Washington Business Journal: Viewpoint: In-person instruction must still reign

By Irma Becerra – Marymount University

Like many industries, higher education was forced into virtual spaces at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But while other industries may see a permanent increase in remote work, this pandemic has only made me more confident in the strengths of traditional, in-person instruction. Our real opportunity for evolution lies in a more personalized approach to learning, which students need now more than ever.
In March, as Covid-19 cases exponentially increased, we decided to transition Marymount University’s nearly 700 courses to a remote delivery format. Thanks to the agility of our faculty and staff, students were provided a high-quality academic experience online and were very understanding.
While this worked on a temporary basis, our students were clear that they missed in-person instruction. A physical academic environment provides benefits that cannot be easily replicated online. Students are more likely to absorb what the professor is saying, more easily participate in collaborative exercises, benefit from on-campus activities and gain meaningful exposure to other students with different backgrounds from across the world. 
That is why we have worked so diligently to ensure we can return to on-campus learning and living for the fall semester in a safe and secure manner. Marymount University’s Return to Campus Plan focuses on five key areas — reopening safely and sustainably, repopulating campus, monitoring health conditions and following contingency plans in the event of a potential shutdown order. Measures to accomplish those goals include a face covering requirement, consistent sanitizing of all facilities, reconfiguring physical spaces to maintain social distancing, utilizing contact tracing apps and increasing access to critical health services, testing and personal protective equipment.
On Aug. 24, more than 3,300 Marymount students officially began their fall semester classes, including freshmen and a record number of transfer and graduate students. All of them were briefed on the importance of being “Safe Saints” to mitigate the potential spread of Covid-19. I am confident that if everyone does their part, our coveted in-person educational experience can continue.
Are there aspects of the current higher education model that should change? Absolutely, and we must avoid the one-size-fits-all approach in favor of a more personalized one. For example, at Marymount, we are seeking to build easier on- and off-ramps for students of all ages. Our recently launched program, “Upskilling for the What’s Next Economy,” encompasses a unique and comprehensive range of modular graduate certificates and degree qualifications that provide students with the technical, management, entrepreneurial and leadership skills to get them back to work. We also recently launched stackable graduate certificates in areas that include cybersecurity, data science, digital health and intrapreneurship that, when combined into a master’s degree in emerging technology, gives students the tools they need to seize more opportunities. This innovative method also allows students to earn certificates according to their schedule and gives them flexibility.
A clear lesson we have learned from the ongoing pandemic is that it has disproportionately affected socially disadvantaged groups. As our nation rebuilds, higher education must find new ways to increase access and personalization. Our Saints, a high percentage of whom are first-generation college students, Dreamers and members of other underprivileged groups, are earning degrees that will secure their future from the effects of future pandemics and times of social upheaval. We are keeping our university community safe, while we give our students the keys to a brighter future.
Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University.