The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in numerous immediate changes in higher education—online education only, closed campuses, remote work for faculty and staff. While many may hope these changes are temporary and things will go back to the way they were, that is quite likely not what will happen. Pressures have been building for several years to move more courses and programs online. Although many institutions already offer some online learning, it has not been without resistance from various stakeholders, especially faculty. The COVID-19 shock may well be the catalyst that leads many institutions to move more significant portions of their program portfolio, if not the entire portfolio, online. Existing financial pressures across the higher education sector have been accelerated by the response to the current pandemic with its associated cost increases and revenue refunds. These financial challenges will grow in the post-pandemic period and will be compounded by a reduction in the financial resources available from government and philanthropy. Institutions will need to reexamine their operations to find ways to become more efficient and more effective.
These two trends will have major impacts on college and university functioning and on the resources—physical, technical, and human—they will require. In this blog, we explore what some of these impacts may be. We begin with three assumptions:
- The move to online education is not going to reverse completely. Students will continue to demand online courses, at least for some of their work. Many institutions that provided an online option for courses prior to the current crisis found that some students prefer sitting in their dorm rooms and taking courses online. All higher education institutions will need to offer a significant portion, if not the majority, of their courses and programs online to supplement face-to-face classroom offerings.
- The experience of remote staff work will demonstrate to institutions that their previous model of having all staff on site is not necessary in many cases. New models with distributed and likely reduced staff will be developed.
- Many faculty members have long operated with limited on-campus presence, coming to their office fewer than five days a week. This will likely become the norm for most faculty and perhaps for staff as well.
With these three assumptions in mind, we can ask three questions:
- What will institutions need to operate in this new mode?
- What will institutions not need in this new mode of operation?
- What institutions will make the transition and survive?
What will institutions need?
First and foremost, institutions will need to upgrade their technology. Both the move to online learning and the move to remote work will demand greater telecommunications bandwidth. Many institutions are currently feeling the crunch of not enough communications capacity to handle all the traffic generated by their switch to predominantly online learning. This problem will intensify as institutions move from their current makeshift collaboration platforms—mostly Zoom and email—to more robust and engaging online learning environments.
Deploying robust online learning environments and practices is the next area to consider. The move to online learning this spring was done with simple tools that were widely available and easy to deploy. Students are tolerating this learning environment as the response to an emergency, but there has been considerable grumbling. This simple environment is not providing an experience equivalent to a face-to-face classroom, and it will not be tolerated in the longer-term—perhaps not even this fall. Institutions will need to invest in platforms that can provide a rich online learning experience, taking full advantage of what the technology can provide in order to create a learning environment that equals the face-to-face classroom.
To fully support online learning, institutions will likely need to invest in video production hardware and software. In order to support some courses, particularly hands-on labs, virtual reality capability will need to be added.
Supporting a remote learning and working environment will also require that all students, faculty, and staff have a computer (a laptop) and a high-speed internet connection. Many institutions have discovered this spring that not all students nor all employees have these. Supplying everyone with a laptop is not too difficult, though it may be expensive. Assuring that everyone has access to a broadband connection may be considerably more difficult.
By now, it is hard to imagine that any academic is not familiar with Zoom or another similar product to support online meetings, class sessions, or conferences.
Distributed, remote work teams also require systems for communication, coordination, and collaboration. By now, it is hard to imagine that any academic is not familiar with Zoom or another similar product to support online meetings, class sessions, or conferences. Beyond online meeting support, we will need tools for shared document storage and simultaneous access (e.g., GoogleDrive), simultaneous editing (e.g., GoogleDocs, GoogleSheets, etc.), instant communication among team members (e.g., Slack, Teamwork Chat, Microsoft Teams), and project management (e.g., monday.com, Basecamp, Jira). While many institutions have some tools in place, these will need to be expanded and upgraded in most cases.
In addition to new hardware, software, and communications capacity, new skill sets, and likely new people will also be necessary. Supporting all the additional information technology capacity will likely require a larger IT workforce with more emphasis on communications networks. Further, that IT workforce will need to be totally connected to academic affairs in order to support online program delivery.
Transitioning courses and programs to an online format will best be done with the support of instructional designers. Many institutions already have instructional designers. The institution where I last served as dean (a mid-size private research university) currently employs one instructional designer for the entire institution. Making the move to high-quality online education for the entire institution will take a much larger cadre of instructional designers. As every institution tries to hire them, the short supply of instructional designers may be the rate-limiting factor in the move to high-quality online programs. There will also be a need for people trained in video production to support this move to online. The immediate need for both skillsets will be huge, and there will be an ongoing need to maintain and update online programs in the future.
