Deborah M. Seymour, PhD, Principal, Higher Education Innovation Consulting, LLC

Deborah Seymour, Ph.D. has worked in the public, for-profit, and non-profit association sectors of higher education. She is the owner and principal of Higher Education Innovation Consulting, LLC. Dr. Seymour has written extensively on higher education policy and competency-based education. She taught in both the City University of New York and University of California systems, as well as specializing in online program development at Laureate Education, Inc. More recently, Dr. Seymour was Chief Academic Innovation Officer at the American Council on Education and Vice President of Programs and Research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. She has degrees in mass communication, business management, and theoretical linguistics from Hunter College of the City University of New York and the Graduate School and University Center, the City University of New York, respectively.  

Recent months have brought many questions to the forefront of higher education across the globe. It is no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused disruption to almost every aspect of people’s lives, from how food is transferred through supply chains to the many questions about the effectiveness of wearing masks to prevent infection. Globally, for the most part, it has been accepted that “social distancing” is a strategy to try to prevent the spread of infection, although not all countries are adhering to WHO guidelines in the same ways — or even at all.

The impacts of all this on higher education are, as we can imagine, as yet only in the early stages. Certainly, until there is a vaccine that has been proven effective and can be made available worldwide and at attainable costs, many facets of life, including education, will continue to be impacted. Traditionally, education at all levels has occurred in a classroom with a teacher or professor instructing students face to face, through lecture and/or class discussion. Although online education has been in existence in multiple forms for at least the past 15-20 years, it has not scaled to the point of easily taking the place of in-person, face-to-face instruction either in terms of quality of delivery or cost to deliver. Yet with the need and desire to social distance as much as possible to prevent infectious spread, online education has had to step up and become the norm over the past several months; and likely for months to come.

Both in the United States, which is where I reside and in many other parts of the world, there has been a need for a sudden shift to the online medium for delivering education in 2020. In the US, again as in many countries, this has meant sending home students who were living in dormitories on university or college campuses and requiring that they study online for the remainder of the spring term. It also meant hundreds of colleges and universities having to very quickly shift their course content to an online learning management system or to being taught webinar-style to students who were now expected to log into the webinar for their instruction.

Studies already being conducted in the US are demonstrating that students who were not previously studying online prior to the Covid-19 pandemic are saying that the online versions of their courses were less accessible and less engaging than had been their campus-based instruction. This, then, provides a tremendous opportunity for colleges and universities who wish to retain an online curriculum to improve and disrupt their curriculum so that its quality and engagement are as high online as it is on campus. Of course, there is cost and investment required for this, but the goal would be to create financial models that anticipate growth in this type of instruction over the coming years – pandemic or no pandemic.

What the current situation seems to be teaching US higher education is that being prepared for all eventualities includes being able to convey content through multiple modalities. But it also seems to be teaching US higher education about what students who decide not to go to college next year might do as an alternative. The notion of the “gap year” has become very much in vogue and under discussion lately, as well as how young adults might spend the gap year. The traditional gap year has been reserved for the few and privileged, who can afford to take time away from their studies to travel the world or volunteer in the Peace Corps or spend time in an unpaid internship. But the 2020 gap year now also includes any student who plans to take a year away from university or college in order to try to avoid Covid-19 or having to study online. How will these gap year adolescents spend their time? How successful will they be? Will they have the patience to study for certification of some sort prior to beginning a full university experience? Time will tell.

One other traditional version of the gap year has been studying abroad. Now the notion of study abroad in 2020 has become a worldwide challenge, and not just one faced by the US. Whether we are talking about US students studying in other countries or students from other countries wishing to come and study in the US, 2020 is posing big challenges. Countries are banning entry from other countries due to numbers of confirmed cases of the virus in those latter countries. Parents may be worried about sending their children abroad to study during a pandemic, even if the destination country will allow their children entry. And, from the university or school’s perspective, being responsible for young adults away from their home country and living in dormitories during the period of (or immediately after) a pandemic is quite a burden to bear. One colleague from Israel who is an overseas dean for his two-year college says that the school has been struggling with the possibility of canceling the 2020-2021 school year completely, as the school is so completely dependent on international students in order to operate. As of this writing, the school is planning to offer the two-year experience but is making calendar shifts and all kinds of preparations for a potential second wave of the pandemic in Israel, which is one of the countries that have, for now, gotten Covid-19 under control.

What will be the future of all this? If one tries to use a crystal ball to visualize the future of higher education, it probably looks like a far more digitized world than it has up until now. It also looks like a world in which study abroad may become less about traveling across the globe to sit in a physical classroom in another country, and more about having the international experience come to the student via carefully planned online courses and activities by the host university. It is doubtful that international travel will be altogether stymied, long term, for education. But the more clever higher education institutions become about offering online internationalized experiences to students, the less actual study abroad we may see. However, this all develops, one thing is clear – those who are the most successful at thinking out of the box about higher education will be the winners, in the long run.       

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