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The Digital Transformation in Higher Education and Its Aftereffects

The EvoLLLution | The Digital Transformation in Higher Education and Its Aftereffects
Forced to accelerate years, perhaps decades, of change, institutions pivoted to online education overnight and instilled practices that will likely last well into the future of work and learning.

Much has been written over the past six months about the sudden pivot this past spring by colleges and universities to digital educational delivery in response to the coronavirus pandemic. We know now from reports and conversations with colleagues that certain institutions fared better than others.  Those that already delivered significant program content online were better prepared to make the shift when the pandemic struck. The many challenges that emerged from this abrupt and unexpected virtual migration have significantly tested our industry and continue to impact every aspect of our academic lives.

The total number of course conversions triggered by the swift digital transformation was staggering. According to the July 2020 survey conducted for the CHLOE (Changing Landscape of Higher Education) report, the average higher education institution migrated no less than 500 courses online and as many as 900 to 2000 courses at regional public and research universities. Individual faculty members had to convert their own face-to-face courses to online midway through the spring semester hastily and without much instructional design support.  Faculty struggled as they defaulted to overused Zoom-room classes and opted away from asynchronous online instructional approaches, due mostly to a lack of preparation, time and experience. 

Still, other institutions, such as Excelsior College where I currently work, already were delivering their programs online and did not need to make the same pivot.  Instead, these colleges were forced to compete in an increasingly crowded virtual market where they had to focus on safeguarding enrollments, given that students were undergoing serious disruptions to their health, finances and family situations that directly impacted their study goals.  

Students unaccustomed to online learning had to acclimate to all-virtual classes with unanticipated speed.  To mitigate the abrupt transition, many institutions provided pass/fail grading options for the semester while others, like Stanford, made final exams optional. Still others reduced or froze their summer and fall tuition rates, while academic advising, student support services and career counseling all shifted to online delivery. 

Intensive professional development for faculty, students and staff took place almost overnight and continued at most institutions throughout the summer, when campuses had to evaluate the efficacy of their approaches to prepare for this fall.

As we know, college finances were deeply affected by the swing. Already strained resources that had been earmarked for other purposes suddenly had to be reallocated by more than 69% of institutions, according to CHLOE. Upgrades in information technology, software and hardware had to occur rapidly and further strained campus resources. The financial vulnerabilities exposed by the unpredicted move online were summed up recently in the NY Times:

“The pandemic…hurt colleges’ finances in multiple ways, adding pressure on many schools to bring students back to campus. It…caused enrollment declines as students…opted for gap years or chose to stay closer to home, added substantial costs for safety measures, reduced revenue from student room and board and canceled money-generating athletic events.”

In his article, Re-calculating Tuition During the COVID Crisis, former Adelphi University President Dr. Robert A. Scott describes families’ criticism of college tuition rates and the stress on campuses from the digital transformation:

“The move to remote teaching and learning this spring, with no reduction in tuition, brought renewed public scrutiny of college costs. Parents, politicians, and pundits have criticized tuition increases that exceeded the rate of inflation. After the shutdown of campuses due to COVID protocols, colleges incurred these and other costs. They also experienced reduced revenue from summer programs, rentals, investments, and students deciding to take a “gap” year. To compensate, colleges have resorted to furloughs and layoffs, exacerbating divisions on campus between faculty and staff on the one hand and trustees and presidents on the other.”     

Scott relays that reopening this fall, has involved increasing safety approaches such as testing and tracing; reducing residence hall occupancy; and reconfiguring classrooms, dining facilities, entire dorms and other areas for student quarantines. The result, he concludes, has been problematic and generally has brought increased costs and decreased enrollments and revenue to many colleges and universities. With campuses currently becoming the new hotspot for viral outbreaks, costs have increased even more due to quarantines, testing and tracing, and returning to online formats for the second time in six months, making daily life on campus even more expensive and difficult. As she moved everyone except one hundred students off campus and terminated all remaining face-to-face classes this week, California State University Chico President Gayle Hutchinson stated, “We gave it our best shot. Maybe everything will have to remain virtual until we have a vaccine.”

