As we emerge from the pandemic, there is no doubt that higher education will not look the same as it did prior to COVID-19.
One of the challenges for universities will be to adapt to the trends that have been accelerated during this unprecedented era. Among those will be understanding the extent to which online learning will become a viable first-choice for more students.
While online learning has existed for years, it has become an accepted—and may very likely become a preferred—alternative for many students in the months and years ahead. Just as the pandemic has impacted so many industries, it has also intensified and swiftly caused a paradigm shift in educational delivery preferences that few anticipated.
The past year was a rapid, forced experiment in distance learning that, while far from ideal, provided us the opportunity to assess the benefits and pitfalls of online education and what its future holds. It has also been a wake-up call for universities that have not been investing in the technologies and pedagogies needed to offer the learning experiences students expect and deserve.
Competition heats up
The quick transition to online learning in March 2020 presented numerous challenges to students and faculty across the nation—from access to technology and high-speed internet to new pedagogical requirements and creative approaches to engage students.
However, this experiment was a proof of concept that online learning is a viable educational option and, I predict, will capture a larger share of the higher education pie in the future, especially for students pursuing post-baccalaureate (master’s and graduate certificate) programs.
These students are generally older (33 years), have families and 76% of them work at least 30 hours a week, factors which present challenges to taking on-campus classes. As more graduate students opt for online programs, universities throughout the nation will either capitalize on this trend and thrive, or they may be unable to attract their traditional base of graduate students and experience reduced enrollments.
Even before the pandemic, competition was heating up in the online learning arena, with 100 universities capturing 50% of student enrollment among the thousands of schools offering these courses. In the coming years, we should expect to see further consolidation, with fewer universities attracting a larger share of the increasing population of students pursuing online master’s degrees and certificates.
The universities that will be successful in this next era are those that are imagining and preparing for a very different future. These institutions will provide students with rich educational experiences and meaningful connections to their teachers and fellow students, while exploiting all that technology can offer to provide an enriched and personalized learning experience for each individual.
Successful educational providers—universities and perhaps others—will be those that offer outstanding and efficient user-oriented services at scale. Online learning in the not too distant future will be nothing like the current model. Rather, it will evolve as a technology-enabled education, employing the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to tailor instruction to the learning style and prior knowledge of each student, thus providing a far more customized student experience than many in-person programs.
In addition, utilizing technology to substantially scale up the size of a class—while simultaneously improving student learning—could significantly lower the cost of education. It is this combination of a higher-quality, lower-cost and a more personalized learning experience that makes the technology-enabled education of the future a winning proposition.
Leading the pack
It will take some years before technology-enabled graduate programs become widespread. But now is the time for higher education to experiment and invest in order to be prepared for that future.
At Stevens, we have already seen the success of those capabilities, including in a calculus course that enables professors to tailor their teaching approach, homework problems and assessments to fit each student’s learning style and speed while promoting student mastery of relevant skills and content. This is an approach that isn’t possible for a professor to do alone.
Within the next decade, only a small number of institutions will capture a significant portion of the online education market. Many of the smaller players could be forced to abandon online education altogether, and potentially many of their master’s degree programs.
There will be substantial benefits of tech-enabled graduate programs at scale for both students and universities. Schools that embrace this approach will lead the pack. Those that don’t may be left behind.
Nariman Farvardin is president of Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.