How a Pandemic Could Change Higher Education


How a Pandemic Could Change Higher Education

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 27, 2020

How a Pandemic Could Change Higher Education

This article is part of the guide: Sustaining Higher Education in the Coronavirus Crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a cloud of uncertainty over higher education. Colleges around the country have shut down and moved teaching online, and no one knows when it will be safe to reopen and resume normal operations.

That reality was highlighted during a live online discussion EdSurge held this week in partnership with Bryan Alexander’s Future Trends Forum. This is the second installment in what is now a weekly video town hall on how colleges should respond to the pandemic.

Among the topics addressed were what colleges have learned from campuses in China, where COVID-19 hit sooner; whether the pandemic might lead to more adoption of microcredentials and other alternative higher-ed models; and whether colleges should do more to evaluate tech-teaching skills when evaluating faculty members.

We were joined by:

  • Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University's Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy;
  • Noah Pickus, associate provost and a senior adviser at Duke University;
  • Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, who teaches a MOOC called “Learning How to Learn,” one of the most popular free online courses ever taught.

Watch the complete forum below:

Or listen to the full discussion on our EdSurge Live podcast feed:

You can also read the highlights from the partial transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeff Young: Noah, at Duke you had an early experience with COVID-19 disruptions because your university has a campus in China. Can you tell us about that?

Noah Pickus: I also serve as a dean at Duke Kunshan University (DKU), which is our joint venture in China with our partner, Wuhan University. We’re not located in Wuhan, but we’re outside of Shanghai. We went online on February 24, so we’ve been online for four weeks.

Duke had a trial run with our global platform to go online and figure this out immediately. I think that both for DKU in China and for Duke there have been a couple of aspects. One is to set clearly what your guiding principles are, principles like high quality, maximum equity, flexibility, community, and being super prescriptive about the broad policy decisions that need to be made. And then be super attentive to a [group of] decentralized deans, divisional leaders, chairs and individual faculty, and trusting them in the implementation.

[That Monday], which is the first day we went online, we had about 28,000 or 30,000 students during the day [in online classes]. You’re talking about 5,000 or 6,000 classes going on all at once. So far, there have been lots of glitches, but also a lot of faculty and students finding very quickly that things are going well.

Bryan Alexander: That’s terrific. Does the community still support this? Is the morale high?

Pickus: The morale is remarkably high. I’ve never seen messages from so many faculty about feeling supported—both being trusted to do this but also getting the message and the tone right. At Duke, we stood up three websites right away—Keep Teaching, Keep Learning, and Keep Working—and one for staff, one for faculty, and one for students. There’s some shared information across them, but we have multiple FAQs going, we have lots of advice.

It started with technical advice, like how do I use Zoom? But another big takeaway from this experience has been that learning innovation isn’t about the technology. It’s actually about learning innovation, and that what we find faculty who were initially concerned about having to go online—even suspicious—is that it’s giving them an opportunity to actually think more intentionally about their teaching, to bring in a few new twists.

Young: Sean, what do you see the impact of some alternative higher-ed models and formats, like micro-credentials, that you’ve written about and done work in?

Sean Gallagher: It’s certainly difficult to forecast … but we’ve had a major economic pivot, unfortunately, just in terms of the rapid, forced slowdown of the economy in the U.S. and around the world. That’s likely to result in a few million jobs lost in terms of what we might see next week and perhaps it’ll get worse after that.

Very quickly, we’ve gone from a seller’s market for talent [where there were more jobs available than skilled workers in some fields] to kind of a new situation. And very rapidly, there’s just a lot happening in terms of more tele-work and more digital work.

I think most employee development and training, which was already largely online, [will remain being] done online. I think we’re alright, in most states, being forced to work at home if you hadn’t embraced it already. We’re now in a situation where work, life and education are starting to blur.

One thing I’ve been looking at is Google Trends and trying to see if there is any early evidence that people are searching for new sorts of things, like micro-credentials and online degrees.

You’re at home, you suddenly have some time on your hands, perhaps… and maybe you’re thinking about investing in a new degree or a new credential. But at the same time, it’s pretty difficult to say exactly where things will head.

Jeff Young: Barbara, you have taught literally millions of students in your online course, and many of them subscribe to your weekly email newsletter. What do you see as some of the potential impact for massive online courses or other forms of online education that are outside of the traditional institutions?

Barbara Oakley: I send out an email to almost two million people each week, my “Chili Friday Email,” and I do get feedback. It helps me have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on for learners and particularly for instructor’s work in academia, in business, and in K-12 industries.

