How COVID Changed Higher Education Forever
By Ryan Lufkin
Prior to the pandemic, online courses were most often viewed as “less than”…lacking in sound pedagogy and without measurable and pedigreed outcomes. The subpar offerings of for-profit online institutions were frequently referred to as diploma-mills. But much as working from home has gained wide-spread acceptance, online learning has enjoyed a major rethinking.
Current research shows a big shift in the perception of online college courses. A recent survey found 73 percent of student respondents said the COVID-19 pandemic made them much more likely (52 percent) or somewhat more likely (21 percent) to consider online programs. While much of the debate around online learning has focused on what has been lost without the on-campus experience—and the impact has certainly been significant—educators and institutions have discovered that intentionally designed online learning can achieve levels of engagement that are on par with in-person courses, and far exceeds that of very large lecture-hall style courses.
And while not all courses and programs lend themselves to fully online learning, student expectations for technology in the classroom have fundamentally changed. Blended or hybrid learning is the new norm. Blended learning combines face-to-face teaching and online instruction. It’s supported by a technology framework that helps teachers organize course content, communication and common workflows. Perhaps most importantly, it builds on the strengths of both approaches, offering the flexibility of remote learning with the engagement of face-to-face interactions.
Now as we create a blueprint for the “new normal” of many essential functions like school, adopting a consistent approach to technology-enhanced learning across the entire college or university is critical to addressing the next wave of challenges facing education.
Lifelong Learning – it’s the journey, not the destination
Much has been made about the current decline in undergraduate enrollment in colleges and Universities across North America. The pandemic accelerated a trend that’s been going on for over a decade, exacerbated by the student debt crisis and fueled by skepticism in the long-term value of a degree. Many students began looking for alternate paths to high paying jobs, and in some cases companies like Google are actively looking to circumvent the traditional college degree program.
However, amidst the uncertainty some bright spots have emerged; it’s created opportunities to support learners in new and evolving ways. For example, there is currently a surge in demand to upskill and reskill adult learners. Since 2020, many have decided, or been forced to decide, to change career paths, and doing so often doesn’t necessitate obtaining a traditional two- or four-year degree. For many, such programs are simply too resource- or time-intensive.
According to Instructure’s 2021 State of Student Success and Engagement in Higher Education skills-based learning emerged as a priority since COVID-19 began. 70 percent of respondents say that having definable skills is more important than course titles or a degree.
Plus, as the work of the Stanford Center on Longevity points out, as the average lifespans of Americans nears the 100 year mark and the cost of living continues to increase, more and more adults will forgo retirement, returning to work or launching an “encore career” or small business. All of this will require a rethinking of how we support adult and non-traditional learners as they merge and exit, and reenter our higher education system.
Colleges and universities have responded by building new avenues for adult learners to cultivate the job and life skills required to shift their career paths. We’re seeing an emergence of non-degree programs —certificates, skills credentials, bootcamps and more. What is evident is that blended learning will be a key component. That’s because that technology underpinning equips faculty with the tools and support they need to support an ever-changing landscape. Blended courses can easily be adapted to new modalities to serve different types of learners.
The world is changing faster than ever before
Educational instruction methods used even just two years ago are already outdated. So, it’s never been more critical to meet learners where they are, online and on their phones, and lay the groundwork for emerging technologies.
A 2017 study by ECAR revealed that 99 percent of U.S. undergraduate students own a smartphone. That’s important because historically we suffered from a lack of awareness of just how ubiquitous the use of smartphones are throughout our population, especially with administrators at colleges and universities who serve lower income and working student populations. But as computer labs on campuses across the globe shut down and many students struggled to access laptop or desktop computers, the same students almost universally had access to a device capable of accessing their courses right in their pockets.
It may seem simple, but by acknowledging the ubiquity of mobile devices and embracing them (not as a distraction but as a primary mode of connecting with students) colleges and universities can begin to optimize the use of more emerging technologies. Shifting to view the space for learning beyond the physical classroom, beyond the browser window, and into the hands of learners, wherever they are, opens the door to inclusion of technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and eventually, full immersion in the metaverse.
Arizona State University (ASU) recently launched Dreamscape Learn, a partnership with a leading virtual reality company to deliver “the emotional power of the best Hollywood storytelling…to deliver fully immersive VR learning.” And though we’ve seen the failure of past forays into VR by educational institutions, the commitment being made by ASU may well be a bellwether of what’s to come.
So, while we may be a few years from plugging into the Matrix, what is becoming clear is that to survive and thrive in the coming decades, colleges and universities will need to focus on creating an online experience as compelling as their on-campus experience.
About the author
Ryan Lufkin serves as the Vice President of Product Marketing for Instructure, the makers of Canvas. The Instructure Learning Management Platform supports more than 30 million educators and learners around the world. Ryan has been working with colleges and universities in the educational technology space for over 20 years.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.