The other change in people and skill set needs will be in the faculty. Faculty who have spent a career teaching in a face-to-face classroom will need training to be effective teachers in an online environment. Depending on the model chosen for online education, the number of faculty and their levels of expertise may also be different. We all know of MOOCs where a single “rock star” faculty member can lecture to thousands of students. Those lectures are generally pre-recorded, not live and synchronous, and that rock star must be supported by many junior-level faculty members who interact directly with the students. This may lower the overall cost of faculty if less expensive faculty (e.g., adjuncts) take over a large part of the direct interactions with students. In another online model preferred by one of the premier online platform providers, classes are taught synchronously with each class section limited to twenty or fewer students, which likely increases the need for faculty. The learning model chosen will determine the needed size and composition of the faculty, which may be very different from the institution’s current faculty.
What will institutions not need?
The first thing to consider in this changed environment is what the institution’s space needs will be. A substantial move to online education will decrease the need for classrooms. Certainly, in our post-COVID-19 world, the need for large lecture halls will decrease. In a recent exchange, the business dean at a flagship midwestern state university told me his biggest concern last fall was whether they would run out of space in the school’s new building in the next several years. Now his concern is whether there will be a rental market for the excess space he expects to have. A massive switch to online classes will also require more video production facilities and television-like studios. Such facilities are generally quite limited on most campuses. They will either have to be built on campus or an external supplier found.
In this primarily online environment, not every faculty member will need a dedicated office on campus. Further, a move to remote, distributed staff teams will reduce the amount of office space needed for staff. In our new environment, perhaps institutions will move to office “hoteling” for both staff and faculty—a system of shared spaces that individuals can reserve on a short-term basis as needed. A move away from private offices would also increase the need for group meeting spaces. It is quite likely that higher education institutions will need to reconfigure both their teaching and their office space to meet the demands of their new modes of operation.
If students are more engaged in online learning, they will be less tied to the campus. They may choose to live elsewhere. Consequently, the need for residential accommodations will decrease, and the need for foodservice will decrease and change in nature—comprehensive dining plans may disappear as an occasional meal on campus will become more the norm. And, with fewer students on campus, the need for recreational facilities will also be smaller and likely different. These changes will have implications both for space and for personnel—less of each will be needed. Fewer custodians, fewer dining service personnel, fewer campus police, etc.
What institutions will survive?
The future for higher education institutions will likely be very different from what we have known for many decades. More online programming, fewer people—students, faculty, and staff—on campus. A larger role for information and communications technology and those who support it. Fewer buildings and a different configuration of facilities. Although most higher education institutions have moved to primarily online classes for this semester, what they have been able to do so far does not provide a high-quality online learning environment and will not be acceptable to students for very long. The transition to a true, high-quality online learning environment will be very expensive, and while there might be some savings in a move to remote staff work, the overall result will almost certainly be a substantial increase in costs.
There has been much written in recent years about the coming demise of many higher education institutions. Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen predicted in 2017 that as many as half of all U.S. colleges and universities would go bankrupt in the next ten to fifteen years. A few years earlier, Richard Lyons, Dean of UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School predicted that half of all U.S. business schools would close within five years. Though it has not yet happened, Lyons’ rationale was that the availability of online programs from top schools would drive the rest from the market. This may still happen.
The institutions most likely to survive the transition we describe here are those institutions with substantial resources. A part of this may be investments already made in online learning. Surely, another key part is access to funds. Institutions with large endowments or substantial government funding—e.g., flagship state campuses—will be in a much better position to survive than institutions that are smaller, less well endowed, or less well supported by their state. In the next posts in this blog series, we will explore some options for small private institutions and regional state universities. In a future post, we will take a closer look at planning and budgeting as we face this transformation in higher education.
This is part of a series of blog posts meant to outline strategies for dealing with the mid-term and long-term implications of the Coronavirus crisis and our changing higher education environment. Let us know what questions and challenges you have about the future either by leaving a comment below or by contacting our principal consultants directly.
Our next blog will focus on the question of whether students will return in September:
Avoid costly mistakes and wasted time – talk to an impartial peer in Higher Ed!
There is nothing like speaking with a peer who has implemented the same product – send us a request.
You can also provide general feedback, inquire about additional free resources, submit a topic you’d like us to cover, tell us about a feature you’d like to see, or request the best staff for your project.