Experts urge colleges to embrace this chance for educational innovation

As colleges and universities consider how they will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, a number of higher education experts are urging institutions to resist a return to business as usual. COVID-19 has not only brought rapid disruption but also “an opportunity for reinvention that centers on meeting the needs of today’s students,” Jamie Merisotis and Carrie Besnette Hauser write in Inside Higher Ed

Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation, and Besnette Hauser, president of Colorado Mountain College and board member of the American Council on Education, suggest that colleges and universities should use this moment of forced, rapid change to rethink how college could be more affordable, flexible, and equitable—especially for students of color, adult learners, and students balancing school alongside work and family obligations.

“To meet the needs of these students will mean revising or setting aside outdated intellectual traditions and investing in technology-enabled business models, investing in faculty training on new pedagogy such as competency-based learning, and augmenting face-to-face interactions,” they write. 

Revisiting essential questions about instructional excellence

Similarly, Joshua Wyner, vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Aspen College Excellence Program, calls on colleges and universities to “use this moment to do three difficult things: fix transfer, increase need-based aid, and advance teaching quality.”

When it comes to instruction, Wyner says the newfound focus on online learning offers campus communities a chance to wrestle with “essential questions” about instructional excellence and student engagement. By revisiting their learning goals, directing resources to student-centered innovations, and monitoring results, colleges could significantly advance teaching and learning.

On the other hand, “if we come out on the other side with institutions that do the same things, in the same way, as before, we will have missed a significant opportunity to do better for students,” he asserts.

Exploring online education’s potential to increase access, affordability

Universities that “embrace this moment strategically” could help shift online education from a back-up plan to a lever for significantly increasing access and affordability in higher education—while also “shoring up revenues for universities in a way that is more recession-proof, policy-proof and pandemic-proof,” says Hans Taparia, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Writing in The New York Times, Taparia highlights how the pandemic has forced instructors to explore the potential of online learning and given rise to new techniques, such as the use of virtual reality headsets in drama courses. 

Taparia urges colleges and universities to consider that they “don’t need to abandon in-person teaching for students who see the value in it”; rather, they should consider creating “‘parallel’ online degrees for all their core degree programs.” Such offerings, he says, would broaden access and create economies of scale. Georgia Tech, for instance, six years ago launched an online masters program in computer science, which costs one-sixth of the in-person program. The online degree program now serves 10,000 students—many of whom are mid-career—and “has not cannibalized [Georgia Tech’s] on-campus revenue stream.” 

While acknowledging that it would “require a major reorientation of university resources and activities,” Taparia says the approach could enable institutions to better deploy talented professors and “actually raise the pedagogical standard.” This moment, Taparia writes, “provides universities an opportunity to reimagine education around the pillars of access and affordability with the myriad tools and techniques now at their disposal. It could make them true pathways of upward mobility again.”

Shaping a transformative education that is responsive to our times 

Read a Q&A with Georgetown Vice Provost for Education Randall Bass on the challenges facing higher education and how Georgetown is innovating to prepare students for the complexities of the 21st century.

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