Eduvation Blog

Silver Linings

Good morning, and TGIF!

Whether you’re watching the muted opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympic Games, or looking for a little sunlight in skies overcast by wildfire smoke from coast to coast, there’s little concealing the fact that the world still faces plenty of storm clouds.

But what better day than a Friday to look for some silver linings?

(And if you’re not really in the mood for a big think today, you could curl up in front of an episode of Seinfeld for “International Yada Yada Yada Day”…)



Pandemic Upsides

Over the past 15 months, this newsletter has often reinforced my unfortunate reputation as the higher ed “prophet of doom.” (Remember when PSE pessimism was all about the demographic cliff, and what I called “peak campus”? Ah, happier times…) But just ICYMI, I have also been sharing more positive ideas about strategic opportunity and lasting improvements to the sector, as a result of the pandemic. Here’s a quick recap…


Mixed Blessings: Despite the rise of conspiracy theories and fake news, we’ve also seen signs of growingpublic respect for science, and a more vital role for academics as public intellectuals to lead discussions about social impacts, ethics and justice. We’ve seen a growing awareness of environmental sustainability as consumerism and travel have slowed, pollution has eased and EVs have started to proliferate. And despite plenty of examples to the contrary, we’ve also seen actions demonstrating personal and national altruism and collective interdependence in the face of a common foe.


Serving Students: The past 16 months have greatly advanced the adoption of technology and OERs, and an appreciation of sound pedagogical practice in PSE teaching and learning. Blended and hyflex learning is enjoying a groundswell of attention. Student services have gone virtual, 24/7 and personal.


Strategic Pivots: Times of turbulence present organizations with incredible opportunities to restructure,reinvent or even refocus on existing strengths. Disruptions give us pause to reconsider old assumptions, find new flexibility, explore new markets, and move beyond incrementalism to permanent transformation of the academic calendar, programs and business models. And of course, this “great reset” gives PSE a “generational opportunity” to advance the cause of equity, diversity and inclusion.


“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps [people] rise above themselves.” Albert Camus, La Peste (1947)



Heightened Compassion: Throughout the pandemic, inequities have been recognized, strict policies relaxed, UDL principles adopted, and humanity and decency prioritized in our interactions with co-workers and students. PSE has invested in enhanced onboarding and orientation programs and student coaching. And campus staff have explored the pros and cons of remote work, with streamlined decision-making and greater autonomy and empowerment.


Rising Above: Academia has survived pandemics before, like the medieval Black Death, and despite loss and destruction, has emerged reinvigorated and evolved. Some campuses closed permanently, but 3x as many new ones arose in their place. Classical languages gave way to the vernacular, and there was a new appreciation for students’ rights. Perhaps blended delivery, UDL and microcredentials will be the lasting legacy of the COVID19 pandemic.


If all of that felt vaguely familiar, it’s because I have shared those examples in previous issues, from March 2020 to just last week. A more detailed review of it all is available in my Insider Recap, “Pandemic Upsides.”)



Silver Linings

In many ways, today’s theme was inspired by a particularly good “Silver Linings” webinar I attended this week…


Intercontinental Dialogue

This week, Times Higher Ed hosted a webinar panel including Jan Palmowski (Secretary-General of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities), Tawana Kupe (Vice-Chancellor of uPretoria, South Africa), and John Fritz (VP Instructional Technology at uMaryland Baltimore County). You can catch the 1-hour video here, but here are the highlights from my notes about some silver linings of the pandemic for PSE. (Yes, there was plenty of discussion about “the dark side” of the cloud, too – but today I’m focusing on the upsides.)


Transcending Geography: Thanks to widespread adoption of teleconferencing software, collaboration between institutions and departments has become easier, guest speakers more available, online meetings more inclusive, and conference attendance more accessible for many people. Plus, we’re all now “hyper-punctual.”


New Internationalization: With global mobility reduced to zero, institutions have had an opportunity to explore new forms of internationalization and collaboration, like co-creating courses. Going virtual could make international experiences accessible to more students than ever before, making it much more genuinely global.


Better Exams: John Fritz shared how Chemistry faculty at UMBC developed a 1,500-question randomized approach to online exams, such that no 2 students got the same questions and time limits prevented most forms of cheating – even without proctoring or surveillance software. They are apparently considering replacing paper-based exams permanently.


Drop-Outs Return: Also at UMBC, online delivery of courses meant that instead of a half-dozen former students returning to take classes, they saw 123 enroll in a single term! Online offerings may be a lasting way to re-engage with drop-outs and stop-outs.


Open Science: Jan Palmowski observes that open reporting of scientific COVID19 results – from Johns Hopkins statistics to preprint journal articles – has accelerated the sense of urgency to share research discoveries openly (always being cautious about potential public confusion or misinformation). In the best case, more widespread scientific literacy could usher in an internet-enabled renaissance in collective knowledge. Tawana Kupe emphasized the need to get away from inward-looking citation metrics and look at the impact of research and scholarship on society and real-world problems. We need to counter the infodemic of fake news by “translating” science for the general public, and should probably embed research communications training in PhD programs.


