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Reimagining Public Administration Education Post COVID-19: Part II

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sombo Muzata
June 30, 2023


June 2023 marks one year and seven months since I wrote part one of this article. A lot has happened, including the end of the status of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and the start of a war between Russia and Ukraine. Globally, close to 7 million people died from COVID-19, with more than 760 million confirmed cases. 

The world is not the same. It never returned to ‘normal,’ i.e., a reference for what things were before the pandemic. The evolution to a new world is ongoing as the impacts of the pandemic take a life of their own. A good example is corporate America’s struggle to get workers back into the office. During the pandemic, work shifted home, and reversing that is proving a challenge for some. 

In my November 2021 article, I indicated that part two of the article would focus on what public administration should teach. I will discuss how teaching can be different and responsive to changing contexts. While a lot can be said about how things can be done differently, I will only focus on two as follows:

Make classes practical labs.

There are many reasons why public administration education should be more practical. The one reason often cited is to reduce the gap between theory and practice. Making classes practical labs allows students to apply theory and learn from any shortcomings. Students are empowered in their learning when they are challenged to propose new solutions to real-life problems. If they cannot develop alternative ways of dealing with the issues, they can suggest how existing solutions can be modified. This approach is transformative because it is not a mere literature review, focusing on existing knowledge that is a determinant of the learning outcomes but rather the robustness of the new solutions; that, if implemented, could lead to different outcomes. 

Making classes practical labs is a lot of work. Institutions could consider investing in new approaches to make curricula relevant to the post COVID-19 era. Such innovative approaches to how teaching is done would contribute to answering David F. Kettle’s question asked in 2000 at the turn of the millennium: how can public administration ensure the systematic testing of its theoretical propositions and, therefore, advance theory?

Aim for class delivery that enhances students’ learning. 

During COVID-19, instruction and learning moved online to protect public health. Post COVID-19 options for teaching and learning include in-person, synchronous and asynchronous. The availability of diverse options necessitates a critical self-examination to understand how course delivery enhances students’ learning. While anyone can pick a book and read, some materials require more. This is best reflected in the response my graduate student gave on the diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and access special topics course in Social Equity class: 

“Taking the DEIJA Social Equity course as an online conversation adds value compared to a purely asynchronous format. To learn about social equity, one can read articles and write papers. However, according to Schein, truly shifting someone’s culture requires a forum supporting a psychologically safe space to practice new ideas. The online dialogue provides a safe place to discuss the articles, share our experiences and serve as a ‘practice field’ to give and receive feedback. The online dialogue also provides a time and space for us to build a support system amongst our classmates that is essential to change our culture. As Public Administrators, we must be mindful of social equity and remove barriers to create similar outcomes with our respective policies and services. The first step to be successful in doing so is by changing our own culture to reflect what social equity should be.”

Responses like the one above from my student challenge the view that most classes can be asynchronously delivered, and the intended learning will be automatic once all the materials are reviewed. Public administration education must take an audit of class delivery and how that enhances students’ learning as a critical step to improving teaching and learning.

The Way Forward

We must continue considering how to make public administration education responsive to the current context. Post COVID-19 public administration education has opportunities and challenges. Some stem from decades of debate as many questions are yet to be addressed, including what should replace the field’s reliance on hierarchy and what should be the field’s approach to the policy-administration dichotomy? Additionally, there are opportunities and challenges in new technology, such as ChatGPT which are being discussed at length as potential threats to integrity as they open the door to cheating and plagiarism. However, thinking about how we teach public administration post-COVID-19, adding value and being deliberate in what and how we teach will contribute to developing theory and enhancing the student’s learning experience. 

Author: Sombo Muzata is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at James Madison University. She obtained her Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before graduate school, Sombo worked as country director in Zambia for the Swedish international nonprofit, Diakonia. She is a 2022/2023 Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow and a 2019 recipient of the Walter W. Mode Scholarship from ASPA. Email [email protected]; Twitter @SomboMuzata

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