• COVID halted most in-person classes this year and the year ahead could bring more uncertainty.
  • Educators can consider the new mindsets needed to build a resilient but engaging system that outlasts the pandemic - and helps update the concept of a classic college education.

Remote courses have been available from prestigious schools and universities for years, but it took COVID-19 to pull all degree-granting institutions fully online. More changes could still be on the horizon as the pandemic continues to disrupt institutions around the world. While some schools are planning to open up their classrooms this fall, others such Cambridge University and the those in the California State University system have closed their campuses to focus on online lectures only for the next semester.

Such uncertainty has prompted students and professors to wonder how the college experience will transform further as the pandemic rages on. Online experiences - often indistinct across schools - had some wondering how traditional universities with sometimes high tuitions could compete in the longer term if on-campus learning was disrupted further.
While not much is certain, it is clear that the COVID-19 crisis has presented traditional universities with an opportunity to re-evaluate and update their offerings, to continue to deliver the world-class resources they’ve built their reputations delivering. As they do just that, educators should keep these key considerations in mind.

Rethinking support and engagement

The online-only, campus-free experience had not come sooner, in part, since many have argued that getting a degree is about the experience, the interactive class discussions, the debate, the lively case studies etc. But the pandemic has unbundled college from dorms and libraries and stadiums, challenging institutions to find ways to offer a version of the in-person higher education experience that’s been such a differentiator to students studying remotely.

The shift to online could present a real opportunity for social mobility beyond what online education has traditionally provided. Should more on-campus degrees be available online, geography would no longer be a factor in whether students could take advantage of high-octane professors and specialized programs offered only by certain schools.

But as the opportunity widens, schools and professors must account for the new challenges online learning can present. Beyond connectivity and device access, research has shown that some students - younger students and those with lower-grade-point averages - can struggle when transitioning from in-person learning to online education.Universities might consider offering student support for time management and self-directed learning for students not used to the new skillsets online schooling requires. Some US colleges are already doing just that, leveraging virtual assistants help check in on student well-being and identify those needing special resources.

Schools can also explore new technologies that help them gauge student response. Facial recognition in China has been used to measure students’ behaviors during in-person classes - noting who is writing, listening and even who is sleeping. Such tech could one day be more widely available for online learning platforms.

In the meantime, professors can challenge themselves to make the most of the tools they have available to prompt real-time response from their students. This might include digital props and Zoom polls, or it might mean getting creative. For instance, professors at some schools this year took their lectures to Instagram Live. The platform was a natural fit for their audience and teaching assistants scanned for real-time emojis students posted, gauging interest and flagging any direct messages or questions.)

Maximizing human interaction and technology’s potential

For schools to compete, maximizing the professor-student relationship will be key. The importance of educators’ rendering individualized attention is well recognized, as evidenced by the near-universal belief in the benefits of smaller class sizes. Still, a push to online-only education could create pressures to scale, putting the professor-student bond at risk.

To this end, schools can explore solutions such as AI-powered learning, representing one of the biggest opportunities in education. Such intelligent tutoring systems have been proven effective to teach everything from math to grammar and millions of students learn through AI-powered tools every day. Here are a few technologies that could lead to new solutions in the coming semesters for traditional colleges looking to update their experiences:

  • In India, company DoubtNut allows students to photograph questions and get video answers and explanations delivered into an app, often instantaneously thanks to a question bank mapped to a series of videos, using sophisticated machine learning to deliver responses in a highly personalized way.
  • Carnegie Mellon recently published a paper exploring how to more easily teach intelligent tutoring systems how to teach, removing some of the burdensome overhead that often exists with training AI for education.
  • Startups such as Squirrel in China help students prepare for competitive standardized tests. Students find the service so effective, MIT Technology review reported that 80% return year after year.

Such systems could provide students and teachers the best of both worlds. Students could get tactical assistance on their schedule, maximizing the flexibility of online learning. Meanwhile, professors could step in just for high-level guidance, relationship building and domain expertise, offering the human elements no tech tool could.

Adjusting mindsets to prepare for a new version of the future

To be sure, chatbots or Instagram Live lectures can’t replicate the classic on-campus experience that has drawn students to leave their homes and their communities year after year. However, to ask how new tech can replace classic college experiences is to ask the wrong question.

"To ask how new tech can replace classic college experiences is to ask the wrong question."

—Carlos Fernandes

Colleges must reckon with the reality that as more and more of their offering goes online they will naturally be competing with their own historical forms of delivery and student engagement. The challenge ahead is to create wholly new solutions, not duplicate old ones.

The COVID crisis presented the opportunity for colleges to update their methods and operations in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The implementation of some of these technologies would go a long way towards allaying concerns that some college classes delivered online are indistinct or even one-way, synchronized broadcasts. While much is still uncertain, universities can use this time as an opportunity to explore new ways to power their expertise and value.

It is only by rethinking a pedagogical approach that closely intertwines the human and technological aspects of education can we migrate education and degrees entirely online, prepare millions of students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and deliver on the ultimate benefit of education - social mobility at scale.