Work/Life Balance: All 3 panelists agreed that the pandemic has underscored the need for more holistic wellness in academic careers, workplace flexibility and “sensitivity to the humanity of people” instead of the dehumanizing emphasis on “publish or perish.” Says Kupe, it is “time for a recalibration.”


Rapid Change: As Kupe quipped, “like it or not, universities are not radical organizations. The pace of change is slow.” The pandemic demonstrated just how quickly we could transform teaching and learning delivery, but raises the question: “What other areas do we need to reform, at a faster rate than waiting for another pandemic to hit us?” Genomic sequencing of COVID19 variants has underscored that “knowledge is needed far faster than the pace we academics like to use.” The post-pandemic era can provide “a great moment of reimagination” for the world’s universities.



More Thoughts

Since my last roundup, I’ve accumulated a dozen other op-eds and articles on the theme of “Silver Linings.”Here are some highlights…


Virtues of Virtual

In response to the pandemic, PSE instructors have “experimented with the academic calendar and rethought physical space, including how to utilize outdoor spaces for learning.” As physical classrooms became quieter spaces with masks, acrylic obstacles and distanced seating, distance education and virtual advising helped overcome the F2F “distance,” allowing faculty to see student faces again, albeit via Zoom. Virtual meetings and conferences became more efficient and better attended. Online discussions increased student engagement and participation, just as virtual office hours attracted more students. Higher education is “a meeting of minds and not necessarily of bodies,” and distance learning tools may in fact improve on some traditional approaches.  eCampus News


“What our collective distance experience underscores most forcefully is that higher education is a personal and human experience, a meeting of minds and not necessarily of bodies.” Lee Ann Dickerson, PhD Candidate, Concordia U



“Real” Education

“I’m not a silver-lining kind of guy,” writes Paul Hanstedt of Washington & Lee U, but “nonetheless” the pandemic has transformed education in some positive ways. Instead of the somewhat artificial world of academic majors, punctuated by chapters, timetables and semesters, “the world is a messy place” of “wicked fluidity” and the pandemic has forced PSE to acknowledge it at last. “The walls between academic life and life beyond the academy have crumbled.” Fields and disciplines “not only overlap but also influence and shape and reshape each other.” Students are being forced to “move beyond a mentality of simple answers,” and to recognize that answers are not “something that only the professor holds.” The pandemic has been a learning experience for faculty and administrators as much as for students, and perhaps that struggle has been a good thing, forcing us to realize that attendance policies and bell curves “are not actually what makes real education happen.”  Inside Higher Ed


Student Reflections

Some US students can see the silver lining in a year of COVID college, despite mourning the loss of innumerable social, extracurricular and work experiences. One felt he “gained in focus but lost in connectedness.” Another says she learned to accept the unpredictable, and that the experience has made her “less scared to face the unknown.” Some felt they applied themselves more to academics without social distractions, that they bonded even more tightly with a small group of friends or roommates, or even that they were “liberated from their carefully planned lives and their focus on getting the approval of others.” The shift to pass/fail grading mitigated some students’ obsession with grades, alleviated perfectionism and anxiety, allowed them to slow down and get more sleep. “I think a little time and distance made me realize how much energy I spend jumping through other people’s hoops.”  New York Times


“It’s made me realize that not knowing the next step doesn’t mean my world is going to crumble. I think it made me less scared to face the unknown.”Madison Alvaro, Duke U grad



“I don’t want to say we are adults now, but we definitely have grown up. No more young, dumb and fun type of lifestyle.”Xanthe Soter, Temple U junior



Post-Traumatic Growth

New research from uRegina and UBC finds that 77% of highly-stressed North American adults nonetheless reported “moderate to high personal growth” during the pandemic, regarding their appreciation for healthcare workers, life, friends and family, better appreciating each day, and reconsidering priorities about what is important in life. Despite widespread anxiety, and a new disorder called “COVID Stress Syndrome,” post-traumatic growth emerges from “the positive transformational power of suffering.” The bad news, though: for 17% of people, the sense of growth is “illusory” and actually a dysfunctional form of avoidance or defensive coping.  uRegina


“Post-traumatic growth or PTG refers to the positive transformative power of suffering, and is essentially finding the silver lining in a stressful situation.”Gordon Asmundson, uRegina Dept of Psychology





Of course, lest you forget we’re in a pandemic and I’m still urging institutions to use all the carrots and sticks at their disposal to ensure faculty, staff and students are vaccinated by Fall, here’s a brand new vid to round out your week…


Get Your Shot!

Trent U released an upbeat 1-min vax video yesterday encouraging the campus community to “get your shot, for me, for you, for Trent U.” It features rapid-fire sound bites from students, staff and others sharing why they got their shot: “so we can all be back together again on campus this fall,” “to protect my 83-year-old grandma,” “to keep myself, my family and my Trent community safe.” (Trent was among the earliest CdnPSEs to announce that vaccination would be mandatory for students in residence.)   YouTube



As always, thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!


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