Post-COVID Predictions

Face Mask

It’s never easy to look into the future, yet when five Rhode Island College faculty members were asked to offer their predictions of what a post-COVID RIC campus might look like they agreed to take the plunge.

Professor of Geography Mark Motte, Professor of Political Science Karl Benziger, Professor of Communication Valerie Endress, Professor of Sociology Mikaila Arthur and Assistant Professor of Psychology Traci Weinstein responded sometimes humorously but always candidly to our questions.

During the pandemic what changes occurred that you think will stay with us after the pandemic?

M. Motte: Online learning will remain a part of the RIC experience, but I hope it is a small part because it is soul-crushingly impersonal and dull. Humans evolved to interact face-to-face, not to peer at one another disassembled, abstracted and reconstituted across pixelated space. That's great for TV and movies, but teaching and learning require us to be present in an altogether different way. In a classroom, you cannot mute your microphone or turn off your camera. You’re really there.

K. Benziger: I agree with Mark that online learning will become institutionalized here at RIC, and I’m also hoping that there will be a far greater appreciation for the importance of the "live" classroom experience. The conversations and improvisations found in the classroom are hard to duplicate online.

What do you think will change at RIC once we’re back on campus?

V. Endress: Because of the pandemic, the time faculty set aside to engage with students became much more fluid. It wasn't unusual for professors to meet their students on Zoom during the evening hours and even on the weekends. I would imagine there will be an expectation to continue this sort of flexibility. Fighting traffic and finding parking in order to meet face-to-face for office hours and advising appointments are probably a thing of the past.
     Faculty will also expect greater competency and familiarity with learning management systems from their students. As a result, instructional technology departments on campus will increase in importance and will be considered by both faculty and students to be partners in the learning process. There will be an expectation that students graduate from college with online communication skills. They will need to know how to interview for jobs remotely, give presentations over Zoom, participate in decision making and run meetings over Zoom as part of their job-related responsibilities. Faculty will be expected to teach these skills so that our students are workforce ready.  

“I think it’s human nature to want to return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Instead, I recommend that every person take a moment to make a list of the things that have improved in their lives during this time, then make a commitment to try to keep those changes in their lives.”
— Assistant Professor of Psychology Traci Weinstein

How will expectations change between faculty and students?

K. Benziger: I think both students and professors will welcome the return to working together. This has always been a hallmark of the college and I don’t think that will change.

M. Arthur: I also hope that all of us have developed a stronger respect for the complicated lives we all live with responsibilities that may take us away from our roles as students or as faculty, such as caregiving, community work, etc. Expectations may need to change at all levels of our society and culture to enable all of us to live full and complete lives.

Incoming freshmen spent their first academic year virtually. What will they have to adjust to in the fall?

M. Motte: Looking up from their screens. Turning off their electronic devices. Joining the conversation.

V. Endress: If students elected to have their cameras off, they will need to work to redevelop their nonverbal communication skills, focus their attention and actively engage with a larger group. The deficits won't last long, but they will need to learn once again how to be an active classroom participant as they were in high school before the pandemic hit.  
     They will also not be familiar with what it means to actively engage in campus life – attend events, join clubs, engage with others in the library, cafeteria or dorms. Student engagement is something that grows only when nurtured, and higher education institutions will need to reacquaint students with what it means to be physically present on a college campus.

What do you foresee the challenges will be for higher education in placing greater reliance on technology?

M. Arthur: President Garfield once said that the ideal education was his favorite philosophy professor, Mark Hopkins, sitting "on one end of a log and a student on the other.” I'd broaden that a bit, because I think students sometimes learn just as much from each other as they do from the professor, but I agree with Garfield that the true power of education is in our conversations with one another. New technologies come along all the time, but when we are doing it right, we are harnessing those technologies to continue to make conversations possible in new ways and for more people.

V. Endress: The immediate challenge will be for colleges and universities to justify their physical presence. We've always assumed that the buildings and dorms on campus were a given, that learning is best conducted in a face-to-face environment and that student engagement is best achieved with physical presence. But post-pandemic, I foresee a time in which students, parents, state legislatures and citizens will be asking higher education to renew their justification for bricks and mortar. Such a conversation may appear threatening, but it is also an opportunity for many higher education institutions to widen their definition of engagement to include alternative sites for learning and to re-examine how best to prepare students to become ethical, active and engaged citizens. In fact, this serious conversation about the role of a physical college campus is long overdue and may ultimately produce more active and vibrant college campuses as we reimagine the purpose of our physical plant.

T. Weinstein: My hope is that we have learned lessons from this pandemic that we’ll continue to use, such as the importance of equitable access to Internet service, computers and other technology and equitable access to classroom resources, such as textbooks and other class materials.

M. Motte: Greater reliance on technology? I would rather not think about that for a few months. I'm still trying to cancel my Zoom account.