3 key post-COVID opportunities for higher ed in 2021

This year will cement the learner-centric experience and prioritizing student needs
By: | February 17, 2021
Fernando Bleichmar, Cengage

Fernando Bleichmar, Cengage

This past year was challenging for higher education, as institutions were forced to completely alter how they deliver learning.

At the same time, it also presented an opportunity to accelerate the growth of digital learning and cement its value in the higher ed experience.

While the focus of 2020 was about reacting to the disruption of the pandemic, this year will be about sustaining the things that worked and rethinking what didn’t work.

As the first semester of 2021 is well on its way, it is important that colleges and universities consider the opportunities for long-term change including areas of growth and improvement such as:

Growing importance of soft skills and authentic assessment

In the traditional learning setting the general classification of a “good student” is one that excels academically, i.e. does well on tests. While the pandemic is constraining traditional methods of assessment, instructors must rethink the different layers and factors that constitute a good student.

This is where the partnership between soft skills and authentic assessment comes in.


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COVID-19 has put greater value on soft skills, like effective communication and active learning. In the remote era, learners need to rely on their interpersonal attributes to collaborate with others, and remain focused and engaged when a professor is not physically there.

Even businesses are recognizing the importance of soft skills—92% of talent professionals and hiring managers consider soft skills to be equally or more important than hard, technical skills, according to LinkedIn.

Moving forward, we will see more educators initiating authentic assessments that evaluate these soft skills to gauge not just what a student is learning but how they’re applying their knowledge. In the end, this will lead to more well-rounded academic assessments that improve student success and career-readiness.

Traditional education will be ‘unbundled’

2021 will also be the year we start to see higher education unbundle traditional education experiences—both in terms of learning—we often hear about the unbundling of college and the move to shorter stackable credentials—but there will be an unbundling of the institutional experience.

Why should a student who wants the education of a Big 10 university but not the residential campus experience have to pay for the cafeteria, the football stadium or the new dorm?

The cost of a four-year higher education is not sustainable for most students and their needs to be an unbundling of costs but not an unbundling of value for the student.

Unbundling would also open the doors to a much-needed increase in enrollments from traditional and non-traditional students who are looking for different things from a college education and should have different options.

Giving students the opportunity to access the “online-only” experience and allowing them to pay for their courses, not the football stadium, will mean students are able to personalize their experience based on their financial and academic needs.

Rise in students’ need for connection

Some of the trends we expect to see will be in conflict with one another. The growing interest in quality online learning will be met with a need for more emotional connection.

The pandemic has isolated students from their peers and as a result, we anticipate academic choices will mirror their need for connection. As learners evaluate their higher ed options, they’ll look to institutions that have the ability to provide a flawless experience, but also create opportunities for connection be that remote or in person.


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When more learners are opting for the remote experience, they will expect institutions to make new investments in digital technologies that provide conversation and community, even in a remote setting.

In the same vein, the pandemic has made many students reflect on how they can build a life that is more connected to the community around them. We expect that this aspiration will influence education decisions—spanning what majors will be more popular (expect an increase in healthcare and social work) to what jobs students will want to pursue.

With shifting priorities, students will pursue universities that fit their professional desires.

As higher ed institutions persevere through the next few semesters, it’s essential to keep the learner-centric mindset and uncover new ways to improve the learning process. From developing authentic assessments to reevaluating the system as a whole, 2021 will continue to evolve the learning experience for higher education.

Fernando Bleichmar is executive vice president and general manager for U.S. higher education at Cengage, the digital learning and textbook provider.