Colleges and universities have spent millions of dollars investing in their campuses. From updated residents halls to advanced laboratories, to fully functioning medical facilities, institutions have invested heavily to make their campuses mini-cities. Such investments make their campuses meet every need of their students, so there is no need (or desire) to leave. Taking a walk through a college campus at any time of day would be filled with life and excitement.
But walk through a campus today, and it is dead silent.
A surprise pandemic swept up and put the entire world on lockdown. With students and faculty no longer able to come together, millions of dollars of investments lay unused. What's more, the infrastructure, processes, and tools now needed for online learning were, in many instances, not adequate to meet the demands of the pandemic response. It took a pandemic to reveal the blind spots institutions had in providing quality education.
Now institutions are scrambling to move their services online in preparation for the fall 2020 semester. Such changes require significant investment in infrastructure, faculty training, and course development.
Much of higher education assumes that the move to fully online education is temporary. Many institutions are betting that there will eventually come a vaccine that will allow the world to re-open- but things will not be as before. The world has changed because of COVID-19. Should universities plan on moving back to business as usual? Is there a model between completely online and face-to-face classrooms? Should the future be a blending of both? There should not be an all or nothing mindset with online vs face-to face courses. The future is the blending of both the physical and digital.
The emergency shift to remote learning has demonstrated the value of human connection in higher education. Being present with students and staff is better for managing difficult discussions and serendipitous conversations that bring about new insights. But there are aspects of education that work just as well, if not better when done digitally. For instance, when in a 100 person lecture, students are often too fearful of speaking up. But online learning allows for everyone, even shy students, to have a voice.
Upon reflection of the utility of both physical and digital experiences, universities can create curricula better suited for both students and professors. For instance, with time on campus understood as more precious, students and staff will put greater care and attention in class design and implementation. Tasks such as content delivery and assessment can be moved to online platforms. Class time will be reserved for collaboration, creating, and mentoring.
The rapid change from face-to-face to remote learning has offered a unique opportunity for industry-wide reflection. What is the utility of in-person learning? Do student and faculty productivity change when working remotely? How have industry practices adapted to the sudden change? What new costs arise with a shift to remote learning?
Before the pandemic, facilitating higher education on campus was a fundamental and underlying truth about how higher education works. But it turns out that belief was rooted in tradition rather than capability. Many university functions that go beyond the classroom, such as counseling, tutoring, mentoring, and networking, can be done online.
The implications of this revelation are immense, as many employees working on campus are support staff. It opens up the hybrid model beyond learning to the entire university.
Imagine a university where all in-person interactions had specific intentions. Rather than going to campus to sit in a 100 person lecture hall, students would come to class for small group discussions and get personal access to their professors. Professionals would come to campus to engage with students rather than to read from a PowerPoint. Admissions officers could be housed anywhere in the country, conducting their work through a wide range of digital tools now available. Guidance counselors could be available online or for appointments. The university would have fewer people on campus at once, but the interactions would be more personal.
Fewer people on campus sounds contradictory to the traditions of college life, but it may be where the future is headed. Indeed, with the increase of COVID-19 cases, social distancing will be essential for the fall semester. Colleges are already planning on implementing hybrid learning for students to maintain social distancing, but too often, hybrid is only applied to classes. There are dozens of other positions on campus that could be moved to hybrid.
As mentioned in previous blogs, higher education institutions must be better aligned with the workforce's needs. The world has been rapidly changing well before the pandemic. COVID-19 may have caused temporary disruptions, but there will be lasting changes.Indeed, many trends in the workforce, like telecommuting, have been in the works for decades; COVID-19 simply accelerated them. Universities must be keeping a close eye on these transitions, and update their curriculum and culture accordingly.
While online or hybrid still seems inappropriate to traditional educational institutions, the workforce has embraced these models. According to a survey by Gartner, 74% of CFOs intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently. Other employees who are not telecommuting full time will likely still come into the office less than before the pandemic. Following the hybrid model, employees will come into the office a few times a week for meetings and spend time at home working independently.
The implications of such a transition are yet to be fully understood. But getting students, facility, and staff accustomed to this new model of work and education is essential in preparing for life in the ‘new normal’. Institutions that use this disruption to align themselves with the changing world better will position themselves to lead in the 21st century.