What a difference a month can make.

Back in early March, one month after being named to lead Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus as its inaugural executive director, I was focused on wrapping up 10 years as dean of Cornell’s College of Engineering and looking for apartments in Alexandria. Then the pandemic swept across the country, and now I’ve been called into service at Cornell in ways I had never imagined.

At the same time, the mission and imperative of the Innovation Campus feel more relevant and urgent than ever. At Cornell, Virginia Tech, and institutions of higher education around the world, we’re facing a historic disruption as we move our programs online to educate our students while promoting good public health practices.

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed how we work. For decades, we’ve understood the potential for online platforms to transform higher education, but this experience has upped the ante for everyone. The pandemic has created an opportunity for creative people to really drive the next wave of creation and development.

That’s why I’m more excited than ever about my new role in shaping the Innovation Campus. Even as I’m guiding Cornell Engineering through this sometimes-difficult adjustment, every day my work, my thoughts, and my conversations are ruminating about this potential quantum leap in learning and how it could affect the plans and programming at the campus in Alexandria.

Many universities, including Cornell and Virginia Tech, are relying on web-based conferencing platforms that, in reality, closely mirror traditional lecture-style teaching. Mapping the classroom onto platforms such as Zoom, while not trivial, is fairly straightforward, as their design accommodates “meetings” with one individual holding the attention of the group, much like a professor holds the attention of her class in lecture, while answering questions and facilitating discussions.

And we’re seeing real-time evolution, as companies have responded to emerging concerns about privacy and hacking by stepping up security protocols. We’re still gauging how students are coping with this massive shift in teaching and learning styles. Even as we all hold our collective breaths, wondering whether we can sustain a worldwide transformation to online education, early signs indicate a success.

But is lecture all there is to teaching and learning? No, particularly for the technical material associated with STEM fields. In their current form, online platforms are clumsy at enabling the casual discussions students engage in around a table while trying to master a difficult concept, where everyone is listening to everyone else, exploring different approaches, occasionally saying something that makes no sense, and correcting each other in a safe environment. These activities are typically spontaneous, unstructured, and informal.

Peer-to-peer learning and mentoring is especially important at Virginia Tech, where we embrace the value of diverse, interdisciplinary teams charged with solving complicated problems. These teams are valuable not only for enriching planning in difficult circumstances, like the one we’re in, but also in building nontrivial skills that you cannot learn from a lecture or book. Those are difficult, but high-value skills when you get out in the world.

I’ve been at land-grant universities my whole career. I very much am attracted to institutions that see the world’s greater needs and the greater good. I’m proud to see how institutions like Virginia Tech respond in a caring and thoughtful way and contribute to improve a very difficult situation. We are all being called to bring our best thinking to find solutions and to adapt in real time to a world that is forever changed.

Virginia Tech’s service mission and its emphasis on interdisciplinary teams make it uniquely situated to tackle difficult problems during — and after — this pandemic. And the Innovation Campus, located near the nation’s capital and developed in partnership with a panoply of industries, is taking root at this crucial time.

Truly, we’re living through a historic moment, and the Virginia Tech community is ideally positioned to respond to it. I’m extremely excited to be joining the ranks of Hokies devoted to bettering the world.

This moment calls us to rise to the occasion. I’m ready – let’s do it together.