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Moving Forward with Lessons Learned After COVID-19

To better serve students, institutions of higher education need to implement the lessons they learned throughout the pandemic. Accessibility and flexibility are now non-negotiable qualities of modern learning. 

Few moments in time have upended the higher education landscape more acutely than COVID-19. With an end to the pandemic seemingly in sight, the need for bold, far-reaching steps to address the virtual shortcomings in higher education have never been more important. In fact, America’s students expect us to figure this out with 73% saying that they want to take quality, fully online courses in the future and 68% wanting a hybrid model. 

The higher education landscape is vast and includes many institutions with varying missions, catering to particular types of students. University of Phoenix, for example, is dedicated to preparing students—particularly adult learners—to work in the global economy by providing them with career-relevant education. 

But we are at the apex of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not only advance our online learning capabilities, but also ensure that we are building infrastructure for quality instruction centered around measurable student learning. By using lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective expertise, we can emerge from this pandemic significantly ahead in online education compared to where we were a year ago.

As many have noted and experienced firsthand, simply taking “traditional” instruction and filtering it through a Zoom video lecture is woefully inadequate. The challenges range from curriculum design to promoting student engagement to basic logistical challenges in our globalized world. Online pioneers resolved these obstacles years ago, albeit in a different setting and for different reasons. We developed and meticulously refined high-quality course sessions that students can pursue asynchronously, at their own convenience. 

However, the pandemic has taught us to further adjust and customize how we offer education by introducing microbursts of learning or short-term courses that provide new, more focused knowledge delivered in shorter time frames. For instance, changes to modalities, timeframes and degree expectations for our students are part of the process. Hypothetically, if an employer is looking for their employee to get upskilled within a given timeframe, all while juggling their personal responsibilities, it’s incumbent upon higher education institutions to offer flexibility, online or hybrid learning options and career-relevant education expeditiously. This shifted focus helps employers and employees alike as they venture into the post-COVID world and explore what the future of work looks like.  

The most effective online programs are those that follow from examples like these, making flexibility and adaptability a core part of the student experience. They make student progression a function of each student’s unique aptitude, drive and personal circumstances. Progress can come as quickly as one masters the material, or it can slow down or even pause should challenges arise outside the virtual classroom. 

This agile approach is important–and not just for meeting basic student needs. It often produces unexpected leaps forward in innovation that reverberate across the broader higher education landscape. Think of closed captioning resources that were originally developed to make online course sessions more accessible for hearing-impaired students but which have since been cited as markedly improving the online education experience for many others.

Schools hoping to satisfy students in a newly online environment will need to take all of these lessons to heart. They will not be able to shy away from the inherent difficulties in providing academic support outside of an in-person setting. They must invest in resources like artificial intelligence tools that can provide immediate feedback to students; and they must make options available to connect with academic advisors via live chat, phone and video conferencing platforms to get the counsel they need to navigate not just their studies, but the struggles of pursuing their education in an unfamiliar setting.

Let’s make no mistake, as is the case in “traditional” higher education, not every question in the realm of online learning has been answered, nor every challenge solved. What remains clear, however, is that just to survive the coming months, many schools will need to invest heavily in online learning modules, student support resources, academic tutoring and other tools that deliver the interactivity and individual feedback students deserve. This will be easier for some schools—namely large, well-resourced, traditionally “elite” institutions—than others. For smaller schools teetering on the brink due to the pandemic, we must work toward innovation that can be scaled to their size and resources.

Given that online learning provides education to those who have long faced barriers in accessing it—underserved groups of prospective students like single parents, working adults, people of color, those in rural communities and “education deserts,” and others—it behooves us to seize this moment in time. Many of these groups have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In fact, a new survey of 5,000 American adults conducted by the University of Phoenix Career Institute found that one in three respondents feel that the pandemic has taken their career off course. 

It has never been more important to help American workers excel in the workplace, which was rapidly evolving prior to the pandemic–and even moreso in 2021. We must continually learn and upskill our students’ and workers’ knowledge in order to help them keep up and ultimately meet their career goals. 

It’s time for a transformational change that will address all of these challenges as we work to recover from the pandemic as a nation. 

The need to expand the benefits of quality online higher education to more students is growing with each passing day. But any push here must include input from the pioneering institutions that have been engaged in this work for decades if it’s going to achieve success. Students have signaled that they’re sick of waiting—if there was ever a time to move beyond the tired arguments that have long distracted higher education from better serving them, it’s now.

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