In the spring of 2020 colleges and universities around the world closed their campuses to prevent the spread of a deadly novel virus. To complete the school year, higher education in the US took in-person instruction online by leveraging existing technology and off-the-shelf solutions. How orderly and how effectively this pivot occurred varied greatly. We will come to learn how the impact of this event shifted student attitudes about college. Time will also tell how higher education set the agenda for the coming decades of educational practice, and while some may revert to the status quo, the COVID-19 crisis has brought into stark relief areas primed for transformational change. The three factors to watch for in this critical stage of transition are people, technology and processes.
In a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria, President Michael Crow (Arizona State University) said, “this Covid crisis does allow us now to learn what things are going to be like increasingly and then to take advantage of… this crisis to accelerate our innovation and accelerate our change.” - Fareed Zakaria on Facebook
Higher education is only as effective as its accessibility to students. While “accessibility” can mean a student’s resources or physical ability to access education, it can also mean a student’s ability to access and absorb the substance being communicated. The COVID-19 disruption is an opportunity to examine how technology can improve how, where, and at what pace students learn. Therefore, the success of educational technology solutions will depend on its effectiveness of use by faculty and its reception by students.
The perpetual debate about the quality of online vs in-person instruction was taking place in the academy when the COVID-19 disruption occurred. Skeptics had claimed for years that online education was inferior despite the absence of criteria for comparing traditional classroom instruction to online instruction, but COVID-19 left institutions little choice.
When campuses closed in March 2020, students were shifted to online education and found that their experiences were uneven and disappointing. Student end-of-course evaluations reported, for example, their instructors were not prepared or gave up on their students. In some instances, instructors told their students all they had to do was submit a nominal assignment, receive a “pass”, and call it a wrap for the course.
Likewise, faculty found their experience with online instruction stressful and frustrating. A majority of faculty had little familiarity with the technology and no experience teaching remotely. They received some version of a crash course in online teaching but it was limited to issues such as using Zoom, or using basic instructional design practices to avoid assessing students multiple times for the same outcome. Although institutions made it through to close the spring semester, there was a clear gap in faculty preparedness.
Educational technologies have been utilized at institutions for years, but it wasn’t until the mid- to late-90’s that they exploded in the form of online education. And what started as a pilot, experiment, or “special project” has become a standard fixture in the academy today. Despite such initiatives, faculty resistance to online learning has, on many campuses, prevented its growth. So, when institutions had to turn to online education, some were willing to embrace it, some overcame initial reticence and were open to technology’s potential to improve teaching and learning, while others viewed this new reality as an unfortunate intervention.
The disruption of COVID 19 has, in a short time, had profound effects on society. The pause in regular work life has created space for reflection across industries and society as a whole. The question is, will colleges and universities similarly use this unique opportunity to examine its basic assumptions about the cost and value of education, the accessibility of education where a Higher Education Price Index reliably exceeds the Consumer Price Index, or the consequences of student loan debt at graduation?
Technology in higher education is here to stay.
The existing education technology market not only has the ability to better serve students, but can also be used to reach and serve more of them. A 2019 study by HalonIQ projects virtual/artificial reality, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and robotics in education will hit their stride by 2025, likely in the corporate and non-accredited training sectors. As a result, traditional higher education risks losing enrollments if others deliver learning by leveraging technology more effectively.
In addition to this competitive imperative, the survival of traditional education also requires technology to maintain resilience in the uncertainty of a post COVID-19 world. Incorporating technology will undoubtedly be difficult for higher education and will require not just financial investment, but an investment of time, good will, and patience as staff and faculty adjust to new tools and new ways of work. This change will require a deconstruction of existing practices and a reconstruction of new, efficient and scalable practices. For many institutions, obtaining the mindset and skillsets to make this turn seems daunting, if not impossible, but it doesn’t have to be. Having an actionable, measurable, and accountable plan that is comprehensive and well executed will allow institutions to successfully incorporate technology that helps instead of hinders the facilitation of teaching and learning.
In the face of COVID-19, institutions must chart a new path forward; however, the process needed for envisioning, planning, and executing a post-pandemic new normal is outside of the experience, knowledge base, and skill sets of most institutions. While resources and consultants can help with design-thinking, charette, master planning, change management, eLearning strategy, curriculum design, etc., it will take more than consulting expertise to create inclusive, participatory, innovative change processes with a shared governance model institutions through the necessary visioning, planning and execution.
"Shared" governance has come to connote two complementary and sometimes overlapping concepts: giving various groups of people a share in key decision-making processes, often through elected representation; and allowing certain groups to exercise primary responsibility for specific areas of decision making. - Gary A. Olson, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Often, a critical void in institutions of higher education is project management – that neutral connector that can facilitate consensus between academic and administrative territories and stakeholders. The Project Management Institute describes project managers as “change agents: they make project goals their own and use their skills and expertise to inspire a sense of shared purpose within the project team. They enjoy the organized adrenaline of new challenges and the responsibility of driving business results.”
Project managers leverage a broad set of tools, skills and methodologies to assume responsibility for keeping all plates spinning and moving toward the achievement of a vision. They bring structure and discipline to initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling and closing an initiative or project. The span of their responsibilities include integration, scope, time, cost, quality, procurement, human resources, communications, risk management and stakeholder relations. When institutions of higher education don’t utilize project managers in critical planning and decision-making processes, they must do the hard and expensive planning work themselves, the burden of which leads to only marginal changes to business as usual. Or even worse, they may shelve their strategic plan, dusting it off during accreditation cycles or when it’s time to develop a new strategic plan.
If higher education is to maintain its place among the pillars and shapers of society alongside government, military, business, and the church, the role of project management is an easy tactical fix to paving the path forward.