empty classroom

With the pandemic moving instruction exclusively online, universities must accept that the game has changed and look for new ways to move forward with virtual learning.

Facing the greatest pandemic to hit the modern world, higher education has metaphorically been struck in the gut. Here we stand breathless, confused, and hoarding toilet paper while wondering what lies ahead.

With our grandiose halls and vibrant campuses lying vacant, higher education is now scrambling to re-assemble the remnants of our academic year. There is no denying that the very foundation of our educational system, one that we have built up over centuries, is ill-equipped for the situation in which we currently find ourselves. In less than a two-week timespan, the novel coronavirus and subsequent disease of COVID-19 have shuttered the vast majority of our campuses. With efforts being made to move all educational instruction online and at home, educators are now having to evaluate their teaching models, moving their curriculum away from the sanctity of a lecture hall to one that is done behind a webcam. 

But is any of this a surprise? Not the virus per se, but the shift in academic environments. Even before this outbreak, it was common knowledge that online learning had become an ever-present and growing part of our educational infrastructure. A report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that of the 20,135,159 students enrolled in higher education in 2017 within the United States, 14.71 percent were exclusively learning online (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). But what was once a niche market of education is now the only venue of education. Subsequently, as of right now — and please humor me in this unsubstantiated but highly plausible claim — the percentage of students learning online most likely sits comfortably at 100 percent.

But in no way were we ready or willing to make this drastic change in our instructional methods on our own. Over the past two weeks, we have been pulled away from our campuses and placed in social isolation, each of us trying to plan out the duration of the semester while wondering where we will be in the coming months. Yet for me, I have begun to search for meaning in this difficult situation, and even though the mist of this anxiety-inducing situation blocks my view, I can now see a possible silver lining shining ahead.

Higher educational access has always been a condition of geographic proximity and has thus required on-campus or near-campus existence for students, staff, and faculty. With the increased cost of operating in a highly desirable location, institutions have had to utilize other means to earn revenue. Simply put, we have built a model where we are more than educators but also landlords and restauranteurs. Even when our students live off-campus, in an attempt to save money, predatory rent collectors view university proximity as an opportunity to charge exorbitant prices for housing (Breland, 2019). With economic inequality being one of the biggest barriers to higher education, the total cost vs. true value of a college degree has been called into question. Not only do our students ask these questions, but the media also has placed us under scrutiny, asking if a university education is worth the skyrocketing costs of tuition, fees, and room and board (Newton, 2018).

However, I believe we now have an opportunity to look beyond this cataclysmic change and rebuild an educational system that embraces cost-saving measures such as distance learning and/or hybrid models of education. I predict that as a result of the COVID-19 closures and our forced transition to online education, more and more students, staff, and faculty will break away from the stigma that they must exist within the physical bubble of an institution and discover that knowledge can be shared across vast distances. I believe that we will find new and innovative ways to teach using our virtual tools and therefore cultivate an academic environment where high-quality education no longer requires every student, staff, and faculty member to make a daily pilgrimage to campus. 

I, like many of my colleagues, am terrified of this unknown territory that we currently find ourselves in. Over the past week, I have spent much of my time trying to figure out how I can continue to engage my students while existing in exile from my campus. Yet I have come to accept that everything has and will continue to change as a result of this world-altering experience. In the end, I hope my fellow educators also see this as an opportunity to embrace a new wave of educational reform that will allow us to open the virtual doors of our schools to anyone, regardless of their income level or geographic location.

Gregory A. Brightbill, MBA, MEd, is the Leadership Education and Involvement Program Specialist for UMB's Office of Interprofessional Student Learning and Service Initiatives.


Breland, A.(2019). If the Tuition Doesn’t Get You, the Cost of Student Housing Will. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-08-13/if-the-tuition-doesn-t-get-you-the-cost-of-student-housing-will

National Center for Education Statistics (2017). Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2017; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2017 (Report NCES 2019-021rev). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2019/2019021REV.pdf

Newton, D. (2018). Please Stop Asking Whether College Is Worth It. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2018/12/16/please-stop-asking-whether-college-is-worth-it/#2ca2a4be30d2

Disclaimer: Elm Voices & Opinions articles reflect the thoughts or opinions of their individual authors, and may not represent the thoughts or values of UMB as an institution.

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