You know that T Rex that pops up on your screen when you can’t connect to the internet? It’s a game, and it helps you occupy your time while you are waiting to get back online. I feel like higher education has been staring at a screen with that T Rex since spring of 2020. Like an impatient browser, we’ve been attempting to reboot our campuses. But much of the system is still down. When we can restart, we’ll need some new guidelines, to keep students, faculty, staff, and communities safe. And the truth is, we’ll need more than that.
It seems like a cliché to say: many of our institutions are like that T Rex — facing extinction if we don’t learn how to play the game
As higher education leaders steer our way out of the disruptions and shut downs that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to ask two key questions: How do we build more resilient institutions and how do we build new models of instruction and new curricula that help build resilient students, prepared for the unanticipated challenges of the twenty-first century?
The two questions are interrelated, or, rather, they have overlapping concerns. But it is helpful to think about the two questions separately. First, let’s think about what a resilient university looks like, in particular, how it organizes its programmatic architecture, its instructional platforms and curricula, what it expects from faculty, and how it fashions its connections to its community (or communities).
On the first question: how do we engineer more resilient universities? I think we have some clear starting points. The COV-19 pandemic forced universities to shutter their brick and mortar campuses and take learning online. The result, I believe, is a decisive and irreversible shift in how we think about distance learning technologies and program resilience. Resilient universities will need robust digital learning strategies because students demand them and because circumstances may require them. We have a term for this now — HyFlex learning — and we have some new insights about how to make it work.
Yet not everything colleges and universities do can be done online. We support faculty and student research, we provide forums for discussion and engagement, we offer residential and international programs, we oversee internships and hands-on learning, we anchor communities. Our job must be to think about how these responsibilities can be accomplished with resilient reliability. Flip of the switch readiness.
We should be able to provide, as a matter of ongoing institutional practices, online orientations, remote academic advising, experiential learning opportunities that don’t require students to be on campus or to stay with partner campuses when traveling abroad. (Or even to travel abroad at all; students can study and gain the academic insights and self-confidence that comes with travel-study without leaving the continent).
As we think about student health and wellness, we should ask: how can we build resilient, go anywhere services, for students who live off campus, or are away because of campus closures or emergencies, or studying abroad, or away for the summer, or on leave? How do we employ telemedicine and telecounseling to reach students wherever they might be?
And learning content and program architectures — courses and academic terms — should be elastic in size and demands, scaled to provide just one credit (for a quick burst of learning, delivered, perhaps, asynchronously) or four credits (for a longer, more sustained course, perhaps requiring more faculty oversight, or larger, more ongoing assignments). Credentials, too, should be earned along the way — in stops and starts, at a pace that is convenient for the student. But these credentials and credits should be repurposable, assembled to provide credit toward a more substantial credential, like an undergraduate degree or a master’s degree. This way, when events — out in the broader world or more immediately in the life of the student — derail progress toward a degree, the student has earned something identifiable (and can come back and earn the next credential when circumstances permit it).
We also have to make our budgets less reliant on traditional forms of tuition and the quarterly infusion of room and board fees. If/when universities have to close for an extended time for any type of emergency, revenues tied to in-residence programs for on-campus students are put at risk. A more balanced portfolio — one that includes online programs and repurposable spaces — can weather these disruptions better.
I’m not a futurist, but in my short career — spanning just twenty years — I have seen institutions shut down for extended periods of time by acts of terror, by hurricanes, and by a pandemic. The world is becoming more unpredictable, not less.
The point is, we need to hold on to some of the practices we adopted (with gnashing of teeth and great anguish) even after the pandemic ends. These practices, including digital curricula, remote advising, telecounseling, and flexible credit, have value in a learning landscape that anticipates disruption and values resilience and access.
Let’s turn to the question: What does a resilience-building education look like? For me the core aim should be to build a workforce that is resilient and adaptable, with layered, repurposable skills. We need organizations that are resilient and adaptable, engineered to operate with flip-of-the-switch agility. Moving from conventional face-to-face operation to remote, digitally-assisted operations. And, during normal times, do both simultaneously.