It seemed to me that about two weeks ago there was a feeling of pure terror, as all of a sudden instructors of every ilk were like, “you’re going to go online on Monday.” Now what I sense is—surprisingly—there’s almost a feeling of exhilaration. … I just get this sense of excitement from teachers who have often been teaching the same old thing in the same old way for the same old number of years, and all of a sudden they can’t do it that way anymore and they’re actually kind of excited about it.

One thing I do think is going to happen out of this: We know that, for example, our grandparents who lived through the Great Depression had a completely different attitude about things like food and money than we did, because they didn’t have much food and they didn’t have much money.

I remember I used to go around, and I would give a presentation about the importance of online learning. In it, it would say, “It will harden the education system against things like public national disasters, epidemics,” and so forth. And you could see audiences looking at me going, “You know she’s just a prepper.” You just couldn’t convince them that online learning is really an important part of the educational arsenal that does harden our infrastructure.

I think from now on you will see much more awareness on the part of educational institutions that say, “Hey, you know, we do need to have our system hardened.”

[Audience question] Sean, I was wondering if you think whether the alternative credential market is strong enough from a policy perspective to actually be an option when we look at this educational stimulus that we might see.

Gallagher: If there’s any sort of bold, new workforce directions that come out of this, certainly I could see it favoring … alternatives to colleges [that are] not traditional long degrees because it takes so long for people to earn them and go through a longer program, to scale up the workforce quickly in a nimble way.

That said, I don’t know ... that the micro-credential market is mature enough and developed enough, or really driven by state or even federal policy. It’s much more like an open, private Wild West environment that is still emerging. It’s hard to say exactly how it will tie to future policy directions.

What we’re already seeing, in terms of waivers of federal requirements for seat-time for international students and likewise with various forms of online study. And then I think I saw something just as this session began that the U.S. Department of Education … is now allowing virtual accreditation visits to count.

What this crisis is clearly doing is it’s testing which things need to be in-person and which things can be online.

[Audience question]: I’ve been hearing from some students about how institutions adjusting for lab courses, because I know how challenging it is to have that experiential component when you’re working with different pieces of equipment and chemicals and what-not. What have people been doing for that?

Oakley: One thing that I’ve heard of that was quite interesting was there is a major national problem with irreproducibility in science. So when journal papers are published, for instance, there are any number of reasons—too small of a sample size, bias, whatever—that the findings cannot be reproduced. There are real problems. I was at the National Institutes of Health last year as they were attempting to create massive open online courses and an online platform to help start educating researchers about how to do better research.

What was very interesting is that some lab course instructors have taken this opportunity to say, “Well you know, we can’t get them in actually burning and seeing how many calories come off of this particular experiment, but we can step back a little bit and give our students some understanding of how to do good research, and how bad research can happen.”

Pickus: We’ve seen a lot of focus on remote lab opportunities, on doing virtual labs. It is a different kind of education. People have been working on these and now all of a sudden, they’re ready and people are finding them. It’s a big adjustment I think but we’re seeing a lot of emphasis there.

[Audience question] I’m wondering what schools are doing with their alumni to support their students, whether that be in the curriculum, involving them in virtual learning, or through any other means, especially with the class of 2020 that is most likely not going to have official commencement ceremonies or have those postponed. I’m wondering how alumni can be used here to support these students as we go through this kind of new normal.

Pickus: That’s one of those questions that as soon as somebody poses it you say, “Oh yeah, that’s right. We need to be thinking about that. But we’re not caught up to that now. At Duke we’ve been thinking about, like a lot of universities, a “robot-proof future,” and thinking about the sixty-year curriculum. So there’s been enormous attention to that and how we turn forms of continuing online education into something that reaches the alumni in that way.

[Audience question] Has there been any conversation in higher ed about technology integration being part of faculty evaluation?

Pickus: At the two institutions I’m working with, the focus is, we are going to do teaching evaluations because we want to learn from this process, but we will again hold harmless the faculty. All faculty can discount those evaluations from any review process. They will not be read, unless they want them to. We want to collect information because we’ve missed an enormous learning opportunity for people who are doing great things, but we need to signal to the vast majority of faculty that we are asking them to step in and think about all this and in many cases integrate technology.

This has to be a kind of experimental place where they can do it and not feel like they’re going to be harmed as a result. That’s where the focus is right now. If we can send that message out, then they’ll do more experimentation, we’ll learn some good things from it and I think it could lead to the kind of question that you’re picking up on. We need a longer runway to get to that question.

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