The shift to virtual working and education forced by the coronavirus pandemic is here to stay, says former Georgia Tech president and current Regents professor George “Bud” Peterson.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the old normal,” said Peterson, speaking May 21 as part of the Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber of Commerce’s “Return to the Perimeter” virtual discussion series about post-pandemic business.

Former Georgia Tech president George “Bud” Peterson. (Special)

The lingering challenge of developing a COVID-19 vaccine or similar medical measures is one reason the “old normal” isn’t coming soon, said Peterson. But the changes will be even more long-lasting than that, he said.

“But the main reason I say… I don’t think we’ll return to the normal is that we’ve all changed. We’ve changed in a lot of ways. We’ve learned to live virtually,” Peterson said.

“There are a lot of 50- and 60-year-olds that today know how to communicate the way 15-year-olds do, and three months ago they didn’t,” he said.

Like many other economic sectors, higher education faced major challenges in responding to the pandemic. Georgia Tech was positioned well for the move to online instruction when the University of Georgia System closed all campuses, said Peterson, but it still wasn’t easy.

“About six years ago we started an online master’s program in computer science,” and expanded offerings from there, said Peterson. Since then, Georgia Tech has produced about 10% of all online master’s graduates in computer science in the country, he said.

But the shutdown two-thirds of the way into the semester and just a week before spring break was a big change for Georgia Tech. Peterson said if you had told Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Georgia State University that you wanted them to teach all courses online in pre-pandemic times, it would have taken years to plan and implement. This year they made that transition in two weeks.

“It was a disruptive change,” he said.

The impact on higher education and business show that not everything can be done virtually, but a lot can, he said.

The transition “helped us realize how important these personal interactions, these face-to-face interactions were,” Peterson said.

What’s made distance learning so successful and adopted widely is the comfort level students have working in the virtual environment, he said. “I’m 67 and joke I don’t have any friends I haven’t met,” Peterson said, but that is different for his students.

The big question is, will the students return for the next semester? And will the colleges still be there?

“Some folks postulate that we’re going to see a decrease in the numbers of institutions nationally,” he said.

He pointed to Arizona State University, which has a 75,000-student population in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area. But they have another 80,000 students enrolled in online degree programs.

Technology entrepreneurs are another important sector to Georgia Tech. Peterson said that in the wake of the pandemic, he expects venture capital will decrease with the hit the economy is taking.

The “Return to the Perimeter” series continues May 28 with a panel discussion on “Reopening the Workplace,” with representatives from Perimeter Mall, State Farm and Cox Enterprises/Cox Automotive. For more information, see the Chamber website here.

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