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Rahim Rezaie is associate director of the International Virtual Engineering Student Teams Project at the University of Toronto and senior program development officer at Academics Without Borders.

Shortly after he took office in 2013, I attended a speech by the then newly installed University of Toronto president Meric Gertler. Recognizing the changing education landscape, he noted: “We have to improve the value of being there.” His implicit argument seemed to be that, as educators, we would soon be called upon to justify why we ask students to congregate in large numbers on campus, when comparable learning opportunities were becoming available online.

However, Mr. Gertler’s prescription was not to explore and develop the potential of the latter opportunity, but to enhance the quality of in-person training. The thinking over the past decade or so has been largely the same across most higher education institutions in Canada, despite advances in communication technologies and the promise of online education.

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mainstream educational institutions overwhelmingly relied on “being there,” or the physical attendance of students for almost all courses. The pandemic has compelled the use of online education strategies in many parts of the world, and Canadian universities are no exception. The question is what will – or should – happen once the COVID-19 situation is resolved? Will higher education simply go back to the old ways and put virtual learning on the shelf? Or will they embrace the moment and ensure that online education benefits are further explored, developed and realized?

There are reasons to believe that the systems will largely retreat to old practices. After all, educators have long espoused a rather romantic and illusory vision of the typical classroom setting and its purported benefits for students. The prevalent model that requires physical presence for nearly all learning activities has been justified on the premise that it maximizes learning by providing an environment where scholarly discourse can take place. The result is that students must show up for the same lecture at a designated location at a specific time, congregating in classes that can range from 10 to several hundred students.

Unfortunately, our higher education system has seemed indifferent to the fact that meaningful interactions simply do not take place in classes with hundreds of students any better than they can in an online class. Indeed, one can argue that the online setting is likely of superior value in such contexts. Distractions are fewer, students can control their learning environment and content can be easily recorded for later review. With the exception of a few recent instances, where large classrooms have been redesigned purposefully to enable so-called interactive learning, the notion that learners and teachers have meaningful interactions in a class of 200 students or more was always an illusion at best.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant negative impact on our lives, but it has provided an opportunity to rethink such anachronistic assumptions. It has showed us some of the value of not “being there.” The immediate value in terms of containing disease spread is obvious, but in normal times, the potential benefits can be immense also. Students can have more flexibility over how and where they learn. Online learning can reduce or eliminate the need to travel or live close to campus, saving students time and money. For universities, it offers the prospects of lower operational and maintenance costs, allowing them to invest more in high-value interactions that tend to occur in more intimate groups.

The challenges posed by online education in recent months, such as technical difficulties or feelings of isolation, should not overshadow the true promise of the approach as a scalable and student-friendly complement to conventional on-campus activities. Problems encountered as part of the recent experience may be more reflective of the fact that most of our educational institutions were so unprepared for online teaching.

That is not to argue that online education is a panacea and that we should do away with classroom education entirely, but rather to suggest that both can have a positive and enduring place in our higher education system post-COVID. Going forward, students are likely to demand online options in suitable circumstances. Our universities and colleges should seize the moment and make a decisive move to a hybrid educational model that blends both online and on-campus approaches. In doing so, they can provide a superior educational experience in a more inclusive, accessible and cost-effective manner.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Meric Gertler's first name.

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