Open learning expert urges GV leadership to "tiptoe into to the future" after COVID disruption

A zoom screengrab with Mantella, Sarma, and Cimitile.
Image credit - Elizabeth Lienau

COVID-19 has proved a formidable force in disrupting traditional education systems since March of 2020, but Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning at MIT, said the pandemic leaves room for growth for higher education.

Sarma spoke during a February 2 "Fireside Chat" hosted by President Philomena V. Mantella and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Maria Cimitile.

The virtual, hour-long presentation and discussion touched on the future of learning and how disruption can be harnessed to improve future learning outcomes and pedagogy.

Sarma said faculty will come back from COVID disruptions with ideas on how to improve both online and in-person instruction, saying he supported exploring those suggestions. 

"Lead from the front," Sarma said. "Encourage experiments on how students learn, and tiptoe into the future."

Sarma said people's increased ability to adapt to technological change has allowed them to accept learning in a more digital format more readily, but was quick to say that traditional Zoom instruction that was forced on many faculty members and students could be "exhausting."

Sarma said the future of learning is about ongoing education, and providing information to students at the point in their educational journeys and lives when it is most impactful. He compared models of lifelong learning to a gym membership.

"I think it's visionary that Grand Valley is approaching lifelong learning as a membership concept. You can't tell people that if they go to the gym for four years that they'll be fit for the rest of their lives," Sarma said. "Learning is like a treadmill that's slowly going backward. If you don't jog once in a while, you'll fall off the end."

The concept, Sarma said, is called agile continuous education, where students continue going to the "education gym" once or twice a week. Ongoing education and training is common for health care professionals, teachers, pilots and more, Sarma said, but structure for lifelong learning for others hasn't yet been built.

Sarma said that while he was impressed with the ability of Grand Valley to transition to online learning at scale due to COVID, he said Zoom meetings are the starting point for online education. 

"There are many ways to improve," Sarma said. "You can only do so much online. We must focus on the classroom, focus on hands-on learning, and when we are able, to make the classroom count. Universities have to become a place of action, creation and impact."

Mantella said the conversation is just one way Grand Valley is using COVID disruptions as a learning moment. She said faculty members are working with teaching resources to improve online pedagogy, and changing methods of course delivery for effective learning.

Recordings of previous "Fireside Chats" are available on the President's website.


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