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Defining Higher Education’s New Normal

The EvoLLLution | Defining Higher Education’s New Normal
Establishing a temporary “heavyweight” team—a group of experts across different schools—and leveraging the power of continuing education divisions will help institutions solve complicated problems and emerge from the forthcoming recession stronger than before.

As institutions deal with the current COVID-19 crisis, they must simultaneously prepare for a recession on the horizon, defined by severe job losses and fundamental economic change. In this interview, Michael Horn discusses how institutions can prepare for the short-term job vacancies, reflects on how remote learning will impact delivering the 60-Year Curriculum vision, and he shares his insights into how physical distancing will shape the way schools will have to redesign their infrastructure to support their learners’ needs in this new normal. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In the wake of the pandemic, it looks as though we’re heading for a recession. Do you expect this recession to be different from the one we had in 2008?

Michael Horn (MH): It’ll be different in a few key respects. One, the layoffs are going to be much worse given what we’ve seen so far. It’s hard to believe, but it seems to be where we are at the moment. The second thing is, even amidst mass layoffs, there are some large employers who need to ramp up production and are hiring right now. It certainly doesn’t make up for the losses and layoffs, but there are some opportunities for people to work. As a result, people need to upscale to be able to fill those roles.

Higher education enrollments run counter-cyclical to employment trends. This impacts access for adult learners and uniquely impacts continuing education programs. As people start going back to school, there’s both going to be more demand for longer-term degree programs, but we’ll also see a different kind of demand as well. There’s going to be opportunities to build short-term programs that rapidly build on or teach skills for jobs that need to be filled right now on the front lines of this pandemic. That feels very different from 2008.

Evo: How do colleges and universities begin preparing folks for those short-term job vacancies?

MH: There’s a couple of things postsecondary institutions can do to prepare folks who are out of work for high-demand jobs.

There’s online program creation. Continuing education programs are the natural place for those sorts of opportunities, but there’s also an opportunity for continuing education programs to forge relationships with the learners they serve. It’s important to position continuing ed as the second stop for a learner when it’s time for them to move into another role.

Continuing education can play that more traditional role of filling the jobs the economy requires as it starts to dig itself out of a recession. But we have to be aware that CE needs to play a larger role than just rapidly responding to short-term needs. There’s a real opportunity to build deeper relationships and fulfill the 60-Year Curriculum vision. CE divisions need to be the place that learners continue to come back to in order to reskill or get advice about navigating a very different and fast-changing job market.

Evo: What does the workforce of the near-term future look like?

MH: The honest answer is that no one really knows how the economy is going to shift. There’s a version of this world in which the longer the pandemic goes on, the more comfortable we become with virtual and tele-work. The nature of service industries changes somewhat dramatically. Societies cautioning about venturing outside of our homes changes the economic situation in some dramatic ways, like distribution of where jobs are and the need for jobs in service delivery.

There’s also a version of this world where, if we get to a normal again, people will come back roaring because they’re so hungry for physical proximity. But that’s going to be a really slow process. Restarting an economy is tough, but there the additional need to recreate these physical experiences that we missed so much.

The more likely scenario is a hybrid of the two. People will realize that certain industries are better virtually, like telemedicine, which implies huge shifts for workers in the field, like nurses and doctors, companies that create those experiences and diagnostics companies? But people will also realize how much they miss having the abilities to congregate. Zoom Happy Hours have been terrific, but people want to be able to be with someone in person.

So, certain parts of the economy will go back to (somewhat) normal. The question is how long the transition back will take?

Evo: How does that hybrid vision for the future of work mesh with the 60-Year Curriculum model?

MH: The 60-Year Curriculum vision challenges the idea of education as a single engagement in an individual’s life. Instead, it frames education as something people cycle in and out of throughout their working life. The nature of jobs in the economy is dynamic, and you need to continue to upscale and reskill and upskill again.

Continuing education programs are creating flexible and fluid pathways into a variety of opportunities in the workforce. They’re not solely focused on education but also getting involved in guiding people through dynamic, uncertain and constantly changing career options or trajectories.

In many ways, this might be a prototype for what that 60-Year Curriculum could be. We have a set of near-term opportunities that are rapidly accessible, and then we’re going to have an uncertainty period, when we will be digging ourselves out of the recession and probably perform a bunch of shakeups in certain sectors.

Continuing education is going to learn how to serve people quickly. These divisions will learn how to gear up programs that meet short-term labor market needs and help people navigate an extraordinarily unsettling and uncertain job market.

Evo: What do you think the new normal will look like, or do you think there’s going to be a new normal at all?

MH: My sense is the longer the physical distancing lasts, the longer and further the waves of interruption go. Learners are going to thinking that if their experience isn’t going to be on a campus, they’ll go somewhere whose specialty is online education–somewhere that can do it conveniently, affordably and in a way that matches their needs.

That means that programs that invest and match demands will grow. Those that are resistant to change or do it poorly will suffer. Those programs that do it poorly will experience short-term blowback on remote or online learning. But the longer this goes on, the more learners are going to change their behavior, start asking questions and seek out other options. That’s when they’ll start to see what good programs look like and what programs actually provide them with the value they need. A percentage will start voting with their feet, which will grow good-quality programs significantly. Meanwhile, other schools will stagnate or collapse if they don’t respond effectively.

