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Don’t Look Back: Moving Institutions into the New Normal

Ensuring relevance and excellent customer services for a re-imagined future requires a willingness to reshape higher education.

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the writing was on the wall for so-called traditional higher education. Over the past decade-plus, as costs rose and overall post-secondary enrollments fell, online enrollments continued a steadily trend upward. In the U.S., misaligned cost-value equations gave rise to alternatives like Coursera, edX and Udacity. Short-form credentials, employer-provided training, and lifelong learning were the buzzwords in the ears of college administrators across the country. For the first time, colleges and universities faced viable external competition.

The pandemic has, of course, only accelerated most of those trends. Institutions have scrambled to innovate in response to the crisis, making rapid-fire decisions about everything from testing protocol to remote instruction that typically take years to approve. While universities have adapted well to sustain existing operations, the question is whether universities will adopt novel approaches learned during the pandemic or jettison the lessons in favor of the hallowed halls experience. In short, will administrators snap back to the old ways like a rubber band?

As a former senior administrator at one of the country’s most prominent traditional institutions, I’ll add my voice to the chorus saying we can’t afford to do that. If anything, the pandemic has been a forcing function for long-overdue innovation in higher ed.

Think of traditional education institutions like aircraft carriers: vast and complex cities unto themselves. They are largely self-sufficient but adrift and often missing the action on the shore. In recent years, that’s meant that too many institutions haven’t kept pace with the shift from a faculty-centered to student-centered experience. the rapid developments of education technology to enhance that experience, and the application of data to personalize the learning journey. That lack of foresight is what left many institutions out to sea when the crisis struck.

To extend the analogy, what if institutions could send out planes to gather intelligence—nimble, agile structures to experiment with novel approaches and pick and trial the best of the new ideas? 

It’s incumbent upon colleges and universities, especially those flush with resources but even those without generous endowments, to break new ground—and bring successful experiments back onto the campus to enable resident students to learn differently. More important universities have an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to explore new potential audiences amongst working professionals. Now, more than ever, those in the world of work must be educated to remain viable during their 40–60-year careers. These aren’t new ideas, but my experience at the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), a pioneer in the online extended education space, may suggest some specifics. We combined the university perspective with industry insight, uniquely positioning us as a unit to pilot new approaches to curriculum, technology and learner/student experience.

Here are three things we learned that nearly any institution could take to heart:

Adjust the cost and value structure

Thanks to the internet and companies like Amazon, there has been a fundamental shift in the consumer experience across industries—and higher education has been no exception. Today, students and parents alike can easily search and compare tuition, features, and outcomes offered by universities. But the cost/value equation is broken: in the U.S., students are paying more for fewer job prospects. 

What if universities could create alternative credentials and programs with comparable content through a more cost-effective vehicle? During my time at SCPD, we created the first blended learning online professional credential: the Stanford Advanced Project Management program (SAPM). Launched in 1999, the program targeted professionals seeking to upskill beyond basic project management to becoming strategic project and program leaders, all while remaining on-the-job. Most professionals, with full-time employment and obligations, didn’t have time to return to school to get a Masters’ degree. Over a 20-year period, the SAPM program blended three ingredients for success: keen Stanford faculty insight, an industry partner expert in project management and leadership, and a certificate from Stanford upon successful conclusion of the six-course program. 

This alternative credential became a valuable signal to the market for those seeking employment or growing in their careers. It also provided a glimpse into the future—over two decades ago, it was clear that alternative credentials were in some ways more important than the degree all of our participants already had. Given the ubiquity of content and the ease of distribution, companies like Coursera, Udacity and edX are developing and marketing these alternative credentials, providing the education marketplace with a viable option to the traditional degree. 

Take advantage of the learning anytime, anywhere that online affords, allowing students to take their learning on the road

While many universities have installed online learning programs to simply convey an educational experience, there are opportunities to leverage this new ability to reimagine the residential student experience. 

Three questions come to mind: 

  • What if we use online education to create compelling introductory programs to universities? Prospective freshmen, interested graduate students, and lifelong learners would benefit while creating more awareness for university faculty. 
  • What if we created a junior year-abroad program, facilitated by online learning, benefiting students with action learning while benefiting local communities? Think Peace Corps powered by online learning. 
  • Finally, what if universities could shift their focus on 18–24-year-olds to address the requirement for employees to remain educated across a lifetime? We know job obsolescence is almost guaranteed; one recent study suggests that new graduates will have between five and ten separate jobs over a 60-year career. In this changing world, institutions have an obligation to provide alumni with an insurance policy against obsolescence. 

Create new partnerships with third-party providers

Investment in education technology is accelerating, and there are more startups in the space than ever. While it is difficult for universities to rely on startups for the services and technology they need to support the academic mission, without some trial and error, universities will lose their education market share to those providing alternative credentials in newer and more exciting ways. 

At SCPD, we drive experiments with technology providers and platform companies to improve the student experience, expanding access to content while creating learning opportunities for our team.  While there were inevitable failures for SCPD, those lessons combined with successes generated insights to inform education strategy.  

Universities currently sit in an enviable position. To learn and grow, they can take advantage of the power integration provides to their students, driving experiments with student ‘users’ to improve the overall experience. Consider emerging platforms like BibliU, which is reimagining the way students access course materials by reducing cost and making resources available on any device. Or work with a non-profit like edX, who is helping universities scale content worldwide through a range of offerings, from MOOC’s to microcredentials. Try working with a synchronous learning platform partner like Cahoot Learning, who works with organizations globally to create sticky, cohort-based learning journeys. These experiments can be scary, but doing nothing could jeopardize the very communities administrators seek to sustain. Building partnerships has another benefit; universities can focus on the business of developing knowledge while partners can deliver on their areas of expertise, allowing universities to focus on what they do best. Navigating these partnerships needs to be a new core competency of any university administration’s toolkit.  

As administrators scramble to adapt, which is admirable and necessary work, we can’t lose sight of the fact that universities must change. In the post-pandemic world, experimentation must be the name of the current game, and leaders must change and adapt to a fluid future. While for many this is exciting, the majority of university leadership are simply adapting to this current COVID situation as a minor speed bump rather than an opportunity to change fundamentally the role and function of the university. Let’s seize the opportunity and use this unexpected, unprecedented situation to push higher education forward.

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