Point of View Chris Dellarocas

COVID TO 2030: Serving the Students of the Future

The past 15 months have been a singularly challenging experience for every member of the BU community. Our leadership and staff faced a crisis of potentially existential proportions and worked together to make sure that the University could stay open. Our faculty went above and beyond to serve our students, adapting to new ways of teaching at very short notice, overcoming their discomfort with sudden change and becoming pillars of support to a student body that had to deal with challenges they have never faced before.

Thanks to everyone’s efforts, BU has emerged stronger, wiser, and ready to continue our path to excellence for the rest of the decade and beyond.

Our students, too, have emerged from this experience changed. More savvy. Our students gained a better appreciation for the value of a residential experience. They became more aware of what parts of the experience we offer them add value relative to remote learning and which ones don’t. When our students (as we all hope) return to campus in the fall, they are likely to be more discerning. Therefore, we cannot just return to exactly how we were doing things before the pandemic.

As we look forward to remaining an excellent institution of higher learning, we need to adapt and evolve to keep up with our students’ changing needs and expectations. Many of these revolve around four themes that have been gaining prominence in conversations I have been having with students, faculty, and my counterparts in other institutions.

Inclusion & Equity

The first theme is inclusion and equity. Our students have become more aware of their differences in technology access opportunities as well as learning styles and will return to campus more discerning about having these accommodated in a way that is inclusive and equitable. Thinking about these dimensions of our teaching is becoming a necessity. To that end, frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning can be valuable guides that all of us need to become very familiar with. Our Center for Teaching and Learning is preparing resources and programming in these areas and the theme of inclusion and equity; please stay tuned.

Community in the Classroom

Community is, of course, what our students missed the most during the pandemic and what they are craving to return to when things get back to normal. Nevertheless, community is not just something that happens outside of the classroom. Creating classroom environments where students can collaborate connect and understand each other better improves both learning outcomes and student well-being. To support this, institutions need to equip students and faculty with teaching strategies and tools that nurture human connections, wherever learning takes place.

Student Engagement

When students interact with educators who make learning active and engaging, they are more motivated to learn. Motivation drives better outcomes, not just in terms of grades and graduation rates, but also in enabling students to apply learning in ways that are valuable to them as individuals. Now that students have experienced zoom-based learning and have increasingly access to recorded class sessions, effective active learning is almost becoming a prerequisite to asserting the value of a residential experience and keeping students in the classroom.

Increased Emphasis on Soft Skills

Here is something that was true before COVID but is going to be even truer after. Employers remain hungry for traditional arts and letters skills, such as empathy, communication, cross-cultural competency, and synthetic thinking; they complain that university graduates do not come out adequately prepared in these competencies. The pressure to demonstrate measurable outcomes in such areas is likely to increase in coming years; we owe it to our students to elevate such transferable (also known as “social” or “soft”) competencies to the same status as the more technical learning outcomes of our various programs and courses. To do that, we need to both explicitly integrate them as learning outcomes of our courses and, ideally, figure out ways to assess and measure the progress of our students in these important dimensions both inside and outside their formal coursework.

Teaching and learning is entering an exciting phase of continuous transformation. The key question is no longer one of modality (i.e. residential vs. remote vs. hybrid), but rather a continuous push towards equitable access to learning, community, active engagement and whole person development, irrespective of modality. These very human and very meaningful educational goals can serve as our compass in evolving teaching and learning at Boston University. Technology has a role to play as an enabler of all these goals. In our recent Faculty Forum more than 50 BU faculty discussed how they creatively used technology tools to accomplish one or more of the goals outlined in this article. To that end, purposeful teaching with technology should not be viewed as a substitute to residential teaching, but rather, as a facilitator of rich and rewarding learning experiences for all Boston University students.

BU DL&I Chris DellarocasChris Dellarocas is Boston University’s Associate Provost for Digital Learning & Innovation and Shipley Professor of Management at the Questrom School of Business. As Associate Provost, Dellarocas leads the advancement of activities that enhance education at BU through the strategic use of digital technologies.