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The Necessary Transformation of Higher Education-- What Comes Next?

Updated: 18 hours ago

In an ever-changing world, it is becoming increasingly apparent that higher education needs to develop as well. The COVID-19 pandemic forever altered how higher education can function– and some great re-altering has come from it.

At the helm of innovation are two industry experts: Dr. Josh Kim and Dr. Genevieve Feliú. Moderated by Yellowdig CEO Shaunak Roy, Yellowdig held a webinar on potential future roles of teaching faculty and the evolving landscape of higher education featuring both Josh and Genevieve. Before we dig into the webinar highlights, let’s take a chance to meet the speakers.

Meet the Speakers

Dr. Josh Kim, Director of Online Programs and Strategy, Dartmouth College

“All day long, I think about where my institution is going into the future in terms of online learning, and how we can leverage online learning to advance and improve liberal arts instruction.”

Dr. Genevieve Feliú, Vice President of Innovation, Capella University

“I've been driven [for] a long time by trying to understand what are the behaviors that will help us all learn better and move to the to the finish line in a better way together.

Shaunak Roy, Founder & CEO, Yellowdig

"And one of the questions that I want to pose to our panelists today, is that, given so much is happening… what can we do? What can we do as leaders in this space, as you know, colleges, professors, instructional designers, as people who are responsible for some of these changes that are happening?”

Numbers Don’t Lie

From Fall 2019 to Fall 2021, American universities have experienced a 6.6% drop, or 1,025,600 students, in higher education enrollment. Though the pandemic likely has a role to play in the drop, this downward trend has actually been in motion since before 2016. We are facing an education environment that needed change even before the onset of a global pandemic.

Josh Kim reflects on this data by recognizing how when higher education is discussed, many people’s assumptions refer to a traditional college or university. However, the reality of the situation, as the webinar audience showed, is a mixture of traditional non-profits, companies, government entities, and for-profit education. Josh centers on a cohesive strategy focusing on collaboration. He says:

“All of us are going to have to come together to think about how to make changes. We just can't keep doing what we've done in the past– we have to do something different. And that's not going to come if any of us tried to do it on our own. So we need to be able to talk across this ecosystem.”

Genevieve echoes this sentiment, focusing on the idea that no institution can innovate on its own. She also challenges ideas of utilizing only smaller, incremental change. Instead, she mentions what she calls “ecosystem disruption,” or interrupting the status quo for new strategies. In her work, she finds that a mixture of minor change and revolutionizing the system is the key to modernizing higher education. She says:

“I hope there won't be one single answer that moves us forward. Because there's no single right way to learn and no single right way to teach. So there are many paths for us to move through. So I think it's time for us to reframe, and revise what we think about learning delivery writ large, and go from there as we start traveling the innovation paths together.”

The Role of Big Tech in Education?

In the beginning of the conversation, Shaunak brought up the extensive amount of money going into R&D (Research & Development) from leading tech companies such as Google and Amazon. An audience member posed the question “How long before Google and Amazon are primary learning companies?”

Both Josh and Genevieve had mixed feelings about this concept, with both of them coming from traditional higher-ed backgrounds. Josh centers on his connection-focused educational experience and says that a bundled intensive model with Big Tech would not be scalable to this learning philosophy. However, given the cost of education, he wants to explore methods to democratize access– with technology being one potential–, but does not believe that Big Tech companies would be the model for this.

Genevieve sees another side and reflects on the state of affairs today with the constant reality of upskilling. She sees Big Tech as a mechanism to help with skilling up and skilling up and skilling up because of her own experience in a boot camp that is outside of her field. However, she credits her commitment to the boot camp to her higher education journey as a learner, when she experienced a transformation of self due to outstanding faculty. She is firm in her belief that we can do both in-person and virtual learning.

