The Pandemic Pragmatists understand certain realities. First, the novel coronavirus is, for all intents and purposes, here to stay. Treatments will be found to ameliorate it. A vaccine may be developed to protect against it. But like the various strains of influenza and the human immunodeficiency virus — and measles and chickenpox, for heaven’s sake — it might be tamed eventually, but not soon eradicated.
And since we can’t hide from it indefinitely, Pandemic Pragmatists understand that we have to find ways to live with it. Lockdowns and quarantines are severe and temporary responses. We might need them in certain places in the months — even years — to come. But they can’t last forever and ideally shouldn’t even last long, given the tremendous shock they send through the economy and the culture.
I found a resolute example of the Pandemic Pragmatist attitude when I spoke with my friend Greg Gunderson the other day. He is president of Park University in Parkville, Mo. Overlooking the Missouri River near Kansas City, its picturesque campus appears at first glance to be a typical example of the many small colleges and universities founded across America after the Civil War.
But looks can be deceiving. The limestone clock tower on historic Mackay Hall is a sort of storefront, behind which lies a vast network of satellite campuses, most of them on or near U.S. military bases around the world. With some 1,600 traditional students in Parkville, and roughly 10 times as many taking courses while serving the nation, Park has long been an innovator in distance learning and online curriculum.
Now that the pandemic has pushed every school in America in Park’s direction — at least on an emergency basis — Gunderson is trying to use Park’s experience to successfully coexist with the virus. “This is the new normal,” he told me emphatically. “This experience will change the face of higher education, not for six months, but forever.”
Schools must fully commit to an online curriculum, not to replace the campus experience, but to create flexibility to cope with the pandemic, he said. “Everything we teach on campus is available in online form,” which means that Park can reopen, close again or open partially — all at the flip of a switch. “All of our professors can teach online. Most of our students have experience with online classes.”
As millions of educators and students have learned this spring, this is not just a matter of posting a syllabus on Google Classroom. Effective online education requires new ways to measure achievement, new teaching skills, new approaches to human connection across virtual space. Most importantly, Gunderson continued, distance learning demands attention to the have-nots of the digital age: students lacking the hardware and the high-speed WiFi needed to learn online. Park has been spending a lot on Chromebooks and signal boosters lately.
Park’s investment — money, time and creativity — in online curriculum allows Gunderson to plan a partial reopening for the fall semester. He knows that safety has leapt to the top of the agenda for many parents and students. He’ll answer that by housing half as many students on campus and reducing classroom capacity by two-thirds. Students will take some of their classes in person and some online. Or if they are unsure about returning, they have the option of doing every class from a distance.
This Pandemic Pragmatist is looking beyond survival to find new opportunities in the crisis. Given the large number of high school seniors thinking about a “gap year” before heading to college, Gunderson is pushing Park to offer online tools that turn those experiences into college credit. Offering a “service minor” will convert lessons learned from volunteer work into substantial credit as well.
“Higher education spends too much time teaching things that students have already learned from their life experience,” Gunderson told me. Park’s mission, on campus or from a distance, is to convert those experiences directly into credit “so that our students graduate earlier and arrive more quickly at higher pay.”
As long as customers of higher education demand virus-resistant campuses — fewer residents in dorms and fewer bodies in classrooms — the traditional college experience will be even more expensive. That’s simple real estate finance. But robust online teaching, plus recognition that life itself is a classroom, can create a new normal in which most students spend only a year or two living the on-campus life. The overall cost might even come down.
Life will be different, the Pandemic Pragmatists say. But that doesn’t have to mean worse.
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