Guest commentary: At UCSD, feedback on remote learning is mixed. Here’s how we’ll address that.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla addresses graduates in 2019.
UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla addresses graduates during a commencement ceremony in 2019.

For nearly a decade, many universities overlooked or neglected to explore the full potential that remote delivery of services and instruction can offer. In March, that paradigm changed overnight. With lives at stake due to the global coronavirus pandemic, educators across the nation had to act quickly to ensure millions of students could complete course work, take finals and even graduate remotely.

At UC San Diego, our faculty swiftly moved all classes to remote settings. We adapted our research and work activities so that the vast majority of faculty and staff could work from home. Our doctors and clinicians adopted telehealth technologies to continue providing health care remotely to our patients. The public health crisis forced us to innovate nearly all aspects of our enterprise.

The questions we face now: How do these innovations affect us moving forward? How much of what we have learned will become part of a “new normal”? How will we decide what to keep and what to reject?

For example, feedback from faculty and students about remote learning has been mixed. It is clear that if we have to absorb this mode of delivery into our new normal, we will need to innovate more. Anytime, anywhere access to courses is clearly an advantage, and lack of physical interaction a disadvantage.

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There are key challenges related to assessments and interactive learning that will be addressed collaboratively with our faculty and students. But just as evident is the need to learn how to engage and participate actively in group discussions while interacting through postage-stamp-size avatars of our colleagues. This mode of interaction has become ever-present in our daily professional and personal lives. To be effective in the new normal, we must both adopt new modes of interaction and adapt our behavior.

A pleasant surprise for many of us were the innovations in the areas of special events, student services and student engagement. We are learning how to connect and engage using the technologies and platforms that many of our students have been using for years. In doing so, we are making many activities and programs more accessible.

We created Virtual Triton Day, a combination of live webinars and video content that invited admitted students and their families to get answers to questions while experiencing the excitement of campus without stepping foot outside their homes. To our delight, turnout was greater than our traditional on-campus event and resulted in increased early acceptance.

Other examples of innovation include our “Keep Engaging” website, a one-stop virtual shop providing students online access to academic support, stress management, and well-being and mental health services. Our new Virtual Student Union promotes all of UC San Diego’s virtual student-engagement opportunities.

Departments, divisions and student organizations developed webinars, videos and podcasts to share student success strategies, create virtual study groups and even explore culture through cooking. Through virtual events and town halls, issues such as climate, inequality and health disparities were discussed and debated across time zones and communities.

Our campus recreation department launched The Playground, a virtual space where the entire UC San Diego community can get active, creative, meditate and stay fit through online classes, articles and virtual recreation programming.

These new virtual interaction modes have proved to be surprisingly successful, and we expect these innovations to become a part of the new normal. Before the pandemic, we couldn’t see remote delivery as a viable possibility. COVID-19 forced us to think about the educational experience differently.

Going forward, I believe that combining the physical experience (of the past) and the virtual experience (of today) will be a boon for students, faculty and staff in the long run. In defining the future of higher education, we are exploring a student experience with in-person strategies supported by and amplified through technology.

In the fall, UC San Diego will offer a mix of remote and in-person instruction, with smaller seminar classes, studios and laboratories that require hands-on work offered on campus. Since the public health situation is expected to be dynamic in the coming months, it is important for our campus to retain flexibility of operations.

UC San Diego says it will attempt to partly resume in-person classes this fall and will offer free and regular COVID-19 coronavirus testing to its 65,000 students, faculty and staff, a program that could cost up to $2 million a month.

Innovation at American institutions is alive and well, and UC San Diego is actively helping to define the new normal of higher education. We will do this collaboratively with our faculty, students and staff through thoughtful deliberations, experimentation and the development of assessment processes that lead to enhancing the student experience and better student outcomes.

Pradeep Khosla is the chancellor of UC San Diego and lives in La Jolla.