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Reimagining Higher Education In A Post-Covid World

by | Nov 30, 2023 | 0 comments

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by Nancy K. Herther

A 2023 UNESCO article, titled “The Impact of COVID-19: How are Universities Three Years After the Pandemic,” noted that “the pandemic has affected all aspects of education, not only what has to do with teaching but also how schools are managed or administered.” The authors of the book pointing out that “the impact of the pandemic has been “diverse, profound and varies from one institution to another and from one country to another. Higher education institutions, students, faculty, and staff have shown great effort to be resilient and quickly adapt to systemic changes.” 

Latest college enrollment estimates by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) and other sites are finding a global decline since the onset of COVID-19. Total college enrollment (graduate and undergraduate) falling 7% from spring 2019 to spring 2023, with undergrad enrollment down 8.9% and community colleges declining by 19.5%.  Interestingly, graduate enrollment increased at 2.6%; perhaps indicating that many are using the shutdowns to further their education or enhance their marketability post-COVID. 

THE PANDEMIC LEADS TO SEEMINGLY PERMANENT CHANGE

A January 2023 report from the Association for the Study of Higher Education concluded that today “campuses have reopened but uncertainty remains since people and the world are now fundamentally different than they were in March 2020. As we collectively move forward, we need to adjust how we engage with students knowing that they and we are not the same.”

In a recently released white paper, “Ideas For Designing An Affordable New Educational Institution,”  five professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented a framework for a new class of university that could take advantage of various trends that have emerged over the past few years. They suggest that new models need to be tested in this new environment. “One key idea is to give students certificates in various areas as they complete sets of courses, and then award a degree once enough certificates have been earned to meet requirements for a bachelor’s, an idea known as stackable credentials.” 

This white paper doesn’t proscribe any type of “rigid template,” but instead is intended to start a discussion about what a future “New Educational Institution” could look like as colleges face major challenges as we move to a post-COVID environment. 

TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE FOR THE FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION? 

Innovation and new and different ways of working have clearly been highlighted in recent literature on the current status of higher education across the globe. Narelle Lemon, education professor at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia noted in a June 2023 article in University World News that “the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the areas in higher education that urgently demand our attention. The need to humanise our experiences, observations and interactions with each other has risen to the surface….We are at the tipping point of transformative change, compelling us to reassess our values and aspirations. While academic excellence and intellectual growth are undoubtedly important, nurturing compassion is equally crucial for the well-being and success of students and academics alike.”  

In a recent article in the International Journal of Management Education, an international team of researchers from England & Oman reviewed 68 studies revealing that “blended teaching, combining the benefits of face-to-face and online teaching methods, has emerged as a promising approach for higher education in the post-COVID-19 era.” This review stressed “the importance of flexible and adaptable learning modes in higher education, with a need for institutions to continue promoting and creating diverse learning modes that meet the needs of all students. The use of technology is expected to continue to be integrated into teaching and learning, with a greater focus on blended learning modes. As the pandemic has emphasized the importance of effective and accessible education, future research should focus on analyzing the effects of blended learning in diverse nations and addressing issues such as access to technology and digital literacy.”

IMPACTS ON STUDENTS – NOW AND IN THE FUTURE

Recent data analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center finds that “already, enrollment in higher education has declined by nearly 1.3 million students since the spring of 2020. It’s not that people think a post-secondary education isn’t necessary. Rather, the question they’re increasingly asking is whether a traditional, residential college is the right pathway after high school—or if taking time off or earning a two-year degree first or getting a technical education is a better route.”

The decade ahead,” this report predicted, “will require both financial and human capital that many colleges simply don’t have at their disposal. The path forward for many institutions is not one that they will take alone, but is instead one where they align with other colleges and universities as well as develop partnerships with private entities to accelerate innovation.”

Jim Fang of Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology explains that “peer learning has been affected significantly when tutorials transitioned to the fully online mode or were abandoned altogether as a result of emergency remote teaching and learning. The situation further deteriorated when unprepared or ill-equipped tutors were unable to deliver online tutorials or engage with their students in the online mode in a meaningful way.”  

Fang goes on to note that “the duration and disruption of the pandemic has markedly changed teaching modes and the engagement and learning gain of students. One consequence is that blended learning will likely play an increasingly important role in mitigating pandemic-related challenges identified in this paper, and the fostering of a better learning experience for students, as well as increased engagement, academic achievement and the acquisition of key employability skills. If the future of learning is a blended learning model, universities will need to reconsider their pedagogical strategies, processes and operational approaches.”

