Will higher ed’s digital transformation save it?

Six challenges colleges and universities face in preparing for the fall
By: and | May 21, 2020
(Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)(Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)
John Katzman (left) founded and runs Noodle. Stephen M. Kosslyn founded and runs Foundry College in California.

John Katzman (left) founded and runs Noodle Partners. Stephen M. Kosslyn founded and runs Foundry College, an online institution based in California.

Colleges and universities have scrambled to complete the academic year, shifting their programs online with little time to plan or prepare. They have found some surprising strengths, as well as glaring weaknesses, in their ability to move quickly from in-person to online education. Many have eliminated grading, other than pass/fail, an acknowledgement that they have yet to master the art of teaching, counseling and evaluating learning over the internet.

Some institutions are already addressing the possibility that the pandemic will last another six months or more, requiring some or all fall courses to be taught online.

The following six challenges that schools must confront in preparing for the fall, in the face of so much uncertainty, are daunting. And the stakes are high. One college president has already said that if there’s no “real” fall semester, his college will have to shut down.


Read: Updated: 111 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic


1. Higher ed has to project fall enrollments in the face of many unknowns

In the wake of the pandemic, a recent survey found that 10% of high school seniors are considering colleges closer to home; others may decide to defer admission until 2021. Schools are accepting more international students to help mitigate the possible shortfall, but that too adds risk. Although it’s hard to predict precisely how these factors will play out, it’s clear that some schools may have to accommodate far more, or far fewer, students than they were counting on this fall.

Ideally, campuses will remove the anachronistic wall between on-campus and online, and create a single ecosystem—one that allows faculty, staff and students to move between physical and virtual environments according to their needs.

Both alternatives carry great risks. Having too many students may require building out resources that subsequently are not necessary; having too few students may require reducing capacity, only to be caught short if the future returns to the old “normal.”


Read: Time for campus leaders to reflect on and learn from pandemic


2. Campus-based undergraduate schools will not be able to charge the same tuition for an online experience

And they will obviously need to waive room and board. So far, even good online instruction has proved itself effective and attractive only for graduate school and adult students; so much of the undergraduate experience for 18- to 22-year-olds has nothing to do with classroom learning and everything to do with interacting and socializing with their peers.

Some of the deficiencies in most current online courses can be addressed in live, synchronous, courses—particularly if they rely on active learning and have many small, personal breakout groups. But even this experience is unlikely to be perceived as worth the ticket price of a bricks-and-mortar experience. In the short term, teaching online won’t raise capacity or lower the costs of the physical campuses, which will sit there unused and draining resources unless creative administrators can think of alternative uses for the space.


Read: Here’s when and how colleges plan to start fall semester


3. Faculty members need to learn how to be effective online educators

As of a few weeks ago, some 70% of the 1.5 million professors and instructors at the nation’s colleges had never taught online; getting those million people trained will allow them to benefit from everything their colleagues who preceded them online have learned over the past 20 years or so. This is not as simple as asking them to watch a lecture. In fact, one of the things we have learned is that lectures are stunningly ineffective. It’s about providing professors with ongoing support—in many cases one-on-one—as they translate their existing content into a new medium.

Moreover, most of the experience in teaching online has been in asynchronous courses. New technology now enables real-time online teaching, which requires yet another set of skills to master. Some of the deficiencies in available online offerings may be mitigated as faculty learn to teach effectively in synchronous platforms, but that remains to be seen.


Read: Where to find a list of coronavirus budget cuts in higher ed


4. Professors need to create appropriate materials to accompany their online classes

Good online courses are interactive, collaborative, and closely tailored to particular schools and professors. Building a competent set of materials for a single course can mean 100 hours of a professor’s time and $50,000 to $100,000 of instructional design. Amherst College in Massachusetts, for example, offers about 2,000 courses; creating those courses over one summer is impossible.

One solution is for higher ed institutions to collaborate on shared pieces of content, such as case studies or simulations. They have been slow to do this, but newfound urgency may help to move that process forward. Those shared objects, a bit of creativity, and some good design help could help every professor to prepare a much better course and to devise ways to make good use of existing course materials.


Read: How will the SAT and ACT make it through the coronavirus?


5. Almost no college or university has a technology platform capable of supporting competent online instruction

Collaboration between higher ed institutions will be key here because building an online environment requires a lot of brainpower and ingenuity. We don’t need 4,000 colleges and universities all trying to invent the same wheel. In some cases, promising ecosystems have been developed by companies, and those companies should collaborate with instructors to give them what they want and need—and to do so at a reasonable cost.


Read: Will online learning keep some students away?


6. Schools will need to adapt their administrative processes—including course registration, financial aid and even counseling—to the distance-learning environment

That’s a big job. If you’re wondering how big, note that most higher ed institutions spend more on support and administration than on faculty salaries. Every school will need a virtual support center, with a well-trained staff (perhaps work-study students), that is connected through a ticketing system. Part of training will need to include picking up on mental health or other issues through data analysis and conversation, and knowing how and when to refer students to the appropriate offices.


Read: Will your campus be able to reopen safely?


Moving forward

A great deal of hard work needs to happen before the fall and through the next school year. Higher ed institutions that do this work successfully will be transformed for the better. They will have greater capacity with more flexibility; lower costs; and more engagement between students and faculty and among students. They will be both agile and durable, and on a road to further gains as technology continues to improve. Their students will be more connected to the real world—through, for example, semester-long internships anywhere on earth flanked by online classes—and more ready for their careers and lives.

Ideally, campuses will remove the anachronistic wall between on-campus and online, and create a single ecosystem—one that allows faculty, staff and students to move between physical and virtual environments according to their needs. They’ll create combinations of physical and online learning opportunities that are better than how they were teaching in January.

There are very few silver linings in this crisis, but the digital transformation of higher ed could end up being one of them.


John Katzman founded and runs Noodle Partners; prior to that, he founded and ran The Princeton Review and 2U. Stephen M. Kosslyn founded and runs Foundry College, an online institution based in California; prior to that, he was chief academic officer at Minerva Project, and a professor and dean at Stanford and Harvard.


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