Facing Public Distrust

The pandemic put a hard stop on all in-person learning and forced a resort to virtual learning– for many their first experience with this modality. As time went on and in-person courses remained online, learning institutions faced backlash as to the stagnant costs of higher education despite being online, a term colloquially coined as “Zoom University.” Arguments about the cost of higher education are not new, but the pandemic fanned this flame in a different way.

Genevieve gives her insight by priming the question, “Do we have this level of public distrust because our student/user/consumer isn’t feeling heard?” There is a disparity between administrators of higher ed feeling like they are “moving quite fast” and students feeling that higher ed administrators “are not moving fast enough.” There are so many factors from the administrative side that go into this progression that those on the outside don’t see. With the advent of new entrants in the market as well, Genevieve believes that consumers may be quick to feel distrust of the academic space.

Josh discusses the complexity of the situation and how much it has changed, getting uncontrollable. Students of today are faced with the challenge of paying off debts while balancing future plans. He says the solution is to come together and realize that debt “doesn’t work for anyone in the ecosystem.” He believes in building trust with parents and students by being forthright and truly working towards a solution.

Modality Mayhem

Pre-pandemic, higher ed saw a divide between the world of face-to-face learning and the digital learning world. As the opportunity for more in-person learning opens due to better health protocols, it has become increasingly clear that the line between in-person and virtual has become blurred. Josh believes that the line itself will completely disappear. Courses will not stagnantly be “one or the other,” but will develop into a mixed method that reflects the new reality.

Genevieve agrees, saying that online learning is not “going to go back into Pandora’s Box.” The past two years have exposed benefits and conveniences that a digital landscape provides while also helping us rethink what the exact value of the face to face hour of class is. She believes that the future landscape will be a mix of in-person and virtual learning, with endless possibilities of preparatory work that can happen when pairing digital learning environments with any other modality. It prepares students for rich discussions, enhancing what can only be done with face-to-face work. She ends her statement saying:

“I think our students are seeking to be co-creators. And I think that we're going to have to think about our face-to-face time as co-creation time… for it to be valuable [for students].”

The Impact of Technology

The past two years have been extremely tiring and exhausting for higher ed faculty and staff, but they achieved a great feat of continuing to help students learn. Technology has made this continued learning possible, but the credit goes to the collaboration between faculty and staff. Josh particularly focuses on staff who work with learning technologies, as they were able to so quickly pivot learning institutions into fully remote platforms. This marks what should be an important shift from investing in specific technologies to “more investment in the people and the infrastructure that allows the infrastructure to to be resilient to whatever shocks come next.”

From the time when Josh was in college himself to now, he has been a part of a massive shift in higher education because of the increased understanding of technology. We finally have data that helps us understand how people learn– data that is being incorporated into course design. Additionally, he sees education as shifting into a team sport. For schools that don’t have in-house access to this kind of technology, Josh says that “faculty are working with designers and working with data experts and media, people and technologists to design and evaluate and change and evolve the education.” This is not just for online classes, he says, as he is starting to see this approach in high enrollment in-person courses.

Genevieve follows Josh with a discussion of operationalizing digital learning and technology for higher ed. There is a need for recruiting outside experts to help run the system to “free the faculty and the other staff up to focus on the content” or their respective role. However, it is about using a “small village” of experts to create an academic balance. Virtual learning needs to be a central strategy of every learning institution going forward, she says. No matter the university’s specialty or typical model, a virtual learning strategy in any manner is needed to support learners. She finishes by making an insightful comment about the importance of faculty and the presentation of technology. She says:

“And I think that is how we have really found our most success, or what I would say is that faculty must be your primary stakeholders, if you just give them tech as a bolt-on, that's what you get. And tech as a bolt-on does not drive a new teaching or learning experience– it really just results in a lot of I.T. tickets and unhappy people who cannot connect together.”

Thank you to our three amazing speakers for such a captivating and thought-provoking conversation about the future of higher education. There’s so much more that they touched upon in the full webinar. Check out the full video.


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