From the Director: Lessons Learned Yet?

Three observations on the remote learning experience that we consider as we move closer to summer break and prepare for school in August.
Maybe two hours after our school world toggled into remote learning mode this spring, the postings and promptings began. What have we learned, which changes will be permanent, how has this altered everything? The quote (attributed variously to Machiavelli, Churchill, Milton Friedman, and Rahm Emanuel, among others) about not letting a crisis go to waste figured prominently in plenty of slide decks. Our energies focused pretty exclusively on living and providing for the moment—that felt like more than plenty. But the chance to reflect arrives soon.
 
The trope about building the plane as we flew it doesn’t include an additional dimension of also studying us in flight—those first two elements drove out efforts. Sure, we adjusted and reinvented in response to daily experiences, but the intensity of processing so much change so quickly left little time for broader assessment. After next week, our faculty gather for familiar year-end meetings that will also feature time to decompress and start making sense of what we’ve each gleaned in this largest-ever natural experiment in pedagogy. That call to reflect promises to extend for weeks as we study the path we’ve traveled. Be on the lookout for a survey from me in mid-June to solicit your sentiments too.
 
Not to jump ahead, but my vantage point as kind of the consummate USN generalist offers the chance to glimpse some of those possible lasting COVID-generated lessons. By no means comprehensive in nature, here’s a shortlist as a place to begin:
  • We had habituated ourselves to an incredibly packed calendar, and some of the recent time at home as families deserves preserving. Whether it’s arts, athletics, USNA, or general academic commitments, we were, in the main, hitting it really hard. Our operations crew could expect event setups six evenings a week. I wonder how much of that culture will feel right as we put things back, one at a time.
 
  • People may be Zoom-fatigued, but as a tool the video conference offers an important ease of access. Turnout for calls we’ve sponsored remains inspiringly high, in many cases including people who would have had a hard time getting to campus for an in-person version, much as we like to see each other. Conferences, check-ins, and quick confabs lend themselves to this format, known to many of us only as an ad on tv a few short months ago. We just need to use it judiciously. 
  • Our campus levels the playing field for students in essential ways. Learning from home adds special challenges for some students and particular advantages for others. Some of our young scholars soared when asked to organize and schedule much of their course work, while others struggled with the solitude and dearly missed the chance to learn in community. How best to close opportunity gaps and blend the virtues of both modalities?
  • Turns out that USN students really miss being together at school. Some sound more surprised than others by that realization, but virtually every conversation on the topic reinforces that idea. The social connections made possible by what would formerly have been worrisome amounts of screen time turned out to be all-important. We need to see each other, and it will be a long time before we ever take those moments for granted. We cherish a home base, and it won’t be in the cloud.
These observations, among many others, will form the backdrop to our design for August, for returning as fully as safety allows to campus. We know there’s a whole lot to do, and there’s no reason to doubt USN’s work ethic or capacity to find new ways to make school. We’ll embrace June and July for that purpose—as an aside, that’s one (of many) reasons that trying to start the school year early seems suboptimal. If ever we needed a summer to reset as we recharge, this is the one.
 
And meanwhile, we still feel the need to offer what we can in terms of summer programs. In the midst of these busy closing days, two dozen or so ideas from faculty have been floated already, with plans to present something for students and families to consider before the end of the month.
 
Thanks as always for your patience and support. I’ll be working on a report assessing where we stand as the virtual curtain falls and how things look as eyes turn to the new year. All early indications remain very positive, but if you’re experiencing a particular hardship, please reach out. One of our core commitments remains to take nothing and no one for granted.
 
Appreciative of your time reading these missives. Here comes the checkered flag,
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