An Act of God- All of Higher Ed. Goes Online

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

If you’d asked me a month ago what it would take to get all faculty on my campus teaching an online course, I would have glibly answered, “An act of God.” I imagine a lot of administrators across the country would have felt the same.

But an epic disruption in the form of Covid-19 has changed everything. Virtually every college professor and graduate TA across the country is voluntarily or involuntarily teaching online. At my school, more than 97% of course offerings went online in March, mirroring a rapid migration to distance learning all over the country. The short notice and all-hands-on-deck effort will result in many glitches, and there’s no question the quality of instruction will vary widely.  But by the end of the semester, tens of thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students will have taken multiple online courses for credit toward a degree, accelerating a trend that had already been in the works for more than a decade.

What are the implications of virtually all of higher education going online for at least half a semester? No one quite knows. In the short run, this massive response to a pandemic may mean very little. Chaos will rule the day as schools try to open for the fall semester. Applications and acceptances will probably be down significantly for all but the most elite schools, as K-12 districts and individual families deal with the fallout of a prolonged shock to the economy. Admissions officers will be struggling with lower yields and figuring out how to process a large number of applicants who weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT. Many schools already struggling with enrollment will be pushed over the edge and will either merge or shut down.

In the long run, the outcome of this unprecedented online experiment may prove considerably less grim. Tens of thousands of professors who believed online education was unthinkable will, at the very least, understand it is possible and in some cases desirable. Certainly, many of these academics will welcome a return to the old ways. But for others, especially in the arts and humanities where online learning has traditionally been rejected, the curiosity that drew them to academia in the first place will push them to look anew at how they teach. It will open new possibilities, new innovations that are hard to predict right now.

For most students, distance learning will not be totally new. Even if they haven’t taken an online course for college credit, as many already have, they have been learning online using Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia since elementary school. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, there will be no going back. This will mean some students will receive all or most of their post-secondary education online. For others, it will mean a mix of online and in-person learning as a regular part of the undergraduate experience. Many more courses may include both online and in-person components as instructors learn how to integrate technology into the curriculum.

The next few months will also change how the broader public looks at education. With a majority of K-12 schools shut down, parents have been forced to embrace online learning as an alternative and entire school systems are sprinting to provide a substitute to the traditional classroom experience. Efforts are being made to provide computers and internet access to those without these tools. For the average American, the timeworn conception of classroom teaching and learning may suddenly look outdated.

This massive shift on the part of professors, students and the public at large comes at a time when the challenges facing American higher education were already stark. In my own state of North Carolina, we have established a goal of 2 million citizens with postsecondary credentials by the year 2030. Other states have similarly ambitious plans.  None of them will succeed without structural change that uses technology to lower the absolute cost of college. The changing demographics of post-secondary students, and the challenging financial picture for so many families, demands a variety of models in addition to the traditional classroom experience.

Even before the pandemic, there were harbingers of change. The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges announced a partnership with the online giant Southern New Hampshire University to create a smooth transition toward a four-year degree. The dramatically lower cost of an online degree, easy transfer of credits and a flexible academic calendar made that partnership with an out-of-state provider the most sensible option for Pennsylvania. SNHU was more attractive than the in-state alternatives, even though those schools need and would love to have their home-state students.

At this moment, a spirit of open-minded determination rules at America’s colleges as faculty and staff work to get through the semester and give students the best possible learning experience.  For those of us on the front lines, thoughts of the future are largely confined to tomorrow’s lesson or maybe end-of-semester plans. Like everyone else, we’re barely keeping track of what day it is. 

But when the dust settles, it will be clear that the pandemic accelerated something profound. Innovations born in crisis have a way of outlasting their circumstances, and it’s neither likely nor desirable that American higher education will go back to its pre-crisis ways.


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