What is our “new normal?” Navigating post-pandemic post-secondary education

March 2020 was when everything turned for the worst. Beyond classes moving fully online and being required to isolate, every event and celebration for my fourth year of undergrad was abruptly cancelled. My peers and I were being told to get used to the “new normal,” unsure of what that meant or how long it would last.

But with the recent news of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. As such, Ontarians will likely be shifting their outlook to what life might look like after the pandemic and what aspects of our “new normal” will be here to stay. When considering what hasn’t worked, I highly doubt many families will continue avoiding gatherings longer than they have to. But consider what did work; I think that normalizing hand hygiene and wearing masks when sick, for example, can and should continue. 

While there may be lessons to be learned from the pandemic for the general public, students, in particular, should be wondering what lessons institutions have learned about the operations of post-secondary education. The pandemic challenged institutions and instructors to rapidly shift their teaching to a remote format, and the accomplishment of this task should not be understated. However, this term brought about unprecedented challenges and barriers to the student academic experience that must be acknowledged. For this reason, institutions must tread carefully when making decisions about post-pandemic learning and should strive for a sense of normalcy upon returning to campus.

The first and most noticeable issue with remote learning is that students are at risk of not meeting the learning outcomes required for their relevant degree plans. The pandemic forced the cancellation of almost all laboratory course components, meaning that students in most science and engineering disciplines missed key opportunities to gain hands-on skills. Even more serious is the loss of experiential learning opportunities. With strict public health guidelines and businesses experiencing hardships, many co-ops, internships, and lab-based undergraduate research projects were cancelled. Since many students rely on these opportunities for work experience and career prospects, the impacts will be long-lasting. It will be essential for institutions to prioritize returning to these in-person activities to mitigate the impacts on students’ learning.

As well, with students attending lectures, meeting for group projects, and writing exams all from their own homes, we have seen a myriad of privacy concerns arise. My colleague Nathan did most of the explaining here, so I’ll keep it brief. With many students experiencing all facets of university life from their bedrooms, their private, at-home settings have been put on display for their peers and professors. Remote exam proctoring software takes these concerns to another level, having been at the centre of controversies at multiple institutions. With the realities of proctors controlling devices remotely and surveillance of students in their homes, exam experiences are more stressful than they already were. If institutions are to prioritize student well-being, encourage work-life balance, and take student privacy seriously, they will need to reconsider the use of invasive academic practices when the pandemic is over.

Remote learning has not been devoid of any positive aspects, however. Many instructors were forced to think critically about the design of their courses. Grading schemes were reconstructed, technologies were developed to enhance accessibility, and online infrastructures through learning management systems were elevated. Professor participation with Teaching and Learning Centres drastically increased (from what I have seen at Queen’s). One thing we have learned is that instructors must continue to critically evaluate their course designs and adapt them to meet the current needs of students.

While the adaptations that instructors were forced to make show a great deal of dedication and hard work, it, unfortunately, can never be a reasonable substitute for the in-person academic experience. Students have experienced low engagement in their many asynchronous courses, which has made time management and procrastination difficult to manage. Post-pandemic, I anticipate that many institutions will push a “hybrid model,” but they must proceed cautiously. Blended learning models, when applied ineffectively, result in increased workloads for students and an overall unenjoyable course experience. Based on how students have responded to the academic experience over the past ten months, institutions must be careful about how they define the “new normal” and should strive to return to an engaging academic experience that students have been longing for. Most importantly, they must hear our concerns and properly account for the lessons learned during the past year.