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How COVID Is Driving Positive Changes in Higher Ed

How COVID Is Driving Positive Changes in Higher Ed

Note: The interviews cited in this blog were drawn from the Weekly Wisdom Series and originally aired between April 13 and October 19, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, created in partnership with Inside Higher Ed.

In my role as Executive Director of the UIA, it's been my honor to converse with many distinguished higher education leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along the way, my co-hosts and I always asked a few questions that we thought would help in surfacing key trends and commonalities that we've all been facing in this challenging year. In this post, we explore how these dire events have driven positive changes in higher ed.

Why Change Is Inevitable
Within the first months of 2020, when it became clear just how disruptive the pandemic would be, higher ed leaders were already gearing up for quick strategic planning. "We have to be more prepared in the future for different types of crises to occur and what does it look like to be more nimble and flexible in how we work," said Wendy Wintersteen (Iowa State). Michael Crow (Arizona State) elaborated, "Historic institutions that are non-adaptive are going to have difficulty adjusting. We need to instill the ability to adjust and keep performing our mission as a core part of what we do.” Ana Mari Cauce (University of Washington) suggested, "The problems that we’re facing in the world right now are way too complicated to just use one discipline." Daria J. Willis (Everett Community College) was already looking at her strategic planning process for the next academic year "where we're talking about the now, and we're talking about the future, and how education has to change."

Online and Hybrid Course Upgrades
The most visible feature of any institution is how the students learn. Michael Crow praised the rapid upgrade of ASU Sync, a Zoom-based digital immersion platform that, as of our April 2020 conversation, offered 14,000 sessions within two days. “This is the way we’re going to work," President Crow reflected, "so we won’t fall back into the way things were, because how could we?” Wendy Wintersteen also celebrated her school moving 6,000 courses online within the space of one week, adding, "Faculty will see that this is an area that they will want to be more involved in for the future, but in a more planned, comprehensive way than having a week to prepare."

Harold L. Martin, Sr. (North Carolina A&T) described students' reactions to their education suddenly moving online. "They were accustomed to sitting in classrooms, interacting with other students, studying in study groups," he observed. "When they had to force themselves into higher levels of independence and engagement and study, they began to realize that it wasn’t all that bad." Ed Ray (Oregon State) spoke about how an upgrade to online access expands student services, "so that when students have a 9:00 P.M. problem and not a 3:00 P.M. problem, they actually can contact another human being and maybe get some of the help that they haven’t been getting." He added, "This is a generation that is very comfortable online. And that’s only going to accelerate going forward."

Looking toward the end of the pandemic, leaders saw an increased role for hybrid learning. Ana Mari Cauce called it a strategy for bringing students back to the campus. "The bulk of our courses will be online," she said, "simply because to do the kind of distancing that we need is not going to allow us to bring in more than 20 to 25 percent of courses in person." Wendy Wintersteen anticipated a greater reliance on the flipped classroom model, so that when everyone is in the classroom, "it's really about discussion and an opportunity to engage the students with each other and with a faculty member." And Mark P. Becker (Georgia State) took a longer view: "If I look out one, two, three, five years, I do see that our curriculum is going to offer a much more robust set of modalities, offerings that are either entirely online or more of a hybrid structure." 

How Student Expectations Are Evolving
Beyond the immediate challenges of completing their 2019-20 coursework, students found that the pandemic had upgraded their expectations of the college experience, and higher ed leaders recognized their role in meeting these expectations.

Harold Martin, looking at H.B.C.U. enrollment trends, told us, "We recognized that bright students, no matter what ethnicity, were at a premium and all universities wanted to have their share of these well-prepared students on their campus. We had to focus a new strategy on how we were going to recruit our share of those students." By leveraging North Carolina A&T's strong brand, he said, "we have moved our university into a position of demonstrating how competitive we are based on those analytics against the benchmarks, against what we consider to be a strong group of peer institutions that society deems as being high-quality universities. Our brand recognition has soared as a result."

Looking ahead to Ithaca College's 2020 summer program, Shirley Collado said, "We’re offering low-cost courses for returning students so that they don't miss a beat, and for new students coming in. We're having students feel during this horrible time for them, especially high school students, that they can be connected in ways that perhaps before getting on a residential college campus they didn’t imagine possible."

Mark Becker hoped to offer students an earlier engagement with their passions by getting a jump on the traditional internship between junior and senior years. With his more flexible model, "students will be able to take on internships as early as sophomore year and while they’re in school, not just in the summers. I think, as we develop this infrastructure, all of our students will have greater opportunity for deeper and richer experiences."

