“Resilience is the ability to face internal or external crisis and not only effectively resolve it, but also learn from it, be strengthened by it, emerge transformed by it, individually and as a group.” -- Gilbert Brenson-Lazan
Grappling with COVID-19 and its many disruptions to our society and economy has inspired us to reach out to people with insight to share. In this "Checking in" episode, VMDO's Higher Education studio leader, Joe Atkins, was joined by an esteemed panel of higher education campus leaders:
- Elliot Felix: Founder and CEO, brightspot strategy
- Dr. Matt Shank: President, VFIC - Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges
- Dr. Ben Knapp: Founding Director, ICAT - Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech
Together, they discuss the importance of building community and creating accessible and equitable learning experiences as higher education campuses re-open in the fall. Based on reserch findings from a national student survey conducted by brightspot strategy earlier this year, students ranked "community" as the lowest performing category during the disruptive spring 2020 semester. As students navigate a hybrid campus experience in the fall, how can we create a consistent sense of commmunity that bridges both physical and virtual worlds, and strengthens the student experience?
Let’s design it together.
Rendering of a Student Lounge in Virginia Tech's Creativity + Innovation District Residence Hall
Q1: Joe Atkins, VMDO
I want to welcome all of you and thank you so much for joining. I'm thrilled to have Elliot Felix, founder and CEO of brightspot strategy from New York, dedicated to transforming the higher education experience. I'm thrilled to have Dr. Matt Shank, who's the President of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC) and President Emeritus at Marymount University in Arlington. And I welcome Dr. Ben Knapp, the Founder and Director of the Institute for Creativity and Arts and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech.
So, if I might ask, please share a little more about your expertise and what you do?
A1: Elliot Felix, brightspot strategy
Thanks Joe. We (at brightspot strategy) are a strategy firm on a mission to make higher education more engaging, more equitable, and more impactful. The best way to do that is to help institutions rethink what they offer in terms of programs, places, how they operate, and how they are organized.
A1: Dr. Matt Shank, VFIC
Joe, thanks for having me with this esteemed group. I was happy to serve Marymount University for seven years as the President and then stepped down about a year and a half ago to become the President of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges.
A1: Dr. Ben Knapp, Virginia Tech
I run the Institute for Creativity Arts and Technology at Virginia Tech. The ICAT transects all of the colleges at Virginia Tech and we fund projects and give students and faculty the time, space, and permission to work multidisciplinarily across colleges. I say a lot that this crisis has pointed out the things we already knew were gaps – the problems and challenges – and just made solving them or exploring them that much more urgent.
Q2: Joe Atkins, VMDO
Beyond enrollment and financial stability, how do you think teaching and learning will be transformed by this crisis?
A2: Dr. Matt Shank, VFIC
The reason that students attend schools that are private and relatively small – the VFIC schools range anywhere from 500 students to 3,500 students – is really for the entire on-campus experience. So, you hear a lot of people talking about how the world of higher education is going to change rapidly to only online or primarily online. But I largely think it's going to be more similar than different – just with more enhancements.
A2: Elliot Felix, brightspot strategy
Matt, I don't disagree. I feel like it's more of a both/and as opposed to an either/or. And I feel like a lot of times online and on-campus are set up in opposition. I think what's likely to happen, and what's in fact already happening, is that the two worlds are converging. As campuses reopen in the fall, they're going to reopen as hybrid campuses.
We did a national student experience survey in early April about how students were feeling. And the bit that they're missing is all about campus life and community. So, next to “academic programs” students rank “community” as the second most important. But it actually got the lowest scores. And when we asked students about their biggest challenge, it was “separation from their community.” When we asked students, “What are the things that their university is handling well?” They said “communications.” And down near the bottom of the list, of the things they're not doing well, was “community” and “belonging.” So, I think we're going to go back, but it won't be business as usual. It's going to be about how you get the best of both worlds
A2: Dr. Ben Knapp, Virginia Tech
This is an opportunity to really examine the successes and failures of how do you do this. I do not see this ending. Imagine that magically there's a cure for COVID next summer – everything we're talking about now continues. For example, what is optimal about what we're doing right now? Well, you didn't have to drive here (for this interview). We didn't have to get together.
