What Will Be Different in the 'New Normal'? first appeared in the February 2021 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
A conversation (on Zoom) between Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward and Sir David Adjaye, who is designing our new museum, attracted more than 6,500 viewers.
One of the questions I hear most frequently these days is, “How will Princeton be different after the pandemic is done?” My temptation is to answer, “I don’t know—for now, I’m just looking forward to it being done!”
And, indeed, for the most part, it is too soon to say. One thing is quite clear: residential education retains powerful appeal and will remain the foundation of a Princeton education. At the beginning of the pandemic, many pundits proclaimed that the sudden shift to online learning would demonstrate what it could do. That has been true—but the shift has also exposed the limitations of online learning.
Princeton’s professors have made remarkable efforts to mount courses online, and students have worked hard to adapt to remote learning. I am confident that Princeton is providing students with an excellent education, the best that we can supply given the circumstances. But I also know that very few students would count it as good as what existed before the pandemic.
If anything, students’ attachment to the residential experience is proving even deeper than I would have expected. Most undergraduates are planning to return to campus for the spring semester knowing that we can offer very few extracurricular activities, almost no in-person teaching, and extremely limited opportunities for socializing or dining. For the majority of our students, the opportunity to be among friends, to meet new people, and to live together in a learning, growing community is valuable even if shorn of almost everything we usually invoke to explain the benefits of residential liberal arts education.
People sometimes suppose that even if online teaching is less good than the residential version, it might be much cheaper. In fact, some key aspects of remote teaching for undergraduates are more costly than in-person learning. Teaching depends upon engaging and motivating students, and that is harder in a remote environment. To meet this challenge, Princeton has reduced the maximum size for many seminars and precepts so that professors and their teaching assistants can give even more individualized attention than usual to students.
Learning benefits from the motivation and inspiration supplied by personal student-teacher relationships. It also benefits from serendipitous interaction with interesting people, from hands-on activity in laboratories and studios, and from the peer interactions and cultural practices—such as studying long hours or debating ideas vigorously—that take root and blossom at a healthy school.
So where might our online experience generate the best opportunities for innovation in a post-pandemic future? We should expect to find them in any domains where the advantages of serendipity, inspiration, hands-on activity, and institutional culture can be sacrificed, at least temporarily, to overcome limitations of distance, travel, or time.
For example, Zoom and other video technologies expand the possibilities for interaction with guest speakers from around the world. Is it better to have someone in person? Sure—but even visiting from New York City requires a speaker to commit several hours. If the speaker is coming from farther away, we could be talking about multiple days. Online technology makes leading experts and policymakers only a click away.
Conversely, students who are studying abroad will have more opportunities to interact virtually with professors on campus. They might even be able to take one or more Princeton courses to supplement the offerings at their studyabroad site.
Some professors will use their new familiarity with online tools to change how they use class time. They can “flip the classroom,” using online tools to convey information and inperson sessions for more interactive learning.
Changes might affect the University’s administrative rather than curricular functions. Since last March, we have had to reconfigure almost every aspect of our operations, and we have learned some valuable lessons along the way. For instance, our experience with remote work arrangements may give the University added flexibility to accommodate employee schedules or to reduce costs related to office space and commuting.
We have found new and effective ways to broadcast public events to much larger audiences than we could get on campus. For example, a conversation between Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward and Sir David Adjaye, who is designing our new museum, attracted more than 6,500 viewers. It was a terrific event—and James and Sir David spoke from different continents.
We are also identifying new ways to engage with alumni, and our alumni are finding ingenious approaches to connect with one another. Again, nobody regards these virtual interactions as a replacement for in-person events—but I expect they will persist as a valuable supplement to Reunions and other gatherings.
Of course, I am certain there will also be other changes that I have not yet anticipated. I look forward to a day when we can consider how best to integrate the tools and experience from the pandemic with the strengths of residential liberal arts and graduate education that Princeton students and alumni so cherish.