Changing How Institutions Work
Equally important to learning is how the institution itself operates.

Kim Wilcox (University of California, Riverside) wanted to see pandemic-driven teaching innovations applied to his school's administrative functions. "There's an opportunity for us to think more holistically about this face-to-face and distance stuff, not just in the classroom setting, but across the rest of the university itself," he said. "I think it's going to be an easier piece to do some hot-seating on the administrative side." Alexander Cartwright (University of Central Florida) also noticed changes in administrative rhythms. "There’s lots of opportunities for us to do all of those meetings without everybody having to try to move to another location and find a parking spot," he said, adding, "I still have not met my administrative assistant in person." Ed Ray acknowledged that campus life is built on in-person experiences. "We’re losing a lot of unplanned interaction that can be very creative because things are so scheduled," he admitted, "but I think there’s a much larger role for technology in the future of every college and university."

Daria Willis looked forward to a new strategic plan for the new academic year. "The future of work will be different," she stated. "I've been a president from the comfort of my own home. Students are able to learn from home. Faculty is able to teach from home. Student services staff are able to do that from home." Shirley Collado praised her faculty's innovative approach to virtual technology, observing, "The level of collaboration that’s happening across higher ed is creating a space for people to work together in ways that they haven’t before." Harold Martin described a research and review process to help his institution "start thinking about how we deliver education more profoundly, how we train our faculty, how we impart new modalities of learning to our students to build on their lifelong learning expectations from employers when we send them out into the world of work."

Freeman Hrabowski (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) referred to changing the culture of higher ed with four pillars of college success in science, about which he's created a TED Talk. Marcia Ballinger (Lorain County Community College) recognized that schools such as hers have a role in shaping the workforce while the U.S. economy rapidly shifts because of the pandemic. "In this new time where people can work remotely, how do we enable the right conditions to help launch careers or retrain in new careers?" she asked, describing partnerships with regional industries to develop new courses and degrees. Ruth Watkins (University of Utah) saw the pandemic as a wakeup call about unequal access to health care. As the leader of an institution focused on healthcare research, she said, "I think it would have taken us a decade to make the kind of progress we have in telehealth in a matter of weeks. We don't want to return to the way we were. We want to return to better."

A Vital Community Resource
In our conversations with community college presidents, we learned how these institutions played a significant role in their local and regional economy during the pandemic.

Daria Willis explained how her school immediately engaged with its community when the economic downturn first hit. "We have this core arm of the college called Corporate and Workforce Training," she told us, "and from the very beginning, they have been involved when people are laid off at their local businesses. We have local advisory boards with our small business development partners. It's about using a lot of that information that we were getting before the pandemic, and implementing it now so that we can better retool our communities for the future."

"Partnering with others takes us back to our roots when community colleges were created to be responsive to community needs," observed Marcia Ballinger. "Doing it so quickly, I think we have proven to ourselves that we are even more agile than we’ve ever been in this age of acceleration." She admitted that strategic planning was already in the works. "We had identified, about a year before the pandemic hit, eight different mega trends and drivers that we saw impacting Northeast Ohio as well as our globalization of higher education. And we’re continuing that communication with leadership across all different industry sectors. So we're keeping the eye on the future. We’re inventing it as it’s happening. We can’t have our curriculum looking at the past."

Embracing Change
Yet for all the innovation, technology advancements, and administrative pivots these leaders discussed with us, all were clear that higher ed must remain, first and foremost, about the people it serves. "Moving into the future is going to be more about the technology," said Alexander Cartwright. "At the same time, it is so much more about how much we value each other and those interpersonal relationships." Michael Sorrell (Paul Quinn College) told us how the current crisis is an opportunity to reshape higher education: "This is the time where we should put the well-being of our students and our staff before the historical traditions of our institutions and identify the things that make sense, that work, and are best for the people we are in charge of caring for."

Ed Ray praised how students, in this defining moment in their young lives, have shown human resilience at its best. "The mission in life is to get from the start to the finish, and it’s a journey of self-discovery. I think this next generation is going to make incredible changes," he asserted. Freeman Hrabowski was equally hopeful about the possibilities for change: "It’s about how we get there, and that means showing people that in stressful times, we need to think about being supportive of each other, to keep a kind of calmness, to bring honesty to the work, but to be able to say things in a way that we can hear each other. It's most important that we have a vision that tomorrow can be better than today."

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