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Breaking The Mold: Higher Education Pivots Amid Pandemic

By Zillah Fluker, Ph.D. and Staci Jones

Sweeping across the globe at a rapid pace, the COVID-19 pandemic has left society scrambling in its wake and has exposed faults and incongruences in many long-standing systems. Particularly hard hit are industries that traditionally emphasize face-to-face interaction—like educational systems.

As a safety measure in the U.S., thousands of higher education institutions ranging from Ivy League bastions, public research institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and more, had to close their physical doors and mandate that students return to their permanent addresses for the remainder of the semester. Given that tuition payments had already been applied, these institutions transitioned to online classes, with this new structure extending as far as summer semesters for many.

Colleges and universities aren’t the only organizations utilizing remote capabilities as COVID-19 limits other options. Dozens of stay at home orders have been issued across the country, making it impossible for businesses labeled non-essential to function as usual. This means millions of workers are performing their duties from makeshift home offices rather than their traditional professional ones.

Some employers are discovering just how capable their companies are of running productively in this new order.   Without a brick and mortar location, there has been a more critical lens applied to assess necessary roles. As businesses are rethinking concepts of business models, it is safe to assume that higher education will also be more critical than ever in a post-pandemic world. This begs the question; how will education institutions fare once the dust settles from COVID-19?

As businesses will reassess their approaches (due to forced remote work), what discoveries will take place in Higher Education?  What if institutions and/or students observe the possibilities afforded by the a primarily online structure, and come to learn that they can operate effectively in such a setting? The hard truth for colleges and universities is that COVID-19 will usher in a day of reckoning once these institutions reopen their doors.

With some sources projecting enrollment to decrease prior to COVID-19, others are predicting that enrollment numbers will remain constant, but the geographical and demographic makeup of universities will be the components that see a major shift. What if students returning to education discover that they can get the same core information at home, at a lower overall expense and have the flexibility to maintain regular employment?  What would be the value proposition of the student choosing to spend thousands on tuition at commuter and residential campuses? The best way to hedge against this possible lull is for institutions to work to get ahead of the curve of the students who may prefer the sense of flexibility and asynchronicity afforded by online structures.

Although we are seeing a gradual increase of online and hybrid learning options, and many schools announced that they would transition to online classes without being certain of the ability of their technology infrastructure to support such an operation, historically, colleges and universities haven’t thrown their weight behind robust online course offerings. Now could serve as the time for universities that may not traditionally offer a broad spectrum of online courses to seize an industry in flux, identify resources to make the investment and avoid downturn by making an expansive online education an attainable possibility.

If higher education institutions take the time now to build out online and continuing education programming, they can unveil these lineups just in time to quell demographically transitioning enrollment. Students who might otherwise avoid college entirely, those of non-traditional academic status who decide to expand their skills due to the effects of COVID-19, and/or those who decide to weigh their options after unfortunate layoffs by businesses that no longer view them as essential, may be enticed to choose a remote schooling option. The unfortunate reality is that some schools will be better positioned to build out online programming, where as many institutions will not have the funding to do such.

Despite the challenges and abilities for institutions to build out their online capabilities, the goal of preparing and positioning students for placement remains the focus.  Traditionally, one of the many advantages of attending college in person has been the opportunity to experience traditions and build comradery while sharpening interpersonal and social learning skills. Between group projects and class presentations, as a necessity, students generally become comfortable working with others during their time at a college or university. This provides students with an embedded ability to relate and interact in a professional setting. These affordances are not available in the same ways when one opts for an online degree.

Social learning in an online setting more closely reflects responding to a classmates post on a discussion board and maintaining dialogue through that forum. Though missing out on the face-to-face social aspect of higher education may have previously been considered a hindrance in the workplace, that may not be a consideration in a world that has been so materially impacted by COVID-19.

In fact, an online degree may have the possibility of equipping students for the professional landscape that will emerge once the pandemic is over. As employers realize they can significantly cut costs by allowing employees to function remotely, widespread remote work may well become the new norm even after social distancing restrictions have relaxed.

It takes a fair amount of self-reliance and determination to stay focused on the task at hand while studying at home. The same is true for working remotely. Could it be that students enrolled in online education position themselves for the potential of greater success as remote employees?

There is no doubt that COVID-19 will continue to disrupt higher education long after the initial infection has dissipated. The only question that remains is how colleges and universities will handle that disruption? Institutions all over the world have already been forced to modify centuries-old processes, will they continue to evolve in light of these shifting times, or get lost in the transition?

As we can see by student accounts, many, if not most, traditional institutions are not well equipped to enact such measures. Many background conditions must also be taken into consideration to remain equitable and considerate to students, staff and faculty if such permanent transitions were to take place. Just as the unfortunate and disheartening disadvantages for many have been greatly exposed during this time, the privileges that an online education can afford are being discovered by many.

This is an unprecedented moment in history, but one that could feature great opportunity hidden within the chaos. In no way is it clear that online education is better positioned for the future than traditional education, however, the two formats will forever coexist, at a larger scale than before, post the COVID-19 pandemic. The student customer will also now have a broader understanding of both options and will be drawn to the circumstance which best suits their needs and desires. Higher education institutions have the opportunity to leverage this catastrophe into an aggressive transformation, forever altering the educational experience.

There is something to be said for tradition, but in a world that has already altered dramatically, it may be time that traditional colleges and universities similarly update their approach. Perhaps the silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that it will force systems stuck in a stall pattern to reevaluate and modernize. Educational institutions who are able to shift toward online learning options will likely emerge from this crisis stronger than ever. The diverse makeup of traditional and nontraditional students could find comfort and greater productivity and success from the options that present themselves in our new world order.

Note:  The online education system discussed as the alternative to traditional  in-person college is that which has been created with the sudden safety requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than the pre-existing that originated as online education systems such as Univesity of Phoenix.

About the Author

Zillah Fluker, PhD is a “multipreneur” who identifies opportunities to leverage over 17-years of leadership experience in corporate America and higher education to develop strategic solutions that advance individuals and organizations.  Dr. Fluker is a speaker, leadership and diversity trainer, and social media brand strategist.  She is the chief elevation officer (CEO) of activate|elevate, LLC, a social media, diversity strategy and executive coaching firm and she is also the founding executive director of the Why Not Win Institute, a targeted non-profit for leadership development and diversity.

Staci Jones is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania where her research deploys critical race theory to observe marginalized identity development, formation and fulfillment. Staci works as a diversity consultant and research fellow for activate|elevate, LLC.

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