I’m never going back to my old school: Musings on the fallout from COVID-19-related school closures

With all due respect to Donald Fagan -- front man for beloved jazz-rock duo Steely Dan -- I don’t think we have to wait until "California tumbles into the sea" before we all agree that the idea of a traditional university education is now anachronistic. With COVID-19 disrupting and, in some cases cancelling, in-person learning at leading institutions, many higher-ed students are realizing they can get the skills and knowledge they need without ever stepping foot on campus. In fact, some are discovering that life in "Virtual-U" is better -- easier, more productive, less stressful -- than the real thing.

Case in point: My daughter, who was attending an Ivy League women’s college until the Coronavirus sent her and her classmates packing in the middle of their Spring semester. Since then, her school has cancelled on-campus classes for the Fall, forcing their nearly 3,000 students online. And while time zone differences (Mauritius is 9 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast) make for some odd virtual classroom hours, she is definitely enjoying the freedom from stress and worry that were part of her traditional, campus-based education experience: Finding food she can eat/tolerate in the cafeterias; fighting for shared bathroom space in her dorm; and dealing with catty, College-aged girls and all the drama that that entails.

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The net result is that she is taking on more class hours/credits than ever before and is now pursuing Latin Honors in addition to her major -- goals that would have been impossible for her to attain were she still forced to worry about someone stealing her laundry soap or swiping her laptop while she was refilling her beverage (true story). And while traditionalists will argue that virtual classrooms can’t replace things like hands-on lab work in the hard sciences, the truth is that newer distance-learning technologies -- for example, Labster, Instructure’s Canvas, and the ever-present Zoom -- are making it possible to complete much of an undergraduate degree (and even post-graduate work in non-STEM subjects) without the need for a physical classroom or lab space.

In the end, I don’t know when -- or even if -- my daughter, who is in her Junior year, will ever return to campus. Her school’s administrators change and/or update their plans almost daily. And given the ongoing COVID-related travel restrictions (borders here are still closed), the reality is she may never go back and instead just complete her degree entirely online.

Which, given the downsides mentioned above, might not be a bad thing. If nothing else, the ongoing pandemic has shown us that communications technology has finally matured to a point where a traditional classroom is no longer a needed -- or even a desirable -- part of a comprehensive tertiary education. Factor in other trends, like work-from-home mandates and the seamless online ordering and delivery of everything from groceries to clothing to blockbuster movies, and its hard to see the world going back to the way it was just a few short months ago.

It may very well be that future generations will look back on our time spent in cubicles, classrooms and other vestiges of a life lived in the physical world and wonder aloud through their shared neural links why their ancestors were so obsessed with being in such close proximity to one another.

Which is a very good question, indeed!

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