When I was growing up, the beginning of each new school year was commemorated by my mom taking a picture of me before I headed off to my first day of school. It was a tradition I maintained even when I was an adult getting ready for my first day of the new school year with college students. What was captured in this tradition was moments rich with new possibilities and beginnings, of anticipation and excitement, that I always associated with the start of a new school year. But this year, I have found that it’s hard for many of us to connect to that same sense of anticipation and excitement, of possibilities and new beginnings.
Among the many consequences of COVID-19, is that it thrust upon us less than ideal circumstances mandating a near-universal use of virtual learning environments and student support services. These circumstances have forced us to grapple with issues of inequitable technological access, lack of appropriate and robust preparation to teach and design for these virtual environments, social isolation that extends far beyond the classroom, and the trauma of a world upended with massive and devastating impacts that we are only beginning to reckon with. It is entirely understandable that many are just in survival mode, and some just making do until we can “go back” to the way things were before this pandemic. But I don’t believe that we can go back. And while it may be hard for us to be excited about the new possibilities of this school year, these circumstances are giving us a unique opportunity for “seeing around the corner” of the future of higher education.
As an organization, we have deeply embedded systems and processes that were designed to be largely successful with the students and community stakeholders we serve, to allow us to scale, and to maintain our financial sustainability; but now many of these are becoming relics of the past and barriers to access and success. For better and worse, we have relied heavily upon in-person transactions; in part due to a value in our organizational culture for personal relationships and interactions. It is these, after all, that have been the foundation of our success with the students and community stakeholders we serve.
But last March, in less than two weeks, we went from being a predominantly “in-person” organization, to an almost 100% virtual/digital environment, and for the next few months we kept working to maintain, to the best of our abilities, quality educational services and supports for our students. Across our college, within every division, within every unit, and among every employee, our lives and our work were fundamentally disrupted. And yet collectively, we engaged in a heroic lift to transform our organization, our use of technology, our processes and practices, and the delivery of every program and service we offer, in order to take care of our students and employees.
Yes, it was less than perfect. In fact, some of it was just downright messy. We’re exhausted, personally and professionally, and what we hoped would be a sprint is now clearly a triathlon. But when we step back for one moment and view the landscape of our race, part of the picture we should see is that we are living, and therefore influencing, an event that will shape the biggest transformation higher education has ever experienced. For me, that is incredibly daunting—the sheer magnitude and responsibility of this moment we hold in our hands. But it is also a moment that is rich with possibility for community colleges to take the lead in this transformation.
While there are many different experts and voices debating the what and the when of these approaching changes, there seems to be no question that we will be undergoing a massive digital transformation. Automation of business processes, remote work arrangements, virtual collaboration, human-machine interaction, and a heavy reliance upon virtual learning experiences with in-person learning serving as the enrichment to these, we will all be part of this digital transformation.
The signals of these changes are all around us.
The use of “disruption” to describe what is often experienced by many as a sudden and dramatic change, is deceiving as it implies that the change “came out of nowhere” and therefore could not have been planned for. But rarely is that true. As Uri Friedman (2020) shared in his article “We Were Warned,” there were many signals and warnings of an impending global pandemic that we urgently needed to plan for if we hoped to avoid the catastrophic and disruptive consequences to human lives. So too exist the signals and warnings of a major disruption to higher education and our models, tools, and approaches to learning and student support services.
It is important to acknowledge that for many, these changes will be deeply stressful and uncomfortable. And there will be, and have already been, losses. But along with many of you, I chose to serve at a community college because I believed in its multiple missions: the transfer mission, the career and technical education mission, the workforce training mission, the economic development for our community mission, and the access and success mission—particularly for non-traditional college students and those students historically underserved by higher education.
We still have a lot of work to do.
But now is the time.
Now is the moment.
The beginning of this school year is rich with possibilities—to reimagine our commitment to these missions and the future of higher education.