Father Paul J. Fitzgerald is president of the University of San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Father Paul J. Fitzgerald is president of the University of San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

USF’s president reflects on what universities learned during the pandemic

By Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J.

The relief is palpable. With vaccination rates increasing and COVID-related hospitalizations continuing to fall, the country and its universities are finally emerging from the virus’s suffocating cocoon.

Nationwide, colleges such as the University of San Francisco are gearing up to a return to traditional in-person classes, which were abruptly canceled when COVID-19 struck just over 16 months ago.

Back then, with the virus surging and the country skidding to a shutdown, students and faculty feared a laundry list of unknowns, most prominently: would the traditional college experience ever be the same? Would the new normal look anything like the old normal, or would college life be forever changed by the Great Pandemic of 2020?

Now, as USF and a majority of universities in the country prepare to welcome students back this fall, the answers to those questions are starting to emerge. While the past year was clearly one of difficult adjustments and sacrifice, it turns out the forced isolation dictated by the virus proved to be something of a learning experience in itself.

The good news: Faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, universities found new and creative ways to successfully connect and engage with students — thanks to technologies that weren’t available just a few years ago.

Indeed, innovations suddenly made relevant by the pandemic are destined to have lasting impacts on the university experience. Arguably, higher education will be the better for it.

Early on, there were unmistakable hurdles, however. Students forced to live away from campus sometimes struggled to maintain their study focus amid all the other uncertainties surrounding COVID. Faculty long accustomed to joining students at a seminar table or standing in front of a classroom needed a crash course on teaching students from in front of a computer screen. Students and faculty struggled with an awkward disconnect that could frustrate the learning and teaching process.

But after a few false starts, faculty found new ways to incorporate the technology in ways they might not have considered before, using enhanced instruction techniques that aren’t even available in the “live” classroom. Students learned to collaborate in small groups, for instance, then return to the larger discussion to share insights and ideas. Getting guest speakers to visit campus used to be a logistical chore; technology made experts available for one-on-one discussion with nothing more than a meeting ID.

Over time, instead of an obstacle to learning, the pandemic gradually marked a turning point in the student-teacher relationship, opening the door to broader educational opportunities down the road.

One management professor, Vijay Mehrotra, recalled dropping into a breakout group to find a heated debate taking place between one student in Uganda, another in Pakistan, and two more in the Bay Area. “Watching them wrestle with scenario analysis, an idea that we’d just covered in class, I was inspired by how these new students simply refused to let the pandemic stop them from learning.”

A multitude of apps and digital technologies that allowed students to access multiple services and supports have now become an essential part of the learning and operational landscapes.

The use of Salesforce, Slack, Slate, Glia, 10to8, Workday and other programs gave rise to efficiencies that will benefit the next generation of students, as new hybrid classrooms enable professors to bring students together in real time, whether they are attending in person or remotely.

As students and faculty return to the campus community this fall, the new normal promises to look a lot like the old normal, only with something more. Looking ahead, the personal interaction and sharing of diverse perspectives will be rich indeed, thanks in large part to a newfound willingness by both students and their teachers to adapt to ever-changing technologies.

Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., is president of the University of San Francisco.

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