The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Less than a year into her new job as president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, President Joyce Jacobsen found herself engulfed by the global pandemic. Fielding a barrage of texts from then-New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo telling the small liberal arts college how to handle Covid, Jacobson knew she needed more advice.

Jacobsen relied on other college presidents she met through the statewide Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. “I got to know a lot more college presidents and work collectively,” Jacobson told me, a story I heard repeatedly during interviews withcollege leaders and others managing pandemic responses, posted with Maxwell Bigman onMediumunder the heading, “Decade Ahead.”

What I found heartened me: During the pandemic, leaders and support teams built new relationships, compared notes with others across the country and developed new partnerships within their campuses. Centers for teaching and learning worked with IT support in new ways to help instructors move courses online. Decision-makers and implementors moved quickly. All this gave me hope that new alliances and new ways of working will help U.S. higher education shake off decades of paralysis and begin boldly solving problems in new ways.

Leading my own department and watching others elsewhere, I saw the immense resourcefulness of students, teachers and campus leaders. Through creativity, hard work and bravery, they kept colleges running in ways that would not have been possible even a decade ago. We also learned empathy, new ways of teaching, how to work remotely online and why being together can be so important.

For example, De Anza Community College English professor Lauren Gordon, who had never used Zoom before 2020, said, “Everyone had a Zoom account,but I didn’t know that — I had never taught online.” Working together, De Anza’s online education center stepped up, providing instructor training, while the college IT group added videoconferencing to the course management system and the library staff answered questions about Canvas and Zoom.

Although Gordon longed to go back to the classroom, “I could do hybrid because I can see that students can benefit from a hybrid model,” she said.

Related: COLUMN: Changes to come should be ‘music to your ears,’ higher education innovators say

What surprised me in dozens of interviews during the dark, pre-vaccine days, with campuses shut down and everyone scattered to the winds, was a universal optimism and a commitment to build a better future.

Two years after the burst of energetic innovation and unexpected discovery, my biggest frustration is that most colleges and universities, including my own, are turning their backs on all we learned.

Remote work is strictly regulated. Online teaching is out. Innovations like active or mastery-based learning, long known to experts in education, are falling by the wayside as old habits return all too easily. Transformation is nowhere in the vocabulary.

Most importantly, there are no broad efforts by college leaders to codify what we learned or leverage the resourcefulness, ingenuity, empathy and understanding we gained by powering through the pandemic.

It’s as if we spent two years building the foundation for a new future, only to abandon it for the familiar discomfort of a system widely in need of reinvention.

It’s as if we spent two years building the foundation for a new future, only to abandon it for the familiar discomfort of a system widely in need of reinvention.

Instead of retreating, we should use our hard-won insights to move forward and make effective improvements.

Almost everyone admits the potential of online learning, used selectively and wisely. While online classes do not work well for young children, many college courses worked well enough to demonstrate new potential for a post-pandemicfuture.

Teachers have learned to make classes accessible online, while students have developed the discipline and skills to learn from them. “The way that we are learning in this pandemic is a huge speculative design. We are in a huge global experiment,” said student Youjie (Mina) Chen at Cornell University; she also discussed her new insights on the importance of grades, the stifling effects of standardized learning objectives and local events that made her more open-minded and empathetic to others’ views.

Many of us learned to move virtually about the country; experts can be guest lecturers and students can sit in the audience anywhere. Community college student Jawanza Corbin in Camden, New Jersey, for example, joined a research group at Stanford that had moved their meetings online.

“I’ve used the time to find my path. I haven’t really lost too much. I have been able to gain a lot from it,” Corbin told me.

At Occidental College in California, President Harry Elam Jr. told me that faculty at the small liberal arts school learned from teaching remotely: When he asked last year what they wanted to keep for the future, they agreed that online office hours allow more students to attend and ask questions; faculty also advocated for continuing to invite remote guest speakers and use small-group discussions based on breakout rooms.

These methods are effective, as my own research on pandemic pedagogy shows.

In addition to using technology to enhance classes and seminars, colleges can use it more broadly to address traditional problems like student preparation, degree completion and transition to jobs.

The National Education Equity Lab uses online lectures to help established universities offer transfer credits to promising high school students in Title 1 districts, expanding their pathways into college.

Universities can also offer selected advanced courses online to help students finish their degrees while working at jobs, as in the successful Arizona State University and Starbucks partnership for baristas.

The thorny issue of combining liberal education with job preparation may also have an online solution for some colleges.

The University of Texas at El Paso pilot with Grow with Google shows one way to help students prepare for the workforce, with in-person and online modules that build digital and professional skills.

Related: Impatient for workers, businesses help students take college shortcuts

At Hobart, Jacobsen (an economist), like many other college leaders, has a strong commitment to liberal education, yet understands the importance of successful employment and careers post-graduation.

“As president, I want to preserve the idea of the liberal arts education for the whole person,” Jacobsen told me.

To add career preparation, liberal arts colleges can add online workforce programs developed by companies like Google and others to help students get both an English degree and job placement in a lucrative tech field, fulfilling Jacobsen’s vision of a“pragmatic liberal arts” experience that integrates traditional academic enlightenment with pathways to jobs.

We have seen rapid change in higher education, and we have all participated in a huge global experiment. Now let us use what we have learned to move forward.

John C. Mitchell is the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the Stanford School of Engineering and chair of the Computer Science Department. He became Stanford’s first vice provost for online learning in 2012.

This story about what higher ed learned during the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. It is clear that the pandemic affected everyone as a whole. This pandemic holds our values and family traditions and just puts a stop to them. As an educator, I immediately saw how there were many people that were lost and overwhelmed by all the change that hit us. So many educators left the field and never looked back. Rest assured true leaders emerged with resources at hand or the very least instructions to push us through and provide us with the best support were there.
    I believe that this pandemic did bring us together and opened up new venues of knowledge in educational modes of technology. Many more savvy students were there to lend a hand and took the time to teach us new things so we wouldn’t fall behind. I love how open everyone was to share so that no one had to experience the feeling of drowning. Someone was always there to throw out a life preserver and fish us out of those troubling waters.
    Now that we are no longer in the pandemic (but still recovering), it does feel as though we are forgetting to utilize technology. I do believe that it should be continued in use, but I believe it is very dependent on the types of students and their needs. Teachers and students can and should still be able to provide hands-on instruction and projects for their students and also utilize an educational platform that students can use as well.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published.