Melissa Thomas from Australia’s Victoria University studied the impact on students of shifts in teaching methods finding that “while the remote delivery environment enhanced many aspects of teaching and learning, including agile and adaptable academic skill-sets, there were challenges. The academics’ sophisticated teaching skills and experience, that were intuitively relied upon in the face-to-face setting, did not always translate to the online environment. In particular, this was noticed in terms of the relational approach to teaching and learning, including relationships, rapport, and connectedness within classes, and the absence of social formative assessment cues to evaluate learners’ understandings. Students were not asking questions in class and required additional support from academics, which subsequently increased already overburdened workloads.”

FACULTY & THEIR INSTITUTIONS ARE ALSO FACING MASSIVE CHANGES

COVID also impacted those who administer higher education across the globe. Lea S. Müller from Germany’s Universität Münster published a 2023 longitudinal case study, including interviews with 39 German higher education institution (HEI) employees, finding “a general openness toward change and distinct technical infrastructure [that] enabled efficient coping with the pandemic despite struggles with digitalization and rigidity. Advantages in work outcomes were contrasted with losses in social interactions…Flexible models (e.g., working from home or the office) were desirable long-term work concepts.”

 2022 UNESCO published the book Resuming or reforming? Tracking the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education after two years of disruption which looked at the impact of COVID and the opportunities it offers for developing “a new approach to higher education…[from] academics across the globe.” The authors of the book, point out that the impact of the pandemic has been “diverse, profound and varies from one institution to another and from one country to another. Higher education institutions (HEIs), students, faculty, and staff have shown great effort to be resilient and quickly adapt to systemic changes.”

The forces they see influencing HEI are many:  “First, the focus on the principles behind Open Science as the academic world had to come together and build on accumulated and emerging knowledge. The second influence is reflected in efforts to harness science, inform the general public, and “increase joint research collaboration that transcends borders and other obstacles.”

CHANGING THE VERY FOUNDATIONS OF FUTURE HIGHER ED

In an excellent Future Ed editorial, titled “The Rise of For-Profit Partnerships in Higher Education, as well as an earlier book College (Un)bound, Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large for The Chronicle for Higher Education, noted that “operating during a global pandemic gave colleges permission to act differently. Indeed, few institutions approached the past two years in exactly the same way. Colleges have more agile mindsets coming out of the pandemic.” I’m assuming that these discussions are actually taking place all over the higher education enterprise – and across the globe as well today.” 

“Absent a return to how higher ed was funded by the feds and states in the late 1960s, colleges will need all the outside help they can get to survive and thrive,” Selingo predicts.

“With pressure to grow public-private partnerships in the decade ahead, their specific structures are also likely to evolve. While the tuition-sharing model won’t go away, even with increased regulatory scrutiny, new designs will emerge. One model likely to gain in prominence is where  institutions invest their own dollars in campus functions, such as online programs, but still partner with external companies for expertise.”

THE POTENTIAL FOR GREATER PARTNERSHIPS

Partnerships are another key area.  There have been key public-private partnerships in higher education throughout the past 50+ years, and we might expect more of these in the future as new models of education are developed. Another option is focusing on certification systems instead of traditional degrees; home study versus in-class and other options are being discussed and tested.

 In 2022 UNESCO published the book Resuming or reforming? Tracking the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education after two years of disruption .

MOVING TO A NEW NORMAL IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Jenny Darroch

Jenny Darroch is Dean and Mitchell P. Rales Chair in Business Leadership & Professor at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business. Prior to joining Miami, Darroch served as the dean of the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. 

In Darroch’s recent Inside Higher Education commentary, Darroch concluded that if the academy doesn’t take the lead, others will design the future for higher education. ATG spoke with Dean Darroch in November 2023.

NKH: In your well-argued 2023 Students are Less Engaged: Stop Blaming COVID article, you wrote that “I believe we need to stop blaming COVID and reframe the narrative around student engagement by thinking about who and what today’s students are – knowledge workers. Through this lens, we can better cater to what does engage them.” As someone who has studied adult learning, I think this is brilliant! Your paper clearly argued that it wasn’t students that were the problem we face, but for higher ed itself to accept as fact that students today represent a need to develop systems focused on them as “digitally evolved knowledge workers,” who engage differently than past generations. What reaction have you had to your ideas?

JD:  I’ve had only positive responses.

NKH: As COVID ebbs, are we really able to assess the impact today? As well as be able – as a whole or by each institution to plan for the future? As an acknowledged expert in the all aspects of higher educational costs, leaderships and administration, do you think we are we on the right track? What do you see as the major issues/opportunities that we face? What may higher education look like in the coming 5-10 years?

