Like other sectors of our economy, higher education has experienced a rapid transformation over the last year. The pandemic has exacerbated the need for digital, technology-enabled education experiences. Even the most traditional of schools have now been online out of necessity.
With one year of pandemic-related transitions under our belt and vaccinations on the rise, the most interesting questions now reside around where things will go post-COVID-19. How has the delivery of education changed? How have student expectations changed? What’s next for higher ed?
5 ways the pandemic changed the course of higher ed
Despite the painful challenges that began in the spring of 2020, COVID-19 has taught colleges and universities some valuable lessons. Let’s break down some of the biggest changes, and how higher ed is shifting and adapting to create a brighter future for our society.
1. Education delivery models are quickly evolving
When the pandemic forced campuses to move rapidly to remote learning, many colleges were unprepared and the cracks in traditional education delivery and business continuity plans began to appear. While institutions leveraged Zoom rooms and other technologies to get over the hurdle, it was not a sustainable or long-term solution. Cue the increased focus on developing innovative learning-delivery models.
Moving forward, I believe that the primary model for educational delivery will be hybrid learning – specifically the HyFlex model. Similar to telehealth, consumers enjoy the power and convenience that the online modality has given them and don’t want to return to having to be in a set place at a set time dictated by the provider. In addition, just like the reduction in space needed for commercial offices, schools are going to need less classroom space and more investments in technology to accommodate asynchronous and synchronous learning modalities that are both remote and in-classroom.
2. Colleges campuses are accelerating digital transformation
The move to a hybrid pedagogical model will be accompanied by a broader digitization of the entire campus. Students will demand that all services be available through an app or portal. This has simply become the way they utilize services in every other area of their lives – especially during the pandemic. This generation of students will be fully accustomed to banking online, purchasing and obtaining digital boarding passes for airline travel online and having clothes delivered to their home. Institutions will need to significantly increase their focus and investment in technology to be ready for the future.
The broader shift will be a digital-first approach to campus operations and student experience. Business processes need to be redesigned for the new world to accommodate more automation and self-service for staff, faculty and students. While the pandemic forced the digitization of course delivery, it’s time to look at the whole experience through a digital lens. For example, doing a mobile audit of your platforms, apps and website is critical to understanding how the entire experience – from enrollment to course access – flows from a cell phone or tablet.
3. Students’ demand for a better ROI will shake traditional norms
For years we have expounded the rising costs of higher education. High tuition levels (and the corresponding debt many take on) have not necessarily translated into improved economic status – and this has become clearer since the pandemic. Too many 22-year-old graduates are living at home unemployed. This environment necessitates a change in not only education delivery models, but also program portfolios and the types of skills we are teaching students.
While liberal arts and the humanities should be maintained for a well-rounded education, heavier investment in STEM programs is essential. I believe computer science should be a general education requirement in today’s technological world. A blend of liberal arts and STEM skills are now required for the professionals of tomorrow. This may open up an opportunity for liberal arts to be delivered more at the post-baccalaureate level.
In addition, the internet currently offers students access to all kinds of free educational content, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and YouTube videos. Several companies (especially large tech ones) are getting into the educational content and delivery game directly, with offerings like Google certificates in cloud computing or the Disney Institute. Paired with growing skepticism that full degrees aren’t worth the investment, schools need to step up their game on assessing what students have learned from other sources and deciding whether to award credit.
4. Cybersecurity is now a top priority
Outside of the occurrence of something like a major breach, cybersecurity has not typically been on the radar of those at the highest levels of management at the institution. That’s changing – and needs to.
College and university networks were an appealing target for cyberattacks prior to COVID-19. However, the shift to remote and online learning en masse quickly increased the number and severity of cyberattacks on institutions to an alarming level. For example, cyberattacks on schools increased 30 percent in July and August 2020 – a greater increase than in any other sector. It’s become critical that college and university leaders prioritize their information security strategies to safeguard both student and institutional data and resources.
5. Colleges will begin to differentiate more by the students they serve
With the growing ubiquity of online learning, I expect we will see increasing differentiation between the various segments of higher education – adult-serving online institutions, research institutions, community colleges, smaller private schools focused on traditional-age students, etc. Institutions that focus on what they’re doing to create value in a digital era and differentiate themselves from their competitors are most likely to receive the largest market share.
For example, some large-scale providers serving the national non-traditional adult student market have emerged. These “mega-universities,” which include Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Western Governors University (WGU) and Arizona State University (ASU), have over 70,000 online students enrolled each. Last fall, ASU grew 20 percent and SNHU grew 18 percent, while overall enrollments in higher ed were down 2.5 percent.
Higher ed must become more agile, inexpensive and user-friendly
Though the pandemic is not yet over, and we’re certain to feel its effects for the foreseeable future, higher ed has shown it’s capable of adopting new technologies, adapting and being agile when needed. The institutions positioned to thrive in the future will be those that avoid the temptation to revert to pre-pandemic norms. Instead, they’ll embrace the changes outlined above as an opportunity to invest in technologies that improve student experiences and business operations – ultimately making higher ed more accessible, flexible and affordable to students.
If your institution lacks the IT resources or expertise necessary to navigate these changes, Collegis Education can help. We’ve worked for many years with a wide variety of institutions on the design, development and promotion of online and hybrid programs, as well as the management of their technology ecosystems.