I think there is a hole in the academic marketplace for a curriculum (or curricula) that creates this type of workforce and helps leaders engineer these types of organizations.
What does this type of curriculum look like? How do we design it so it can be as helpful as possible to as many people as possible?
Let’s step back and ask a couple of more fundamental questions.
What does twenty-first resilience look like, and what types of knowledge are necessary in engineering this type of resilience?
First of all, we need a workforce that understands the basic building blocks of scientific thinking. Why? Because many challenges we will face in the twenty-first century will only be understandable through science, data, and cause-and-effect thinking. A resilient workforce will be made up of millions of analytically-smart workers, each scanning the landscape, processing information, modeling the implications of what they see, and understanding things in a contextualized framework. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. It means a workforce that reviews the world around it and asks, “If X, then what follows?”
Second, we need a workforce skilled at working with data. This does not mean a nation full of data analysts. We need workers ready for and confident in the use of data in the thousands of ways data is used in the thousands of occupations that make up the workforce. This means, in some contexts, understanding how data reveals future risk, or how data describes a company’s commercial landscape, or how data shows which students are struggling, and why, and which are excelling, and why, or how data visualizations can communicate key information efficiently and persuasively, to change minds. It also means using data to make one’s organization more resilient. What does the data tell about which students in a county school system don’t have access to Wi-Fi? How do we fix that? What does the data tell us about our supply chain? Where are the bottlenecks? What about distribution? Will that be more costly if done by mail? How do we bake that into our pricing? As a municipality, what does the data tell us about our neediest communities? How do we improve service delivery? If we have to do it remotely, how does that impact our ability to reach the neediest?
Third, we need a collaborative workforce. Skilled at working face to face, unencumbered by bias, skilled at understanding the social culture of workplaces, and skilled at working remotely, and refashioning workflow to still meet organizational goals. It means HR and organizational design strategies that understand that workers work best in a supportive environment, and that we need to build trust and reciprocity across the operational landscape. And that we need to reproduce these environments and preserve trust and mutually supportive engagement if we take work online.
There’s more to unpack. But this is a starting point. And all of this needs to be repurposable across all areas of occupational and professional practice. We need curricula to build resilient health care systems, K-12 education, commercial and retail operations, policy and governmental services, construction and real estate operations, home services, arts and entertainment, transportation grids, utilities, information systems, legal and professional food services, and hospitality operations.
The new reality: occupations (and professions) have to build operational grids, connecting workers during normal times and during exceptional times. Occupations that never imagined they would need contingency plans now need contingency plans. And they need skilled managers to design these plans, and an agile workforce to implement them.
What might make sense is a series of modules. Short courses, bite-sized instructional content that can be dropped into all kinds of curricula. Maybe we start by partnering with someone — a Coursera, YouTube, or LinkedIn Learning — and create a library of content, assembled, like books on shelves, so users can explore the titles and think about how each volume can be used to expand their (or their organization’s) effectiveness.
We’ll employ some of our frontline and client-facing staff to act as curators and librarians, walking businesses, communities, and individuals through the available content, helping build a customized learning plan.
This could be joined to (or ideally preceded by) purpose-matched self-assessment and organizational assessment tools, to help individuals and organizational leaders understand their knowledge gaps and operational holes. We can help clients understand which skills to prioritize to improve their professional readiness and organizational resilience.
The important thing: information is available at everyone’s fingertips. Right now you can ask Alexa or Google almost any question, and find an answer (or a long list of answers). What universities can do that devices can’t: offer meaning and context and ethical anchoring. We have to be certain that our curricula teaches not only how to do things, but why, and why not, and the history of these professional practices, and who has benefited and who has been harmed, and how, with modifications, you can rethink professional practices to engineer greater inclusion, sustainability, and resilience.
Universities, historically, have complicated knowledge, repositioned seemingly easy answers so they became more difficult, harder to defend, and thrown open the doors to invite in other possible answers. Created debate and dialogue. We need to create students who can do this, in every workplace they work in.