we never could have imagined. It’s time for leaders to change their focus from temporary pivot-readiness to rebuilding their institutions for permanent resilience.
The move toward resilience begins with building more flexible teaching and learning environments and workplaces, where a combination of distant, hybrid, and in-person learners and workers co-exist equally and seamlessly, codifying what institutions are temporarily trying to support today in response to the pandemic. The key to doing this successfully—and permanently—will be finding new ways to build connections and maintain the valuable aspects of an institution’s culture while simultaneously shedding those parts of its culture that hold it back from doing so.
A lot of great work and thinking has gone into developing research-based best practices for building effective hybrid teaching and learning communities and for humanizing online education, guided by thought leaders such as Tanya Joosten, Jessica Knott, Sean Michael Morris, Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Jesse Stommel, and Laura Gogia, who recently joined the Tambellini analyst team—along with so many others. There is no shortage of resources for institutions to adopt and adapt to help them venture into online and hybrid education when they’re ready.
On the flexible workplace front, however, there is much work left to be done. When administrative and IT teams went remote in the spring, they proved to their institutions—and maybe even themselves—that it could be done. Some thrived in this environment, while others held out hope for a quick return to campus. With temporary remote work in the spring giving way to a longer-term hybrid or fully remote work environment this fall, institutions and their staff are starting to feel the pressure of working remotely in an environment that is very much built for face-to-face interaction—and still operating that way in offices deemed essential for the return to campus.
IT leaders can begin the process today of rebuilding their workplaces to be more intentionally flexible and inclusive for their team, and in doing so, can provide their institutions with a model for creating a digital workplace of the future. To get started, leaders can begin conducting the following activities:
There is no time like the present to get started on this work. Feeling isolated at home and overwhelmed by too many video calls, college and university staff across the country are beginning to feel disconnected from their colleagues and the deep sense of community, which, for many, is the reason they work in higher education to begin with. With intentional focus and hard work, IT leaders can help a new sense of community form—not one that attempts to replicate the old in a new format (i.e., online), but one that reinvents the expression of community in a new, flexible and digital workplace.
It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
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