JD: Something that is on my mind that we discuss a lot is that high school students are less college ready than they once were and a lot of this is attributed to Covid. Yet, employers expect us to graduate people who are job ready. I don’t know how this will play out but we expect to have to provide a lot more support for our students to close the gap. For example, we are talking about establishing a quantitative success center, just as we have the Howe Center for Writing Excellence, to support oral and written communications.

NKH: A Future Ed editorial, titled The Rise of For-Profit Partnerships in Higher Education, noted that “operating during a global pandemic gave colleges permission to act differently. Indeed, few institutions approached the past two years in exactly the same way. Colleges have more agile mindsets coming out of the pandemic.” I’m assuming that these discussions are actually taking place all over the higher education enterprise – and across the globe as well today. How do you see the roles for for-profit versus more traditional higher ed in the future?

JD: My new favorite article from the Chronicle draws attention to the fact that colleges and universities are set up to protect the status quo through the structures, practices and culture that define them, and that the services we provide cost more than people are willing to pay, which leads to an unsustainable financial model. The article contains important commentary on how we teach, when we teach (the academic calendar), four year vs. three year degrees, and our return to the old normal post Covid.

To specifically answer your question… I am not sure how I see for-profit vs. more traditional higher ed in the future. I think what is interesting is who will better meet the needs of the market. Even within a four-year college we see e.g., arts and humanities trying to be more market facing (with mixed results), we see the rise of professional degrees at the expense of arts and humanities, etc. I was listening to NPR the other day and the story was about people turning away from two or four-year degrees for all the reasons we know. The problem is that not having a two or four-year degree doesn’t provide good employment alternatives.

NKH: Partnerships are another key area. There have been key public-private partnerships in higher education throughout the past 50+ years, do you believe these will continue in the new global system of higher ed? Accelerate? How might this change the institution itself?

JD: Again we talk about public private partnerships with mixed examples. We are doing it somewhat in business schools by allowing students to credential in certificates supported by brands such as google, Meta and the likes.

NKH: Certification systems instead of traditional degrees, home study versus in-class and other options are being discussed and tested. A recent article noted that enrollment in higher education had declined by nearly 1.3 million since the Spring of 2020 until the time of that study. Do you foresee a major change in the types of outcomes/certification that students might have? Should there be more diversity in terms of programming to meet the needs of individual students instead of what is largely a ‘one-size-fits-all’ degree system?

One key idea is to give students certificates in various areas as they complete sets of courses, and then award a degree once enough certificates have been earned to meet requirements for a bachelor’s – an idea that has been called stackable credentials. Do you think we will be seeing a broader range of student-oriented options? 

JD: I am not sure that certificates will replace degrees but something we focus on at the moment is bundling courses up into transcriptable certificates so that students can signal to the market that they have interest/expertise in certain areas. For example, we have a deals certificate that forces on mergers and acquisitions and a healthcare sales certificate.

We are seeing this as the way of the future (including stackables) because students now want to curate their own learning.

NKH: The primacy of the students themselves is another key area that needs to be considered. Changing career and job trends, motivational issues, need for additional education over one’s career, and so on. Do we need more attention to the field of higher education itself to be able to advise schools on trends, study options, brainstorm potentials and future options?

JD: I think for entry level jobs we want students to hit the ground running with a sense of what they want to do. I know that being in your 20s is called the “trying 20s” because early career professionals try out a bunch of different things. But we try to expose students to opportunities through e.g., speakers, projects and the like so that they can graduate with a degree that resembles their interests and supports their early career choices. Beyond that, people are assets that grow through experience and that add value to organizations. At different times organizations need different assets. People move around so the charge is to position yourself in such as way that you can continue to add value.

NKH: In 2022 UNESCO published the book Resuming or reforming? Tracking the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education after two years of disruption noted that “campuses have reopened but uncertainty remains since people and the world are now fundamentally different than they were in March 2020. As we collectively move forward, we need to adjust how we engage with students knowing that they and we are not the same.” Would you agree? Is it possible that this is actually a “blessing in disguise,” an opportunity to re-imagine the future of learning and knowledge?

JD: We should always engage in pedagogical innovation. We shouldn’t return to exactly the way things were pre-covid otherwise we have wasted a crisis that gave us the opportunity to change. We do need to meet students where they are at. We also need to stay in touch with what employers hire for. But as the Chronicle article indicated, four year colleges are slow to change.

NKH:  Thank you for your time and sharing your perspectives.  We face major change, some interesting challenges and opportunities in the coming years!

Nancy K. Herther is a writer, information consultant and retired academic librarian.  herther@umn.edu

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