What is not optimal? We're not having any serendipitous ex parte communications, which is that community you're talking about. We didn't go to Starbucks beforehand. We didn't do something afterwards, where I can say, “Hey Matt, I'd like to follow up with you about something you said.” We're not having that. So, the rigor of analyzing each of these techniques of communicating, of education, of performing art, all of these things really need to be stressed very well.
Q3: Joe Atkins, VMDO
Elliot, you brought up student support and the seamless, vast network of bolstering up and ensuring that students get what they need. So what are some ways that student support services can transition online? How can the student experience benefit from current experiences?
A3: Elliot Felix, brightspot strategy
People have invented things. People have gotten leaner in terms of their processes so they can be more productive, spend more time helping students, and less time following procedures that might be outdated. I think the other thing it's done is it's enabled greater access. I think one of the biggest challenges for student services is that most services are designed with two false assumptions. The first is that people know what help is available. And the second is they're comfortable and able to access it. And what we tell people is if you're waiting for students to ask all the questions they have, you're going to be waiting a long time.
The big risk has to do with trust because I think trust is better built in person. If you think it, many fully online programs start with an in-person immersion, so that students actually learn from each other and they build relationships that then continue online. And I think if you're talking to someone in counseling, psychological services, career advising, or academic advising, a lot of that is building up a rapport and a trust and that can be harder to do online.
Q4: Joe Atkins, VMDO
Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries Strategic Plan has brought into focus “place” as well as other disciplines, community partners, and global partners. Could you expand on this sense of place?
A4: Dr. Ben Knapp, Virginia Tech
It's an interesting definition of place. There is a sense of virtual place, which is a sense of belonging that may not have to do with physicality, but has to do with belonging to that community and that culture. And certainly Virginia Tech has been really focusing on our motto, which is “Ut Prosim” – “that I may serve.” It has the larger reach of a human centered approach. So, what do we do? How can we contribute? How can we look at the problems of the world and help explore them but also the problems locally and create interdisciplinary collaborations that will help solve, explore, or challenge those problems?
Virginia Tech's strategic plan rolls in all of the pieces we've been discussing: How do we design things from a human-centered approach? How can this serve the larger community and really build that community? What if that community isn't always physical place, but can also be new ways of connecting place together? What does that look like and how can we build that community even stronger to support Virginia Tech and the universities of the Commonwealth?
Q5: Joe Atkins, VMDO
What are you hopeful about? What feels like a turning point that gets you excited about what might be next?
A5: Dr. Matt Shank, VFIC
I’ll go back to my comment about the career program that we're trying to establish. My hope is that because of the crisis, innovation is just accelerated and that great new ideas come forward and the schools are even stronger than before.
A5. Dr. Ben Knapp, Virginia Tech
I would hope the outcome would be new ways to make connections, new ways to have empathetic communication that we haven't thought of that moves beyond what we're looking at right now on our screens. As I said earlier, in terms of embodiment, in terms of both human connection and conversations at a distance mediated by technology. So that's what I really hope for – that through this we're going to be able to see new ways of connectedness that we didn't see before.
A5. Elliot Felix, brightspot strategy
Ben made a great point earlier about how it's harder to be spontaneous digitally. And I agree. I will say the flip-side of spontaneity is intentionality. And I think, when you're creating an online course you have to be much more intentional about what you're doing and why you're doing it. And my hope is as that carries over to our new hybrid world where things are online and on campus that we're more intentional about how students are learning about how they're getting support, about how staff get their work done, and about how faculty are engaged in the process. And if we can bring some of this intentionality and adaptability, measurement and accountability to our new reality, I think that would be pretty cool. Because then we'd have a more engaging experience for people and we could hold ourselves more accountable in terms of access and equity and an opportunity.