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Columbia, NYU Leaders See Hybrid Future for Higher Ed

Distinguished professors from New York University, Columbia University and the Institute of International Education held a webinar on Wednesday about the post-pandemic future of higher education.

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Colleges and universities are still reeling from the most disruptive academic year in recent memory, but for educators especially, it’s never too soon to discuss what was learned. A webinar today featuring distinguished faculty from Columbia University and New York University explored new challenges in higher education, from hybrid learning to globalism to mental health, and the speakers agreed on this much: Transition to a “new normal,” whatever it may be, has only just begun.

Tempting as it may be for colleges to want to resume all pre-COVID standards and operations, that was an idea that the webinar’s guest speakers unanimously dismissed. Safwan Masri, Columbia’s executive vice president of global development and Global Centers, said technology advances have created new tools as well as perceptions of what a college education can be and do, and some of those won’t be reversed. He said they also further revealed the stakes of the digital divide, and the implications of unequal access to knowledge and technology.

“As schools have closed, moved to remote instruction or developed hybrid models, a panoply of pre-existing issues has emerged in a new light. The inequalities of resources, of expectations, of exposure and of access that have been so publicly revealed are troubling, driving protests and furthering political divisions,” Masri said. “New restrictions of international mobility, increased prejudice and nationalism, pressure from governments and governmental institutions to restrict academic freedoms, and economic downturns that impact regional job prospects are all going to be factors in these students’ lives, and therefore are going to shape the educational landscape.”

Pointing out that 250 people were tuning in to the webinar remotely, Mariët Westermann, an arts professor and vice chancellor at New York University Abu Dhabi, called the use of technology “the great, great, silver or golden lining” of the pandemic. She said online and hybrid learning models, to which higher ed institutions had to shift so abruptly, will play a critical role in connecting underserved populations with education in the future.

“We did it. We showed it could be done … and it wasn’t perfect, but it got better very quickly, because we have multiple centers for teaching and learning that saved all of us, I think,” she said. “Hail to these incredible staffers, the academic technologists and these people in the centers for teaching and learning who were often undervalued — but not anymore.”

From the Institute of International Education, President Allan Goodman said universities won’t be replaced, because campuses, labs and extracurriculars are as much a part of the learning process as anything students can do online. However, he predicted that students will be living in a hybrid learning environment for a long time.

Goodman and the other speakers were also adamant about the need for colleges and universities, amidst a growing global campaign for inclusion and equity, to develop partnerships in other countries and continue recruiting international students. Goodman said COVID-19 was the 12th pandemic in the Institute of International Education’s long history, and after each one, international involvement with the school increased. He said the ancient historian Thucydides wrote after the plague of Athens, more than 2,000 years ago, that some people’s first instinct after a pandemic is to exclude and build barriers.

But that doesn’t make people safer, Goodman said, and universities need to be on the front lines reminding people that academic doors and international partnerships must stay open. He added that any university that doesn’t do that, and doesn’t embrace technology’s role, will not keep up with 21st century institutions.

“I think we have to make sure that we’re reaching out as equally and as best as we can to find all the students that want to get higher education, and a place for them, and there are enough universities, especially in the United States, that we could,” he said. “The moment you close your door, you’re closing your mind, and it allows these ‘isms’ — for which there seems to be no vaccine, no cure — to strengthen with terrible political consequences, and they last a long time. The ‘isms’ today of fascism, populism, fundamentalism, xenophobism, are going to last a lot longer than COVID-19.”

Masri wrapped up the webinar with a summary on a note of optimism.

“The future of higher education is bright, but it is also one that’s innovative, that is adaptable, that is relevant, and it is our responsibility to make sure that it is all of those things,” he said.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.