Innovation, Challenges, and the Future of Higher Education
As a result of Covid-19, “distance learning” has become a familiar phrase at schools and universities across the globe. It’s been in place at Baruch since March, when the College quickly shifted to remote teaching, and the vast majority of courses remain online-only. But what exactly is distance learning, and how have faculty adjusted to this new, fully online environment?
Three Baruch professors share their experiences with the new paradigm and discuss what it could mean for the future of higher education.
For Don Waisanen, PhD, professor of communication at Baruch’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, teaching this semester has occurred entirely on Zoom, the online video-conference platform that became ubiquitous during the pandemic. Using a tripod, laptop, and iPad, Dr. Waisanen is able to view and speak with all of his students as he shares his tablet’s screen, which faces a whiteboard. “Having two screens makes it feel a bit more like you’re all together in a real classroom,” notes Waisanen, who teaches political communication and public advocacy.
Of paramount importance, Waisanen says, is keeping students engaged by using all of Zoom’s interactive capabilities, including polls, quizzes, and the platform’s chat bar.
His favorite feature is the virtual “breakout rooms,” where he can send students for small-group discussions that often involve role-playing and listening exercises.
“When we were on campus, I’d be running around the halls before class looking for empty rooms to send student groups to, since I don’t want them to be influenced by what they hear other groups say during role plays,” he explains, adding, “I’ve been blown away by how well this all translates to Zoom.”
SMALL WORLD, BIG IDEAS
The Fall 2020 semester truly put the “distance” in distance learning for Maria Halbinger, PhD, assistant professor of innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity in the Narendra Paul Loomba Department of Management of the Zicklin School of Business. “On the first day of class, I did a survey and found that my students were joining me from four different continents!” she says.
Like Waisanen, Dr. Halbinger uses Zoom to conduct her class’s “synchronous” meetings, in which everyone is logged in at the same time. But she also incorporates “asynchronous” elements hosted on a website she created through Blogs@Baruch, a WordPress-based platform for the Baruch community maintained by the College’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Her website includes a homepage for her class that features course materials, blog posts, and a forum where students interact and respond to her prompts between classes.
“Since I teach innovation and creativity—a social process—it is important to me that students still have a community,” she says.
“Students who wouldn’t raise their voices in a physical classroom now have more time to think about these topics and make valuable, thoughtful contributions.”
The website also serves as the home for the class’s Innovation Competition, in which teams develop and pitch a creative small business idea, much like the popular TV show Shark Tank. This year, students worked remotely to produce polished videos and other multimedia promoting their businesses, which they posted to the website, and graded each other’s pitches using Google Forms. The online format “actually saved valuable class time,” Halbinger explains.
“And the students were able to think more critically about their evaluations, so the entire experience was improved.”
In March 2020, Andrea Gabor, the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, was making final preparations for an eight-day trip to the Texas–New Mexico border with her political reporting class, which she co-teaches with Associate Professor of Journalism Vera Haller. The students were eager to tackle the politically charged Southwest and “had been doing all sorts of research on state legislative elections, voter suppression, environmental politics—you name it,” Professor Gabor says.
So when Covid-19 locked down New York City only days before the trip, “it was heartbreaking,” says Gabor, “but suddenly the light bulb went on.” The two professors got in touch with their contacts and arranged for the students to conduct, via Zoom, dozens of group and individual interviews with nearly all of their original sources. “Because the students were so well prepared, those interviews proved to be an incredibly rich give-and-take,” Gabor observes.
In the end, the students produced a fascinating collection of stories entitled “The Border Interrupted: Politics and the Pandemic Scramble Life Along El Paso–Juarez Divide,” which can be read in Dollars & Sense, Baruch’s award-winning online student magazine.
Despite the success of the project, Gabor finds online education to be “far from ideal.” As an education columnist for Bloomberg, she has studied the rise of distance learning over the years and has long cautioned that it cannot be viewed as a direct replacement for in-person teaching. “There’s a certain spontaneity that you only get from a live classroom,” she explains. “It lends itself to conversation and interaction.”
She continues, “There’s an enormous amount of pressure throughout the country toward online as a cost-saving move; that would be a mistake.”
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world is a top priority for Baruch President S. David Wu, PhD. Early in his tenure, he established the Task Force for the Future, a group of Baruch thought leaders tasked with analyzing how best to incorporate technology to expand instructional modality, enrich pedagogical repertoire, and increase accessibility for all students.
“The global pandemic opens a rare window of opportunity for us to take a fresh look at what we do and challenge ourselves to envision what is possible,” says President Wu. “Zoom and video conferencing are only a small part of digital pedagogy. With help from the task force, as well as input from the Baruch community, we are working to build a comprehensive educational technology infrastructure so that we can serve our students’ diverse needs, both in-person and online, with top quality.”
Waisanen, who serves on the president’s task force, agrees. “What will make Baruch special will be the combination of the in-person experience that we had before plus the value added of the complementary digital formats we’ve all been using these past several months.”
The Marxe professor is already looking ahead to how virtual reality and other emerging online tools will further transform the classroom experience. “This is not some far-off future anymore,” he says.
“It’s the present—and it’s really exciting.”