Learning design experts share 15 scenarios for higher ed amid pandemic

Regardless of how individual colleges and universities decide to proceed this fall, all will need to take care to remain adaptable and accessible, according to a new ebook outlining a range of possible approaches. 

Titled The Low-Density University: 15 Scenarios for Higher Education, the ebook expands on a well-received April 22 blog post by Joshua Kim, who is the director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College and a senior fellow at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University, and Edward J. Maloney, CNDLS’ executive director and professor of English at Georgetown. 

Saying that COVID-19 has created an existential crisis for higher education, Kim and Maloney offer a road map for institutions working to fulfill their teaching, learning, research, and student life ambitions in a rapidly shifting environment. Those choices, the authors note, not only affect this academic year but also will have lasting implications for the post-pandemic higher education landscape. 

“Back in April and May, when we were first writing the scenarios, [it] was an absolutely insane time for everyone in higher ed,” Maloney wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed, describing how the blog post-turned-book came together. As leaders at campuses nationwide scrambled to bounce back from swift closures and projected financial deficits, Kim and Maloney drew inspiration from those conversations and planning efforts to formulate the 15 structured scenarios featured in their book. 

According to Kim, prioritizing the safety of students, faculty, staff, and communities sat at the forefront of many campus leaders’ agendas—a commitment that has been evident in a recent wave of changes to fall reopening plans. And with public health scenarios and guidance fluctuating frequently, staff at teaching and learning units worked to explore and combine virtual learning scenarios, ensuring they would be feasible for both students and faculty. 

Related: How will colleges’ coronavirus response affect underserved students?

“What we do try to emphasize in the book is the need for any decision about teaching during COVID-19 to be viewed through the lenses of both safety and equity,” Maloney said. The pandemic has intensified inequalities faced by students—particularly low-income and first-generation students—exacerbating food, health care, and financial insecurity, Kim said. He asserts that it isn’t enough for academic leaders to keep equity, inclusion, and social justice in mind; rather, they need to embed and clearly articulate those concerns in academic plans. 

“The emphasis on caring for the whole learner, something that was foregrounded in the academic continuity efforts of colleges during COVID, will (we hope) persist (and expand) once we are past this crisis,” Maloney told Inside Higher Ed.

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