We must reimagine university teaching and learning for a pandemic and post-pandemic world. Instead of seeing our campuses as assemblages of rooms in which sections are taught and exams are held, we should view them as learning commons in which learning and assessment are facilitated. We don’t need to create a course schedule for the fall, we need to create a learning environment that makes sense in a pandemic and post-pandemic world. Our students have been telling us how. We need to listen to them.

The pandemic has greatly accelerated two changes that were already ongoing in the before times. First, it has made it impossible to deny that university teaching is no longer about content delivery. The transition to online teaching has confronted us with the reality that our job is not to give students information that they couldn’t otherwise get, it is to help them deal with the avalanche of information and conflicting claims that threatens to drown them each day. Ask students. They will tell you. The lectures are for reviewing in fast forward when they are ready (or if they need to), or for replaying a segment a few times for clarity. The teacher is for learning how to evaluate and work with the information, for exploring it, and for learning about key insights. We need to more clearly separate the material from the teaching, as our students already do. The classroom setting is not the only space in which in-person teaching can happen, and content delivery is not what should primarily happen in the teaching space.

Second, the pandemic has shown students that flexibility is not only possible, but viable, and even necessary. Teaching can and should happen in various modes. Some students do much better in person than online, and some do much better online. Others are indifferent and want to choose the option that is most convenient for them. More importantly, while the move to remote learning has created barriers for some, it has removed them for others and expanded access. A move back to exclusive in-person learning will put those barriers back up, for no defensible reason.

If we are going to provide the flexibility that students now recognize and demand, we will have to make a few changes. It will be hard work. We don’t have a choice but to do that work, and to give ourselves space to do it if we want to stay relevant. Our programs, for example, don’t need to be collections of standard delivery 3 credit courses. That structure evolved in a pre-internet world, and the conditions in which it made sense don’t exist any more. 

Until march 2020, it was possible for us to pretend those conditions still sort of existed. It was possible to remain attached more to the structure of university than to its purpose, as long as the pandemic hadn’t blown it up. Now, it doesn’t make sense anymore. We have to ask ourselves what that structure was trying to accomplish, and we have to ask ourselves how we can best accomplish it in the post-pandemic, computerized, internet enabled world.

We don’t need to ask ourselves what courses we want our students to take. We need to ask ourselves what we want students to know, to be able to do, what questions we want them to be asking, what sorts of contributions they should be able to make, when they have completed our programs. As faculty, librarians, teaching assistants, tutors, and administrators, we need to help guide our students to those outcomes. 

We need to ask ourselves what tools are available for us to help guide our students to those goals, and for inspiring them to learn. We need to be available to support them in their learning. We need to create a learning community in the University that doesn’t rely on the classroom as its central anchor. There are many ways of making material available to students and of guiding them through insights, and many kinds of spaces in which to do it.

We don’t necessarily have to teach courses. We do, however, still have to teach our students and deliver our programs. We have to recognize the work involved and create an incentive structure for instructors that rewards all contributions to teaching in its various forms. 

We all need to organize the discussion about how to implement a new teaching model in our respective areas of our post-secondary institutions. Our administrators need to be unafraid to allow new forms of program organization to develop and take hold. We work within regulatory constraints in different jurisdictions, but even those constraints are often much more flexible than we give them credit for, and there is much reimagining that we can do even without changing them. Just as we have to separate the thing that is content from the act that is teaching, we have to better separate in our minds our evolved practices from the policies that guide and channel them.

If we do this right, our universities will remain thriving centres of learning and exploration through the pandemic transition, full of people interacting in person and at a distance, pursuing learning objectives and research goals, helping each other grow and learn, and contributing to our wider communities. One thing is clear: Even in the short term, we won’t be doing this primarily in classrooms, or perhaps not at all.

If we don’t do this, and if we don’t do it quickly, we will again be managing changing schedules and delivery modes, expectations, and anxieties. We will spend our time getting by, rather than growing as people and as communities. We will spend our time telling students why we can’t do what they ask us to do, and that they know is possible. We will find ourselves defending a structure that is no longer the best solution to the problems it is trying to solve, and for which there are obvious better alternatives. Worse, we will be defending the structure for the sake of the structure.

The current structure of our programs and assessment methods evolved in a pre-pandemic world. They are not adapted to our new and emerging reality. For having had a taste of them in the past year, we know what administrative complexity, pedagogical confusion, and personal and collective stresses await us if we do nothing.

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