Forbes: Higher Education: How to improve the student experience when in-person learning isn’t possible

Forbes: Higher Education: How to improve the student experience when in-person learning isn’t possible


Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university in Arlington, best known for its innovative curriculum.

My life is an example of my belief in the power of higher education. As a Cuban-born immigrant, my grandmother taught me that “No matter what happens, no one can take away your education.”

Higher education can be a gateway to growth and progress for many Americans, not to mention a helpful path to job security and financial stability. It is where people can find answers to life’s questions, make lifelong friends and grow into more mature versions of themselves. As a result, it is the seemingly inconsequential moments that make the residential college experience valuable beyond measure.

For many students, newly acquired soft skills learned from an immersive college experience can change the trajectory of their lives. Lessons learned along the way will also be crucial for the next generation as they face unprecedented global challenges like climate change, rising unemployment and inequity in access to healthcare and education, and are called to fix these complex issues.

The ability to think critically and problem solve are crucial skills in today’s global workplace. Developing the intellectual capacity to work well within diverse groups is also necessary for success in today’s global economy. Lively and engaging discussions in the classroom and regular social interactions around campus provide opportunities to practice empathy, another critical skill employers look for in new graduates.

Our university shifted to remote learning as the pandemic worsened last March. A couple of months later, I asked our students how we did with the transition. Their answers were sincere: “We are distracted by our family and the internet. We didn’t learn well, and our grades reflect it.” I listened. On-campus learning resumed last fall and returned in spring, and our university implemented a hybrid-flexible format.

Many young adult minds can thrive in a campus setting where exchanging ideas spontaneously and organically is the norm. Take away the classrooms, dorm living and the cafeteria, and you strip so much of the energy, curiosity and passion from the equation. The deep reservoir of wisdom afforded college students in the classroom, combined with the opportunity for face-to-face collaborations, often leads to life’s “aha!” moments.

The Importance of Tacit Knowledge and Face-To-Face Learning

In my former experience as a university professor, I know that too much is lost when we remove students from classrooms and campus. Transitioning college students from a residential campus to an online educational experience impedes the mechanisms to share tacit knowledge between professors and students as well as among students themselves. Equally important, students can miss out on the opportunity to share and apply recently acquired knowledge from teachers with years of expertise and insight.

Tacit knowledge is often hard to articulate. Subject matter experts externalize their knowledge for students to internalize and apply the gained knowledge in different ways. Students’ acquired ability to internalize new knowledge encourages them to have a discipline of lifelong learning.

Collaboration and information sharing in a classroom setting provide students with an environment where failure and correction are part of the learning equation. Through coached practice, students learn new concepts in a group setting where they engage with one another, leading them to clarify the subject matter better. The classroom environment provides the context for the learning process to take place.

Technology has its place in higher education, but I stand firm in my belief that it is incorrect to assume a virtual environment completely replaces what happens on the campus, notwithstanding the growth that occurs through research, internships and other forms of applied learning.

How to Support Student Success during Distance Learning

While I opened Marymount for the fall semester in 2020, many universities could not welcome students back to campus this year. Millions of these college students are still learning remotely today, and I commend the faculty who do their best to make the experience work.

Fortunately, there are many ways to facilitate online learning today so that students can continue on the path to earning their degrees. Here are a few of my suggestions for making distance learning work:

Leaders in higher education need to build policies and practices to serve all students. For example, address the lack of high-speed internet access for students living in rural areas. Also, universities should put plans in motion to bring additional support to traditionally under-represented students.

Further, all universities should have plans to be ready for future crises and ensure academic and operational continuity. The strategies and safeguards put in place by many universities last fall should be regarded as a transformation rather than a series of temporary moves in response to COVID-19. New technology (for example, Owl Labs) can integrate Zoom, the learning management system and a camera to ensure students online “feel” like they are in the room and are being seen.

In addition, many more faculty members are now using the “flipped classroom” model of teaching, where students view lectures offline and class time is for student-led discussions. These innovative teaching approaches have been around for some time, but much like telemedicine, only now are we fully implementing them in higher education.

Finally, do not forget to consider the needs of faculty and staff amid the chaos and upheaval that defined 2020. Establishing a digital community can give those struggling a safe outlet to vent over the pressures and challenges brought about by the global pandemic.

Read the original article on the Forbes website.