A Call for Higher Education to Critically Reflect on the Coronavirus Disorientation
Economist Milton Friedman’s statement in an introduction to a reprint of his book, Capitalism and Freedom (originally published in 1962), has been often quoted:
“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
The quote can clearly connect to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the crises it is producing. But one wonders whether “the ideas that are lying around” include the kind of thinking that produces generative change as an outcome of these crises.
As faculty and students adapt to the pandemic’s forced at-distance modalities of teaching and learning, many in higher education are asking whether real change in how colleges and universities operate will result from the pandemic. In the short-term, real change was forced when institutions scrambled to convert face-to-face classes to at-distance delivery and dealt with implications such as the sudden loss of students’ ability to interact with each other on campus, among many other disruptions.
In the long-term, the pandemic will cause financial and operational disruptions. At-distance teaching may be the only kind of teaching possible even into the 2020-2021 academic year.
In Transformative Learning (TL) terms, higher education has been suddenly and dramatically forced to confront a disorienting dilemma.
TL’s foundational theorist, Jack Mezirow, counted disorienting dilemmas as one of the key experiences leading to transformation. Such a dilemma forces the learner (in this case, higher education writ large) to reflect on how and why the new situation does not fit into the learner’s existing worldview. Then, a perspective shift or expansion must occur to accommodate the new reality, thereby launching a revised worldview.
For higher education, the existing worldview — even in the face of increasing pressures in recent decades — has stubbornly remained the residential learning experience on a college campus where students attend classes and accumulate 3-credit-hour chunks of learning based on seat time and successful exam performance until they complete a prescribed program that qualifies them for graduation. Then the pandemic barreled into higher education like a tsunami, and almost overnight the prevailing worldview became extremely fragile.
But TL also offers a solution, exactly as described above: disorienting dilemma (i.e., disruption), followed by reflection, followed by the adoption of a new worldview and subsequent action taken based on the new perspective. Applying this process to higher education can be refined by addressing the challenge as a learning organization.
Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990), counts mental models (“worldviews” in our discussion) among the disciplines of a learning organization (pp. 6-10):
- Systems Thinking
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Building Shared Vision
- Team Learning
From Senge’s list, “mental models” includes necessary reflection to determine what the mismatch is between the reality and organizational worldview. For higher education administrators, trustees, and others, the pandemic has forced reflection about the definition of a university. Because the old definition (the existing worldview) is no longer possible, then reconciling that perspective with what is possible requires adjusting the current definition in order to expand the perspective.
For higher education administrators, trustees, and others, the pandemic has forced reflection about the definition of a university.
Those wedded to the existing definition of a university are frozen in hope-space — that tenuous existence without agency and totally dependent on the old reality somehow returning. But those whose reflection yields a new definition for “university” are far better equipped to take action.
Assuming those of us at our own university have adopted a new definition for what we are right now, then building a shared vision around that new reality is the next important step. Senge (p.9) says it’s necessary to unearth “shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment” to succeed in this process.
As we work at distance through coming weeks and possibly months, personal reflection about our own worldview of higher education can be a productive activity by prompting an expanded definition of a university. Our resulting new worldview can accommodate the current reality while at the same time motivating us if we tap into the reasons we came to higher education in the first place.
Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.