Pre-pandemic, my wife was a gym regular. Her routine included an after-work visit to our local health club, where she would participate in classes and use the equipment.
Like many with the resources and space to do so, our COVID fitness routines have shifted to our home. We invested in turning our basement into a home gym. Weights were purchased. Rubber flooring was added. A TV was mounted to a basement wall.
The biggest change to our workouts has been to subscribe to an online fitness streaming service. Les Mills, the New Zealand fitness empire that began with high-end gyms and expanded into the virtual realm, is our digital fitness platform of choice.
Each morning, as I do free weights or punch the punching bag, I watch my wife do streaming fitness workouts — and I think about what all this means for the future of higher education.
What might be the push or pull that will motivate my wife to restart her (expensive) monthly gym membership and start working out with other people at the club? Are there lessons for residential education in the pandemic-necessitated shift to remote courses and from the recent rapid growth we’ve seen in the development and launch of online degrees? What might streaming fitness and in-person gyms have to teach us about online education and campus-based learning?
If my wife is going to renew her gym membership and return to a routine of visiting the gym, three things will likely need to occur. Health clubs will need to evolve into places that are seamless, social, and personalized. Below, I explore these attributes and try to connect exercise with learning, gyms with campuses.
Tomorrow’s health club will need to offer a seamless experience between in-home and in-gym workouts. My wife may go back to the gym, but she will not stop working out at home. Her gym membership should come with a fitness streaming subscription. The workouts should be the same at home and in the gym. At the club, classes will be led by a fitness instructor. The same classes should be available on her phone (app) and TV (streaming) at home. The workouts should be consistent between home and gym. Fully integrated and complementary, with only the location and method of delivery (live person vs. online instructor) changing.
We can make a similar seamless argument for campus-based learning. Online education is not going to go away. It is too convenient and too flexible to disappear. The future of residential education is blended, hybrid, and location-agnostic. The online horse for almost all master’s degree programs has already left the virtual barn. All but a very few master’s programs will be either fully online or low-residency in the future. How far will undergraduate education be behind? Will the norm for traditional-age undergrads — those 18-22-year-olds — continue to be four years of residential instruction? I doubt it.
Some of those semesters will be spent online. And some of those students will move back and forth between face-to-face and online instruction. We should be getting ahead of the game by building degree programs that can move seamlessly between residential and online teaching and learning.
The big reason that my wife loved going to the gym was the people. Fitness classes are social occasions. You get energy from the instructor and your fellow workout buddies. Folks know each other. They say hi. They offer encouragement. Missing a workout means letting your fellow gym-goers down.
However good online learning can be — and we are getting better and better — it will never be as social as residential learning. We can intentionally build community in our online spaces. Spontaneous social interactions are more difficult to replicate online.
Residential education is here to stay. The world of higher education will never fully migrate online. The reason is that online and residential learning are complementary. Learning is a social act. We learn best when we learn with other people. Campus-based, face-to-face courses should be designed to maximize the social connections that physical propinquity makes possible.
None of this is to imply that online learning can’t be social. It needs to be. The essential job of an online educator is to model and practice presence.
We have learned from the pandemic that the extra friction inherent in face-to-face learning needs to be balanced by generous doses of connection, collaboration, and fun. Online courses may be the place to buckle down, where campus-based learning events should be about taking pleasure in each other’s company.
Streaming fitness apps are good for three things: flexibility, scale, and price. What streaming fitness is not good at is personalization. In a live face-to-face fitness class, the instructor can walk around the room and offer coaching and encouragement. Good fitness instructors know their clients. They know how to motivate. The workout is interactive.
Residential education will not disappear. But residential education that is not personalized will cease to exist. Students will not pay for a non-personalized residential learning experience. As we look to post-pandemic academic life, the big take-home message for residential colleges and universities is that we will need to up our games. Every aspect of the campus experience will need to improve if we hope to motivate our students to want to return to campus.
Residential learning should never be about scale. It should be about connections and collaboration. At the institutional level, every effort should be made to eliminate large-enrollment lecture courses. Move those foundational courses online. Focus the residential teaching and learning experience on courses built around active learning and experiential learning.
How has COVID changed how you exercise?
What might your new workout routines tell us about the future of higher education?