Lessons on Connection for a Post-Pandemic World

By Dr. Michael Anthony Baston, President, Rockland Community College\

Dr. Michael Anthony Baston, President, Rockland Community College\

In May 2013, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative accurately asserted that higher education was entering a new, evolutionary phase of connected learning where the critical role of the collaboration of all higher education facets would impact learner success. At that time, the extent to which connected learning would reshape higher education’s business and learning models and the ways unique personalized learning pathways would develop based on a more intentional collaboration between students, instructors, and advisors were in the emerging stages. Fast forward to 2020, COVID-19’s abrupt interruption of physical connection has ushered into our consciousness a much more significant reliance on virtual connections. It is unlikely that the prominence of virtual environments will wane as we emerge from the grips of the pandemic. What will the “new normal” look like as we continue the evolutionary journey of connected learning and the collaborations that give that process life?

Expanding the Definition of Learner

Often the learner conversation focuses on students and their ability to meet institutional objectives and learning outcomes. COVID-19, however, has made the institution a learner as well. Consider how quickly institutions had to shift from face-to-face to virtual instruction almost immediately. Or how fast faculty had to be trained in how to teach principally in a virtual environment. Think of the technology-driven developments, out of necessity, that will likely remain a mainstay on our campuses. For example:

- A 24-hour tutoring center, conducted via Zoom

- Zoom metal health tele-counseling for students

- Virtual testing centers

- Zoom academic and career advisement sessions

- Hybrid learning, Zoom classes, and on-campus options

Ironically, some might say it took a virus to change policies once believed unchangeable. Institutions learned essential lessons about their resilience, agility, the capability of rapidly deploying professional development, and a crash course on organizational redesign and strategic planning. Flexibility with class schedules, teaching modalities, academic calendar modification, pass-fail options, and many administrative barriers often established to serve the institution’s student personnel administration, and not the students' best interest have all been blown up by the virus.

Students will come to expect 24-hour support services now. Students will expect that their faculty members will become more sophisticated in engaging them through virtual methods. Students will expect that the entire institution will be more responsive, real-time, and more accommodating because faculty and staff now have more experience exhibiting these behaviors. Students will expect and likely seek out institutions that express care and concern for them as students and individuals. The genie is out of the bottle. In an educational ecosystem of increasingly diverse options, any notion that students will passively accept a return to a “sage on the stage”experience post-pandemic is misplaced. Student expectations will ultimately play a more significant role in their choices.Those expectations should inform how the COVID-19 influenced redesigned elements in our colleges and universitiesare normalized.

Teaching What We Learned

The challenge of this COVID-19 impacted moment in our nation is an opportunity to answer the call to build a fairer, just, and connected community.Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to be excellent examples of how to best answer the call. Darwinism, with its mantra of survival of the fittest, is not the way we move forward. We must focus on the survival of all, helping to level the playing field.Colleges and universities understand how critically important it is to think of connectivity not only as a technology goal but as a societal goal, connecting on all levels with educators, staff, students, and the greater community.

This past year put the national fracture of fellowship in our country in a harsh spotlight. The reality of the pandemic, economic challenges, and social unrest created a perfect storm. If we can connect with a commonality of purpose, I believe we could address some of the social and economic inequities and racial divides that keep us apart.Colleges and universities continue to askcritical questions that must also be asked of many of our nation's other leaders. Is everyone technologically connected equally? Connected effectively? Connected intentionally? Does everyone understand the paths to the opportunities that are emerging?

Technology has played a vital role in our national effort to adjust to the realities of COVID-19 living. If someone told me a year ago that “Virtual Producer for Zoom, Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Teams,” “Virtual Tutor,” “Web Services Support Specialist, or”Zoom caster,” would be job titles, I would have laughed. Every crisis creates opportunity, and as educators, we must engage in forward-thinking in terms of how businesses and industry will be impacted, how they will reset, what new career paths might be explored, and which ones might vanish.

We must look to the future and design programs that will prepare students to meet the emerging needs and opportunities in an ever-changing job market. We must commit to listen to student expectations for their experience and meet them where they are. We must also make equity and inclusion a priority.We can and must model how to strengthen our nation in these critical ways aswe look forward with hope and anticipation to the promise of a post-pandemic world.

Dr. Michael A. Baston is the 7th President of Rockland Community College. A national leader who helps develop comprehensive supports that foster college completion, Dr. Baston’s work has been featured on MSNBC, USA Today, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Community College Daily, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, The Community College Times,University Business, and Black Enterprise Magazine. Additionally, he is a contributing author to Race, Education, and Reintegrating Formerly Incarcerated Citizens and The Handbook for Student Affairs in Community Colleges. Dr. Baston was a member of the inaugural class of Aspen Institute Presidential Fellows for Community College Excellence where he explored systemic issues affecting the educational access pipeline and student success. As a national Guided Pathways coach for American Association of Community Colleges, he is noted for his work with college leadership teams around the nation, helping them integrate student success initiatives to advance college completion. Dr. Baston is the Co-Chair of Jobs For The Future’s Policy Leadership Trust, a Commissioner of American Association of Community College’s Commission on Institutional Infrastructure and Transformation and member of the National Advisory Board of Center for Community College Student Engagement. Dr. Baston began his career as a public interest lawyer representing various educational institutions and social justice organizations. His work with academic clients led him to pursue a second career in academia as both a professor of legal studies and business and a student affairs administrator. Dr. Baston holds a BA from Iona College, a JD from Brooklyn Law School, and an EdD from St. John Fisher College.

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