Over the past little while I’ve been reading about a lot of people casting doubt on disruptive innovation in higher education. One of their biggest defenses is that higher education is different. It’s values-based and collaborative, not competitive. And that’s all true; that’s how the supply side sees it. However, learners need different options because that’s their reality. They’re going to look for options that better suit their needs. It’s as if those on the side of don’t care about those values if they don’t align with their needs; they’ll only care if their needs are met from the outset.

Higher ed is going to have to make sure it understands how to align itself with what the large numbers of learners need in these times, or they will face challenges.

There’s also the flipside to consider. There will be some blowback on the remote learning experience. So many learners are experiencing it under such hastily-done, poorly-resourced, under-supported circumstances that it’ll leave a sour taste in their mouths. But if it goes back to “normal” too quickly, they won’t have the opportunity to start shopping around and asking questions about educational quality and value.

Evo: What role should a continuing ed division play within the broader structure of an institution to support its competitiveness and capacity to serve a more diverse, flexible and consumer-minded audience?

MH: People often fail to see continuing education as units operating autonomously from the university and designed to help it innovate, respond and sustain. CE divisions are in a cool structural innovation position where they can create disruptions that change higher education internally. That’s an asset most organizations in the corporate world don’t have, but it’s an important thing perspective to have on CE. We have to treat CE with the respect and dignity it deserves.

Harvard is a really interesting model exemplifying this. The continuing education school has been very innovative and responsive over the last several years. Both the main campus and the CE division have their own business models. That is disruptive. And they’re growing rapidly and responding to consumer demand. But they also have the resources to support the rest of the university in innovating and changing procedures. It’s not the disruptive sort of innovation, but it’s incredibly important to sustaining innovations to improve the learning environment. This allows them to improve online learning and create more flexible environments.

CE divisions can serve as incredible force multipliers, both for their own business models and as a support unit for the rest of the university—if the university chooses to lean on it as such.

Evo: As we shift into a recession, what do you expect demand to look like for continuing and workforce education divisions, who tend to focus on upskilling and reskilling?

MH: There’s something different about this recession that we need to bear in mind: it’s absolutely true that adults go back to school during recessions and learn more skills. As a result, they come out of the recession stronger.

The question is, with employers not hiring and incomes collapsing, when will that enrollment drive kick in? Adults will assuredly go back to school for continuing education programs, but when?

On top of that, there are now more options available across the higher ed market than ever before. There are bootcamp programs, for example, that offer income share agreements rather than more formal tuition. That means if a student can’t get a job after completing a program, they don’t pay anything in tuition. That can be incredibly attractive for learners.

There’s a much broader set of options available than there were in the 2008 recession. Will they all tie into continuing education as they have in the past? I think there will be an uptick, but I don’t know that they will all go back there. That’s something that we have to keep an eye on.

Universities and colleges need to make their value propositions clear and figure out how to navigate timing these questions with these competitive realities.

Evo: What needs to happen institution-wide to create stronger bonds between the traditional faculties and the continuing ed units?

MH: Institutions have to be intentional in solving problems and achieving their goals. Then, they need to carefully create team structures by allowing continuing ed’s instructional designers, technologists and instructors to connect in intentional ways with the faculty and deans constructing programs and curriculum.

We typically think of three main team structures. One is functional teams, which refers to team members working within their function and their silo. That’s obviously not going to be effective here. Secondly, there is the autonomous team model, referring to bringing a group of people in together and then separating them. This way, they can create a new business model and dig into new opportunities. That’s also not what we’re talking about here.

The third kind of team is coordinated in functions. It’s like a matrix organization. You turn to this model when you need to improve the components of what you’re offering without fundamentally changing what those components are or how they interact with each other. That’s what I would call a heavyweight team. This is where colleges and universities need to spend their time–bringing together teams of people with functional expertise from across different domains in schools. It’s not a permanent team by any stretch of the imagination. It’s one that you keep around for a couple of cycles of whatever you create before codifying it and make it the new normal.

Leveraging these heavyweight teams to solve complicated problems and rethink how we do everything is essential. The things they can impact range from curriculum design to program offerings, to student recruitment, to creating touchpoints with students, to student pathways, to career advising. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

If they’re intentional about creating the right teams to solve those problems, you could see some tremendous things come out of this for higher ed.

Evo: When we talk about a conscious effort to develop innovative or creative processes, what’s the trigger point that pushes for process reinvention? Is it a threat of being transformed, or the opportunity to do something new?

MH: The trigger point that prompts change is going to be different under different circumstances. Good leaders will be able to seize on this.

In general, threats often catch people’s attention and focus their minds on the problem at hand. The key is to then quickly shift into framing that threat as an opportunity to stop paralysis from setting in. Avoid digging in your heels about all the reasons why the threat is immoral or that it’s unfair that change is even happening in the first place.

Threats are unbelievably effective at galvanizing attention, but they’re incomplete. You need to shift into the opportunity-framing to ask how you’re going to tackle it. You have to reach the moment when you see the change as an opportunity to serve your learners in this different way, whatever it might be. Great things can happen.

An example might be doing front-end career navigation as opposed to relegating it to a program afterthought, then intentionally weave that throughout curricular structures so that every single course has its students reflecting on their career journeys. This way, they can find great landing spot by the end of their degrees.

If we see this transformation as an opportunity, and one that allows you to bring your unique value to the table, then it becomes a very cool moment of reinvention in ways that you’ll be really proud of as an institution down the road.

It will be fascinating to watch all of this play out because every day adds a new dimension to it.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 30, 2020. 

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