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Beyond the New Normal to the New Possible

Higher education shifted quickly to respond to the immediate concerns the pandemic raised, and institutions shouldn’t lose that momentum. Moving forward, higher ed needs to take the lessons learned beyond the new normal and into the new possible.

Where are we heading in higher education—toward the new normal or the new possible? In digital learning and quality assurance, we are obsessed with this question because so many of us see this as a moment when real, positive change can occur. In the parlance of change management, the pandemic provided the impetus to unfreeze traditional thinking and practice in higher education in ways that other economic and demographic imperatives seemed unable to do. It did not, however, provide a vision or strategy for the way forward. We have moved on from discussing the consequences of emergency remote teaching to ideating what it means to provide an education that attracts and retains modern learners. We see the forest, but it is hard to discover the trees under the murkiness of varying perspectives. Sometimes, though, you get to participate in transformational conversations that penetrate the fog of ideation and provide real clarity on the way forward. 

Design Intentionally, Work Collaboratively

One of these conversations happened in 2021, when Quality Matters (QM) convened a group of senior leaders, as part of our Presidents Summit on Leading Quality, to discuss how to ensure future sustainability by building on lessons learned in 2020. The first takeaway from this conversation was: “There is no turning back.”

These discussants did not consider the changes we have observed since 2020 as outliers from which we would regress to the mean. Neither did they see it as “settling in” and adjusting to a new normal. What they meant was that the only direction was forward, working together in a principled approach to adapt institutional cultures, rethink practices, make advances stick, and engage faculty in new ways. It is about intentionally designing a new possible by leveraging design thinking to reimagine how we educate students. We must craft programs not just as a collection of courses but, as Mark Milliron (now President of National University) pithily phrased it, “a family of experiences from your first through final experiences with that student.”

That principled approach requires us to better understand what being student-centered means. If we’re seeking to serve the whole student with a more holistic approach to education, then we need to determine how to assess student engagement in all forms of learning. It turns out that the design—not the devil—is in the details. A design thinking approach to student needs works best when we keep specific students and contexts in mind. Making this sustainable, however, requires us to identify specific goals with quality and equity at the forefront and manipulate complex institutional landscapes to achieve them. Silos aren’t great for sustainability. Boundary-spanning approaches that leverage resources across institutions and systems of institutions help ensure solutions that can be scaled for efficacy.

Quality Does Matter

Another conversation happened on a global stage at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) in Barcelona this summer, where 2,500 participants (with another 8,000 online) converged around the theme Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future. The UNESCO Roadmap 2030 is the WHEC2022’s output and is a working document that calls out the need for higher education (HED) to embrace flexible learning pathways, recognition, mobility and internationalization. Quality assurance is identified as a critical driver: “Quality assurance systems need to embrace the diversity of provisions and highlight the relevance and recognition of credentials as a key dimension for measurement.” As is noted in the plan, “quality assurance mechanisms can be important levers for HED change. “

The key to a higher education model that can attract and retain modern learners is therefore the ability to provide flexible learning pathways that allow learners to engage in learning from multiple sources within and external to higher education and across time. Quality assurance is critical to the trust required to develop connected systems for recognition that support lifelong learning and encourage the kind of student mobility across school and work, institutional and geographic boundaries needed today. The UNESCO Global Convention on Higher Education, a global effort to influence national policies, will not be effective without institution-level change. To do this well requires us to articulate and measure learning outcomes, be able to recognize these outcomes regardless of where they are achieved and be willing and able to integrate them into our academic programs. To move beyond individualized, episodic processes for credit recognition and truly support student mobility at scale, we have to trust in externally provided credentials the way we do now for a number of industry-recognized credentials. Quality assurance practices, developed for traditional higher education, will need to be adapted for the trust and recognition of different kinds of credential providers and learning modalities.

Get Better at Getting Better

The third conversation happened at the 2022 QM Connect Conference, where keynote observations on the theme of expanding possibilities challenged us to think about the new possible and charged us to open our aperture to consider our role more broadly. QM is, in fact, opening our aperture with a Quality360 approach to implementing quality assurance practices aligned with strategic goals and enabled by the specific levers for change within institutional contexts. This was also a call to higher education as a field to see our service to society with a wider lens and reconsider how we serve the whole student and their learning goals. In this view, quality and equity are perceived as two sides of the same coin and both are explicitly part of the journey. Opening the aperture is the first step because we have to see the path forward before we can take it.

In the closing keynote, MJ Bishop described the road forward as “Getting Better at Getting Better” by focusing on innovation that is learning-centered, data-informed and continuously improving. She challenged us to think bigger and get better at learning experience design and digital transformation. The conversations this spurred reflected both excitement at the possible and concern with the practical. Expanding possibilities will require solutions that are broadly accepted across an institution’s ecosystem and that engage faculty in new or different ways. Specifically, the challenges to institutional culture, structure and tradition codified in policy will need to be addressed.

Change can happen incrementally, but it will not happen organically. If we want to ensure quality and access at scale, we have to design learning experiences with the kinds of support required for all the learners we serve and along the various pathways they will need to take. To put it simply: Achieving the new possible requires us to design intentionally, work collaboratively and deploy a 360-degree approach to quality for all learners.

Photo caption: Higher education shifted quickly to respond to the immediate concerns the pandemic raised, and institutions shouldn’t lose that momentum. Moving forward, higher ed needs to take the lessons learned beyond the new normal and into the new possible.