Higher Education Transformation During COVID-19

How is Covid-19 affecting higher education?  That was the question put to a distinguished group of educators, along with a private investor in EdTech, during a recent virtual panel sponsored by ARRAY. The panel, and a companion “fireside chat” with the presidents of Virginia Tech and George Mason University, had been organized by TiE DC – the capital area’s chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs – an association founded in 1992 by a group of entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and senior professionals with family roots in India.

During the fireside chat, Presidents Greg Washington (GMU) and Tim Sands (VT) spoke about the critical role both universities are playing in the National Capital region to fuel the region’s rise as a major technology, entrepreneurial and innovation hub, with almost $1.5B of investment between the two institutions, private industry, the Commonwealth of Virginia and philanthropic support.  The initiatives are embodied in Mason’s Institute for Digital Innovation and Tech’s Innovation Campus.

One of the most significant points of agreement was that the capacity for online and hybrid instruction – something which had already taken root in many universities before the pandemic – was destined to become a permanent and even central vehicle of instruction going forward.

Turning to Covid-19 impacts and the ensuing panel, the panelists were quick to point out a few direct effects of the pandemic on colleges and universities, including virtualized classes, plummeting tuition income, suspended events, and truncated social connections. The discussion quickly expanded into a broader conversation about the mission of higher education in the 21st century – an exchange which Covid-19 had helped to bring into sharper focus.  And while the panelists represented different schools – University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Georgetown University, as well as different academic positions within those institutions, and a major EdTech-focused investor – there was remarkable concurrence about many of their conclusions.

One of the most significant points of agreement was that the capacity for online and hybrid instruction – something which had already taken root in many universities before the pandemic – was destined to become a permanent and even central vehicle of instruction going forward; there would be no going back to solely classroom teaching.  Beyond that, there was a recognition that students’ lives and goals have evolved, and that for a growing share of them, the traditional four-year pattern of college education simply wouldn’t work anymore.

What is emerging in its place is a view of higher education as a lifelong endeavor.  Rather than following a prescribed distribution of courses, its formal learning components could be characterized as “modular, stacked, scaled, and customized”.  A significant share of the education using that template would amount to an essentially self-designed curriculum, with courses cherry-picked from online offerings, including those by top professors at leading universities.  However, to support that transition, corporations and other hiring organizations would need to signal students that traditional degrees alone are no longer sufficient to satisfy their needs for new hires.

Instead, what’s required are people whose education has not been constrained by the boundaries of any given discipline.  After all, critical world problems such as energy, climate change, and sustainability, are not proprietary to any single academic department.  Their solutions require cross-disciplinary thought and novel methodologies.  Universities should enable their students to easily cross from science to finance to communications to politics and beyond as they travel along their degree pathways.

Part of the answer involves looking to institutions beyond academia.  Multi-year, in-depth internships with companies, NGOs, and government agencies could become high-value learning experiences for students as well as important sources of future workforce employment.  Public-private partnerships built upon the interconnected interests of academia with many parts of the business community can also play a major role.

At the same time, though, the panelists were candid about the trade-offs inherent in distant learning.  For example, hands-on learning, as in science labs and art studios, is very difficult to virtualize at scale.  In addition, they acknowledged that out-of-classroom college experience can often be just as important and even more impactful as anything taught in formal instruction.  But simulating it on Zoom is simply unavailable.

Even so, the surge in online learning enrollment has been staggering.  edX – a massive open online course (MOOC) provider created by MIT and Harvard now includes 160+ leading universities and boasts a user base of 35 million!  Participants are using what had formerly been their commuting time to learn new skills and become stronger job candidates in the future.  But colleges and universities need to be forewarned: if traditional institutions of higher education don’t respond effectively to those changing circumstances, there are armies of private, for-profit institutions eager to fill in the gaps.

I sincerely appreciate our panelists, Reena Aggarwal, Frank Bonsal, Vijay Kumar, and Anant Agarwal for their time, their thoughts, and their valuable participation in our panel.  My deepest thanks to all of you.