Another especially disturbing outcome of the pandemic was the ongoing weakness it exposed regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, specifically with respect to healthcare and technology access.  We witnessed people of color being impacted disproportionately by the virus, with a reported 30% of the total infection rate occurring in Latinx communities in this country. Harvard scholar Anthony Jack spoke this spring in lectures and webinars about how COVID-19 affected such students. While many students left their campuses to return to the safety of their homes, Jack asked whether the homes that some underserved students were returning to could be considered truly safe.  Further, for these students, he stated, having to leave campus was akin to receiving both a pink slip and an eviction notice, with both their lodging and income abruptly halted. Finally, some of these students lacked computers and access to reliable Wi-Fi and internet services, in some cases derailing their studies entirely.

Undoubtedly the coronavirus pandemic has left very few aspects of our college and university faculty, staff, students and operations untouched. Nonetheless, despite the stressful and challenging conditions owing to the shift we were forced to make, what have been the positive aspects and lessons learned from our experience? Aside from the severe instructional and financial challenges that institutions without warning had to navigate, what are the improvements that we’ve managed to accomplish in the face of, despite and even due to the global pandemic?

  • Our attention and focus on our students have increased.
  • Our understanding of the student learning experience has sharpened.
  • Faculty have become much better at online instruction and pedagogy than before the pandemic.
  • Institutions have had to deeply reflect, rapidly assess their own strengths and weaknesses and make tough calls that have included closing programs and implementing unprecedented cost-cutting approaches–some of which are predicted to persist beyond the pandemic’s resolution. Nonetheless the streamlining and belt-tightening have taken place that have advanced institutional capacity for  distinguishing between what is truly important and what is less so. 
  • Campuses and their everyday operations have had to become more focused on safety and virus- proofing, though many are experiencing surges in coronavirus cases as they reopen. Serious care is being taken not only to safeguard students’ health, but also that of staff and administrators. Many approaches such as holding outdoor classrooms, testing students prior to their arrival and other similar measures have demonstrated significant innovation, adaptability and resiliency on the part of colleges and universities.
  • We have developed an even greater appreciation for the social, economic, and political contexts our students currently are bringing with them into the classroom.

Finally, with classes going partially or all online across the nation, this transformation has brought a series of changes to the delivery of college courses including the following:

  • Better faculty development programs and campus efforts to support online instruction
  • Reconsideration of prior grading policies and implementation of more flexible assessment practices
  • More vital student engagement in and out of class
  • Stronger leadership by those who have had to make tough calls and position their institutions for survival while being challenged by the unprecedented difficulties the virus triggered

Finally, I was inspired recently by an article entitled, “The Gift of Goodbye: Saying Goodbye to Normal and Hello to Extraordinary” by Dr. Shai L. Butler who advances the notion that the coronavirus crisis has provided a special opportunity for intrinsic growth and innovation in higher education:

“This crossroads provides us a unique opportunity to consider what old ideas, pedagogies, instructional techniques, etc. have overstayed their welcome in our industry and what can be part of our goodbye. If only a fraction of the approximately 28,000 colleges and universities in the world took it upon themselves to engage in the study, generation and dissemination of educational innovation….as they face the challenges of education during the pandemic and those that persist after it, and if we engaged our students in…work in…domains affected by the pandemic — public health, local government, business, arts and culture — we would be preparing our students for the increasingly volatile and uncertain world they will have to lead. We’d also be steering the course of events unleashed by this pandemic toward a renaissance and not the alternative.”

We are currently living through one of the most challenging chapters both in higher education and global history, one that is exposing fault lines of every kind and testing our resolve and leadership. However, these very circumstances are moving us toward a future in which we will be better equipped to more effectively educate all students, become more cognizant of ensuring equitable access for all students to technology and the internet, address the vulnerabilities and inequities impacting students of color and collaborate as a community of educators to a greater degree than we have previously.  In a common spirit of collective solution-finding and social advancement, we have achieved a digital transformation that has taught us far more about our strengths and weaknesses than anything else could have. Far more sensitive to both the student and faculty experience and better able to pivot in the face of misfortune, we can now advance a more innovative educational paradigm that will continue to leverage digital approaches in both our instructional  and administrative practice. Virtual work also has given rise to improvements such as a better balance between our jobs and personal priorities, more focus on our families, more industriousness and time on task, greater attention to our health and wellness, improved capacity to manage competing priorities, and others.  

We can only hope that the enormous adaptation that we have achieved during this once-in-a-century crisis has demonstrated our resolve, determination and capacity for prevailing over adversity as we fought hard to sustain uninterrupted student learning and campus safety. The rapid and unexpected digital transformation that has been accomplished by higher education this year has forever changed our industry and been nothing less than heroic.  It is important that we pause to recognize this fact.