My College:

What We Learned From Our Pandemic Year

Vicki Nelson

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2020–21 was a wild ride in higher education. Students, professors, staff and administrators scrambled to continue teaching and learning while keeping everyone safe.

There was no one-size-fits-all approach, and each college or university adapted as they could. Some schools went fully remote with students staying home, while others chose to conduct face-to-face classes (with adaptations like reduced class sizes, social distancing, masks and LOTS of sanitizing and COVID testing). Some schools used a combination of remote and in-person. Some began the semester one way and then switched to another! 

Parents watched their students struggle mightily to adjust, or perhaps slip seamlessly into a different mode of learning. 

How did we all feel about the experience?

Just as there were many options for how colleges structured their year, there’s a range of opinions about what worked, what we loved and what we hated.

I asked my students and informally surveyed some of my colleagues about their feelings. In most cases, students and professors agreed. 

  • Everything was exhausting. No one could rely on past experience — it all required extra effort. By the end of the year, many of us were burned out. 
  • Some students and faculty thrived in remote classes; most did not. One student commented, “I’ll never take for granted being in a classroom again!” 
  • Professors worked harder than usual to check in with students about how they were doing. And students said caring instructors had a positive impact on their experience. 
  • Faculty members couldn’t wait to get to the end of “remote observation” of class by students. (And “talking to black boxes” when students turned off their cameras.) Students also reported that “listening in” to the classroom was a difficult way to learn. The lack of connection during class was frustrating. 
  • Faculty members and students alike missed seeing others around campus. We missed informal, spontaneous exchanges and interactive classroom activities. 
  • That said, both students and professors felt they made stronger and more frequent connections through messaging, collaboration apps and online appointments. Professors valued the ability to meet with students remotely at more convenient times for everyone. 

Almost everyone hopes some elements of our new learning options remain — although we don’t always agree on which. One study of over 3,000 students found that the majority preferred being in the classroom to online (professors agree) but students overwhelmingly favored having the option to attend class either in person or via Zoom when they wanted. In my small sampling of faculty colleagues, this was the one thing almost all professors said they disliked. Teaching in two formats at the same time did not work! 

What key lessons have we learned?

Our experiences in 2020–21 taught us some enduring lessons that will influence how we move forward. 

  1. We learned that we all have an amazing capacity for flexibility, adaptability and resilience. We pivoted and pivoted again. We learned new technology and new ways of connecting. 
  2. We learned to be nimble about the technology that has made learning possible. From videoconferencing to learning management platforms like Canvas or Blackboard, we adapted our teaching and learning and discovered newer (and often better) ways of reaching educational goals. 
  3. We learned to nurture our human connections. We asked how others were doing, took care of each other, and supported each other when challenges arose. 
  4. We learned not to rely solely on the “campus experience” to build community. Though more than ever we recognized the value of in-person classes and social interactions, we found online ways to connect, participate and share experiences — from classes, to theater and music performances, athletics, meetings and spiritual activities. 
  5. We learned the importance of partnerships across campus. The combined efforts of faculty, administrators, students, health services, student activities staff, dining services, campus safety, tech services and cleaning services made our campuses safe and livable and made remote learning possible. 
  6. We learned that faculty and students agree on a lot. (Even though we have some differing points of view.) We’ve nurtured a growing respect for our common goals. 

Fall 2021 will not be like Fall 2020 (thankfully!).

But neither will it be like Fall 2019. We’ve experienced too much and learned too much to go back.

It will take time for all of us — professors, students and families — to discover what our new world will look like, but we’ll draw on our proven ability to adapt and our confirmed need to care for each other and undertake this adventure together. 

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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