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It’s never just academic

The return to normal: an illusion?

Universities are mostly resuming face-to-face teaching this fall. This will not be a return to normal; the success of online education has fostered a historic disconnect.


On May 31, University Affairs released an update on the pandemic situation at Canadian universities. To the relief of many, institutions are planning partial or complete return to in-person activities in fall 2021.

Returning to campus won’t necessarily mean “business as usual”; the popularity of distance education has spurred a significant departure from tradition. It has been tried, tested and had success – at least in some cases. Universities adapted quickly to the situation, which dispelled some of the misgivings about distance education. Just take a sip of coffee for every time you’ve heard:

“We just don’t have the technology infrastructure to mainstream online learning.”

“Moving to online training will require huge changes. We won’t be able to do it all at once.”

“Moving online already involves a lot of training, coaching and staff support – we can’t go any faster!”

“How much is this going to cost? We just can’t afford it all at once! ”

The pandemic brushed most of these concerns (which were justified, by the way) aside, as the entire system had to adapt its educational offerings and no institution could pass up an opportunity to take a competitive lead over others. We needed the technological infrastructure. Whether we like it or not, nearly every aspect of learning has been adapted for distance learning, and professional support is already available at most institutions. The provincial governments have issued cheques to cover a significant portion of these costs.

Distance education – now a realistic choice

We sometimes forget that university students are adults. Many of them appreciate the guidance and support provided by their institutions and teaching staff, and are eager to  return to a pre-pandemic situation, or as close to it as possible.

Not all students want the same thing. There is an emerging demand for continued availability of distance learning arrangements. These students don’t want everyone to be forced into pandemic mode; they just want to pursue distance learning rather than face-to-face synchronous learning. We have the infrastructure, we have the pedagogy … so why should we deny them this choice?

I’ll speculate on this issue: the demand won’t come from a majority of the student population. Not even close. We can safely bet that the “traditional” student population will overwhelmingly and enthusiastically return to the classroom. It will be the “atypical” students who will be pressing to continue with distance education. These students tend to be older, employed full-time and often have children. For them, mainstream distance education offers an incredible opportunity to divide their time in a way that works for them.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. The business of university education in the 21st century relies, to some extent, on striking a delicate balance between quality and affordability, no matter how you calculate it. The institutions can achieve this balance by maximizing economies of scale in their ecosystems. Historically, meeting consistent needs allows the economy of scale to function well.

Consider the disruption associated with the growing presence of students with special needs. It’s a positive development from a social perspective, showing significant improvements in the accessibility of university education. Economically, this segmentation of conventionally homogeneous communities is putting pressure on available resources. Government funding helps maintain the balance, in theory. However, the disruption is felt throughout the university.

In the fall, there will be the potential for further student fragmentation, in terms of instructional preference. The demand for widespread availability of distance education doesn’t have to break the bank to affect the system – it only needs to represent, for some institutions, the difference between a balanced budget and a deficit.

One attraction of emerging distance education is its ability to significantly diminish the role of geography in the choice of institution. Institutions that continue to offer distance education will have a new and very receptive student body who want to continue online and who don’t have this option at their local university.

This seems like the consolidation of a new market.

Because ignoring it won’t make it go away,  universities will face some tough choices next year.

Have a good summer, everyone. Rest up. It looks like 2021-22 will be no less hectic than 2020-21.

Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée
Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée is an assistant professor in higher education administration at the Université de Montréal's faculty of education and a regular researcher at the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l'enseignement supérieur.
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  1. Ebrahim Noroozi / July 5, 2021 at 08:20

    Thank and excellent valid points have been made, however as referred there is a give and take since university must also consider the benefit of on campus learning, social contact experience and practical work needed for students, university quality of education for community.

  2. Paul Taborsky / July 5, 2021 at 15:28

    I’m puzzled by the range of reopening plans – some instituitons are planning for a full or near full return to campus, some a ‘hybrid’ mode, with few details yet released, while others (particularly certain colleges) plan for a mostly on-line fall semester.

    There is a lack of transparency behind many of these decisions, especially in the case of schools that are opting for primarily online delivery for the fall. It seems that some schools are happy to give the impression that such decisons have been made entirely for health reasons, but this is hardly credible, given that some institutions with completely different plans are practically right next to each other.

    I can only conclude that these decisions have been prompted by other than health issues, i.e. by budgetary considerations.

    Yet it seems that no institution has yet to admit the latter, publically. Don’t these publically funded (or ‘assisted’) institutions have a responsibilty to be a bit more transparent about the reasons for their particular reopening plans, given that there has been no change to tution?

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