How do we make intellectual amends for COVID-19 learning?

After the academic year of 2020-21, the largest debts to university faculty and students will be not financial, but intellectual.

In the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea and other countries with high tuition fees, students have been demanding refunds. Lawsuits and political appeals are shaping the debate about the value of the forced online shift. Universities have refunded room and board, but not tuition, except in a few cases like Konkuk University in South Korea.

They argue that provision costs have not changed. Faculty workload has increased and there is no evidence of qualifications losing value yet. These are financial answers to financial claims. And yet, there are also intellectual claims. Something crucial is amiss: motivation, interaction, human contact, physical space, and, more generally, the ‘college experience’.

What are the intellectual answers to these claims? Some of them are in efforts to maintain study routines: tight schedules, digital platforms, new virtual laboratories, Zoom bars, virtual office hours, faculty training, mental health support and support for vulnerable groups.

But, with all major events, the time after the event has occurred presents the biggest challenge. A return to normality is not close, but we should still already be planning a comeback which will allow us to make intellectual amends. After all, for these there is no refund.

New norms

What are we missing exactly? One step towards normality is the casual development of new norms. Women’s colleges in the 19th century, student-centred universities in the 1960s and the development of contemporary liberal arts and science institutions outside the US have all brought about social change. Now universities are spreading internationalisation, diversity, sustainability, equality and entrepreneurship, one conversation at a time.

At universities, different generations coexist and the concentration of younger people is uniquely large. Add to that a tradition of constant questioning and you get pressure cookers that critique and change social – and personal – norms.

Chance encounters and spontaneous debates are another dimension of normality. You are forced – a key word – to think about something other than yourself. Attempts to recreate this online have so far been barely passable: the stakes feel lower and you cannot continue a discussion over coffee to drive your point home. Even on partially operational campuses, there is a longing for interaction with strangers.

Ceremonies and rituals used to balance out the uncertainty of scholarship with predictability. The loss of meaningful rituals has stripped us of the symbols of community, the markers of time and a sense of closure. Online PhD vivas might have occurred, but neither virtual parties nor graduation hashtags feel the same as a diploma handed to you by your president or dean.

Finally, we used to have mystery. We are experiencing something similar to the birth of a modern metropolis over a century ago. New city dwellers would develop what the philosopher Georg Simmel called a “blasé outlook”: an inability to react to or seek new stimuli due to overload. After reaching a certain threshold, you no longer have the appetite for the unknown. Except in 2020, the city is no longer behind the doors of your apartment (or department) – it is on your screen.

Universities were built on intellectual wanderlust and still remind us that there are more unknowns to encounter. They are such a popular fictional setting partially because they are so complex that you can overlay them with any expectations. Online learning strives for efficiency. Offline learning is full of possibilities.

What have we lost?

How many possibilities have we lost? Before, long summers, peculiar to academia, were compensated for through intense interaction during teaching terms. These could last anywhere between 10 and 20 weeks twice a year. Only World War II, the Cultural Revolution in China and, to some extent, the student protests in the 1960s have previously been able to disrupt the cycle. And then 2020 started.

In the northern hemisphere, students who registered for two-year offline programmes in autumn 2019 will spend about 60% of their teaching terms online. Students in three- and four-year programmes will clock in around 40% and 30% online, respectively. And this is the optimistic scenario, assuming that higher education returns to ‘normal’ after the summer of 2021.

But it is not only classes that have been lost. Meetings, orientations, academic mobility, lab work, field work, collegiate athletics, the informal curriculum, graduations, defence of vivas, learning to navigate unclear social situations, finding friends, renegotiating your relationship with your parents…

Making up for lost time

How will we compensate for the lost time when we are able to?

The basic principle is to invest in the intensity and quality of our interactions:

1. Through informal education. Every student who wants to be engaged with a university during breaks should be able to do so. This is not only about summer and winter schools, but also about regular interaction with faculty who are not on holiday, employing outdoor, adventure and expedition education for informal activities, as well as using campus for creating new traditions.

2. Through alumni clubs which could offer future graduates a chance to catch up with cultural and social capital development they might have missed out on since spring 2020. Alumni relations need new organisational models, employing hybrid forms, peer mentoring, foresight sessions for universities and learning ‘boosters’.

3. Through Flight Mode off-the-record meetings with decision-makers. Flight Mode can complement offline, online and hybrid forms of communication. It could become a signifier of an important discussion. Conveniently it adds mystery too.

4. Through taking the role of advisors seriously. An advisor is a mentor, a consultant, a guide, an early warning system and a personal interface between a student and an institution. We need new models of faculty-to-students and peer-to-peer advising, which include sharing insights about the post-pandemic reality, reflecting on the experience of isolation, extra support for vulnerable groups and updating individuals’ map of personal goals and trajectories.

5. Through student and faculty associations, societies and clubs which can help universities compete in the market with alternative providers. Dissatisfaction is a part of higher education, especially during periods of transition. It has been customary for universities to, for example, turn student unrest into student governance or excess energy into sports and speech and debate.

6. Through hybrid environments for offline-online learning. Hybrid Environments for Universities, a book written in five days by an international group of campus management experts, is a timely read which proposes new ideas about the use of space and a holistic understanding of the campus as a hybrid environment. This includes active learning rooms, outdoor Wi-Fi spots and other spaces one can Zoom in.

7. Through spaces where people can focus. We have grown tired of our homes. Universities need to build numerous spaces for faculty and students that offer the privacy needed to focus. Restructuring libraries and opening classrooms currently not in use will not provide that necessary capacity. Soundproof nooks should permeate the whole campus so that users can move between them.

The post-crisis normality will differ from the pre-crisis one. We will probably not like it, at least not at first. Our memory alters the past. After Vladimir Nabokov left Russia, he refused to return or visit, saying that all he needed was with him: literature, language, his childhood. He knew that the reality would not stand up to the kingdom lost in his mind.

The only debt we really owe is to what we were supposed to be good at. Intellectual amends are about doing less, but better.

Dara Melnyk is head of the research group at the SKOLKOVO Education Development Centre, Russia, and the curator of the Master of Arts in Experimental Higher Education programme at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen, Russia. Her preferred email address is Daniel Kontowski is the head of education at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen, Russia. His preferred e-mail address is