I met Greg at the Ryerson University bookstore in Toronto during my first week of school. We were both anxious first-year fashion students picking up art supplies. He and I spotted each other holding matching bags filled with gouache paints and plastic rulers and we started chatting. I was immediately drawn to Greg’s warm demeanour and easy laugh.
Later that day, he saw me walking alone on campus.
“Can I walk with you?” he asked, pushing his vintage red cruiser to match my slow crawl. We sat next to each other in our first class, a seating arrangement that stuck for the next four years.
My experience would look very different if I was to start university this fall and not 12 years ago. In mid-March, when the coronavirus brought post-secondary education to a halt, students had to desert campus and instructors took their lessons online. Many resulted in hours-long Zoom lectures, which given the amount of mishaps and distractions, didn’t always go over well. Sporting events were cancelled and graduation ceremonies happened virtually. The pandemic has rapidly changed how institutions will reopen this fall, too: more online course offerings, physical distancing and masks on campus, virtual field trips, and many sports delayed until 2021. The chances of students having a meet-cute like Greg and I are slim.
But experts say some of these changes are here to stay, even when the pandemic is over and a vaccine becomes available. This poses the question: What will campus life look like in five years? And will college and university culture ever be the same?
“Independent of the pandemic, post-secondary education really needs to be much different — and better — than it's been,” says Charles Pascal, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
Pascal, who specializes in policy development in education, points to remote learning. Many institutions have been slow to adapt to technology and implement tools that support high-quality, remote education, he says. Many schools have been stuck in the “old ways” of doing things, and investing money in brick-and-mortar spaces instead of virtual ones — even though online advancements would make learning more accessible to many. This problem has been laid bare by the pandemic, says Nick Stein, the chief marketing officer at Canadian educational software company Top Hat.
The early days of school closures showed educators that you can’t just transfer an in-person lesson online; you need to deliver materials in an effective, engaging way. Stein says tech platforms that include chat functions and the ability to engage in live class discussions can help better replicate the experience of being in a classroom. This is especially vital when tuition remains the same. If institutions cannot offer high-quality course offerings, they risk losing students.
Thanks to the internet and the cultural climate we’re in, students know they have access to learning tools online — many of which are free or low cost. The pandemic and subsequent economic slump has forced people to really consider how they want to spend their money and what industry will give them greater stability for their future.
“Five years from now, what we'll probably see is more students really questioning the overall academic experience that a university is delivering to them, whether it be through course materials or through technology both in-person and not in-person,” Stein says. “They’re going to want to walk away saying, ‘I’ve gotten fair value for my investment.’”
This task may be easier for more financially secure schools. Scott Galloway, a tech entrepreneur and renowned professor of marketing at New York University, told New York Magazine that a post-pandemic future will likely include partnerships between the largest tech companies and elite institutions, like Harvard and Facebook.
One of the ways Pascal thinks post-secondary institutions can remain relevant is to tap into this generation’s desire to make real-word change by redesigning how programs are run. Instead of focusing on isolated subjects, like physics, for example, he says programs should encompass solving social, economic, and environmental problems, like climate change. “We need to stop teaching one subject at a time,” he explains. Instead, students should learn the disciplines needed to address these issues.
Even when it’s safe to go back to campus, both Stein and Pascal say more virtual courses will be the norm, and some programs may be delivered entirely online. Others will offer a hybrid approach. This means students may complete 70% of a course virtually, for example, and 30% in-person, depending on the program. Lab-based work or courses that require hands-on learning will be harder to do outside a classroom, though some schools are already finding workarounds by bringing labs to students.
The transition to more digital and off-campus offerings may also mean fewer students decide to move out of home for their university or college years. Others may take a gap year. A 2018 Maclean’s report found that students living at home spend around $9,300 per year, while those who move away for school spend close to $20,000. If students can save money and time by living and learning from home, they may be able to graduate with less debt, which can help equalize education opportunities.
But there’s still going to be a demand for the “going away to school” experience says Margaret Sallee, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. A large reason why institutions have been able to charge high tuition fees is because schools don’t just sell education, they sell an experience. This is especially important when it comes to international enrollment as tuition at Canadian universities can cost upwards of $20,000 for foreign students.
Sallee says many undergraduate students expect their post-secondary lifestyle to include rooming in residence halls, attending sporting events, and joining clubs. In other words, many are paying just as much for the degree or diploma as they are for the keggers and late-night study groups. And because residence fees generate income for institutions, losing them entirely would be a significant financial hit, Sallee says.
Stein agrees. Being on a campus, surrounded by people and ideas, are ancillary elements that make a university experience what it is, “and that's a big part of the value,” he says. In fact, social interaction is one of the things students are most worried about during the pandemic. In a survey by Top Hat released in May, 85% of students said they miss face-to-face interactions with faculty and 86% said they miss socializing with other students. What’s more, nearly seven out of 10 said they no longer have regular access to their classmates. Students also reported missing access to things like on-campus study spaces, fitness facilities, and student counselling.
“We might see a bifurcation of institutions; some will cater to the traditional-age undergraduates who want a place-based experience — complete with face-to-face courses — while others might shift toward more remote instruction,” Sallee says.
Nafissa Ismail, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, says in order for students to succeed in a revamped learning environment, their academic, emotional, and social needs need to be met. If they feel disconnected from their professors or peers, their motivation can go down and grades suffer.
“When we see that they’re losing interest, then we need to adjust our teaching style to bring that interest back,” she says. “Humans are social species; when that social contact is not available or diminishes in quality, we do see implications on mental health.”
If I were to start university this fall, I imagine my first week going something like this: I would order my art supplies online (Ryerson’s physical bookstore is temporarily closed), have them shipped to my mom’s house in the suburbs, anxiously log in for my first virtual lecture, and maybe spot Greg’s name in the corner of my screen. If we had our cameras on, I’d like to think we would still become friends. His smile is infectious, after all.