James Genone, Ph.D., is Managing Director of Higher Education Innovation at Minerva Project and Professor of Social Sciences at Minerva Schools at KGI. He oversees academic strategy, program design, and program delivery for Minerva’s higher education partnerships. He also works closely with Minerva’s Product Team to develop and refine the technology we use for curriculum design, instruction, and assessment of student learning. Previously he was Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Minerva Schools at KGI, where he oversaw the Cornerstone courses for the undergraduate general education program, and coordinated curriculum development across colleges.
As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel of the global pandemic, leaders and innovators across sectors are searching for insights into how their industries have changed. In higher education, the shift has been monumental: distance education has been normalized, and online learning is no longer synonymous with asynchronous, self-paced courses. A generation of students, and their instructors, have been introduced to the idea that you can attend live classes from anywhere with an internet connection, and for some this option met their needs better than traditional face-to-face classes. The shift to remote instruction did not go smoothly for many faculty and students, however, and it shined a spotlight on the woeful technological and pedagogical training and support that most institutions of higher education provide. Among the critical questions facing higher education leaders in the wake of the pandemic is whether to invest deeply in addressing these shortcomings, or to return to business as usual.
The question of how to navigate the opportunities and challenges surfaced by the upheaval of the past year and a half is complicated by the fact that many institutions of higher education were facing headwinds prior to the onset of the pandemic. Increased competition for enrollments, changing demographics, and pressure from students and their families to demonstrate return on investment for costly degrees have all presented strategic challenges for leaders. The lessons of the pandemic provide an opportunity for institutions to adopt a new mindset, one that addresses the needs of students—and the companies who will employ them—while simultaneously creating more flexible and resilient business models to ensure their ongoing competitiveness and relevance. Many in higher education struggle to connect these dots, however: how can a focus on improving instruction help an institution’s bottom line?
Differentiate your program to what is offered elsewhere
At least one answer to this question can be found in the way that institutions respond to the increasing demand for online education, a trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic. While universities are recognizing that they can diversify revenue streams through new virtual and hybrid programs, many do this in the wrong way, by replicating asynchronous online programs offered by other providers with little to no differentiation beyond their brand. This is a gamble in competitive markets like the United States, where mega universities have emerged to specialize in online learning at scale. Despite this growth, traditional online programs have yet to demonstrate consistently strong results for students, with high costs, low completion rates, and poor employment outcomes.
Invest in digital pedagogy
Adopting an educational model based on evidence of how students learn, and applying it to teaching the skills that they will need to be successful after graduation is a good start for differentiating new programs. This means doing away with recorded lectures, and providing students with opportunities to practice applying what they are learning to real world problems. For this to work in an online medium, institutions must invest in effective digital pedagogy—in particular the technology and human resource capacity it requires. This involves not just changing educational practices, but actually transforming institutional culture. Few faculty are trained in student-centered learning approaches, and even fewer have the skillset to employ these practices using technology. Only institutions that recognize and incentivize the need for professional development among faculty will be able to serve students effectively.
Consider your end-to-end student experience
The cultural change that is needed is not limited to academic coursework. To create effective and competitive new programs, institutions must rethink the entire student journey, from marketing and admissions, to student services, to alumni support. Designing a coherent and cohesive experience, where each point of contact is conceived of as a learning and growth opportunity for students, can differentiate new programs from the mass-market digital learning experiences that exist elsewhere.
The advantage of increasing university’s revenue opportunities through high quality virtual or hybrid programs is that it can be relatively inexpensive to fund compared to expanding face-to-face enrollments, which typically requires building new physical infrastructure. In the increasingly crowded online education space, this approach provides competitive advantage through differentiation. Not many institutions are ready yet to take on the challenge of institutional change, and most will likely wait until students begin to vote with their feet and enroll in the strongest new offerings. Just as earlier waves of online education innovation have brought significant advantages to first movers, those institutions that seize the opportunity to evolve in the wake of the pandemic will be among the leaders who benefit—along with their students—from the lessons of the past year.