In my last post, I argued there are three factors that will permanently drive residential colleges toward more online and hybrid programs:
- Value questions: COVID-19 may finally bring about the long-predicted “unbundling” and “rebundling” of the university. As many colleges and universities with annual price tags of $40K, $50K, or even $60K go online, students and parents alike are having their attention called to exactly what the residential experience adds and how much they are willing to pay for it. While I’m not predicting the death of the residential college, I do think we are entering a new era in terms of how students think about what they want from their college education and how much they are willing to pay for it.
- Missing the window for the traditional educational experience: While we don’t have good data yet on deferral rates, the Boston Globe reported four weeks ago that Harvard University is reporting a 20% deferral rate this year, and other numbers I’ve heard anecdotally tend to range between 10% and 20% deferrals. Not all of those students will come back, either to the university they applied to or to full-time college in general. Some will need to get jobs. Some will start their own companies. Life will move on. Their ability to invest four full-time years of their lives and $100K or more on an undergraduate education will diminish. Some will miss their window. This change, in turn, will force many colleges and universities to make permanent changes that were inevitable—though they may have felt somewhat distant—due to demographic changes, changes in the economy, and other sustainability challenges.
- Deteriorating university finances and the drive for post-traditional students: Even as fewer students may attend full-time college straight out of high school, more will need continuing education throughout their careers to stay employable or advance in their careers. This COVID-accelerated trend coincides with the COVID-accelerated trend of deteriorating university finances. Institutions will increasingly need to meet working students where they are.
These trends will likely hold true for most colleges and universities. But they will be particularly acute for many institutions that emphasize residential education. And it raises an existential question for them: Without their climbing walls and dining halls, without students being able to run into faculty on campus and have a cup of coffee with them, how will these institutions differentiate online? How can they justify their price tags?
Remember, when MIT first began giving away its course materials in its much publicized OpenCourseWare effort in 2002, the university’s primary argument for preserving the value of an MIT education was that the real value of an MIT education was being on campus with MIT professors and students. While MOOCs have brought about some evolution of that view, MIT’s edX MOOCs are largely for people who are not MIT students.
So what will distinguish an online MIT education from OpenCourseWare or an MIT MOOC micro-master’s degree in a way that will justify a substantial price premium?
Not Zoom lectures and commodity textbooks
If we compare a well-designed MOOC to a thoughtful, if hastily executed direct-translation remote learning course today, the MOOC is the superior product. Is a live faculty lecture on Zoom better than a recorded lecture in the MOOC? Eh, maybe yes or maybe no, depending on how interactive the Zoom lecture is and how well produced the MOOC lecture is. What about the asynchronous portions? The readings, formative assessments, online discussions, and just plain course organization? A well-designed MOOC offers a more seamless experience where students are guided by the interface from one experience to the next, the materials are designed to work together, and they have the distinctive flavor of a unified class prepared by the professor who designed it. In contrast, a remote learning course that was cobbled together with the tools at-hand has students hopping between the online syllabus, their commodity courseware, their LMS discussion forum (where they will have to navigate to the appropriate discussion thread), and so on.
Another way of putting this is that, if instructors had the time to more carefully design their current remote learning strategies and wire together the navigation among the various technology platforms they use, the best they could aspire to achieve is something approximating a relatively generic MOOC.
Other popular models are also either inappropriate or incomplete. The access-oriented universities have gotten very good at teaching asynchronous classes. They’ve been refining their techniques for decades. But those approaches are optimized for access and affordability, where “affordability” means “much lower tuition.” I don’t see Swarthmore or Brandeis adopting this approach unchanged as part of their core undergraduate experience. Likewise, the high-end, all-synchronous methods employed by some of the MOOC providers won’t always fit either. Sure, they work for the kind of audience that might show up for executive education. But will they work for working 20-year-olds, particularly in survey-level undergraduate courses? Maybe not. And so far we’re only talking about the in-class experience, which is a small fraction of what “residential education” is supposed to be all about.
Increasingly, colleges and universities are going to have to develop their own, distinctive approaches to online and blended learning. They will have to differentiate in different ways. And without the same kinds of person-to-person serendipitous contact that happens when everybody is physically co-located full-time, they will have to create distinctive and valuable experiences that are just as meaningful and just as easy as bumping into your professor at the coffee shop or meeting your classmates for pizza at the dining hall.
This changes everything
Such a transformation won’t happen by accident, and it certainly won’t happen by cutting 30% of staff and hoping for the best. Colleges and universities will need to re-imagine themselves. What makes them distinctive once they remove the physical campus and everything that happens because of that campus? What is special that can translate to the virtual or the blended?
The implications for governance are deep and far-reaching. A lot of the magic of the residential campus arises out of creative chaos. It’s exactly the unplanned nature of residential college—the serendipity that results from taking a life-changing course you weren’t thinking about because your friend is in it or having a deeply meaningful and entirely unplanned conversation—where the magic arises. Translating some of that into online modalities while maintaining some sort of cohesive experience will not be accidental. It must be planned. The whole university community will have to be in on it.
Nor can that cohesive experience be outsourced piecemeal to a collection of disparate vendors without much thought about the learner journey. It will longer be adequate to have a generic LMS, generic courseware, and generic web conferencing linked in bespoke configurations by individual faculty, often leaving it to the students to navigate a disjointed set of experiences that in no way resembles the easy rhythm of going to class twice a week and meeting with a study group at the library in between.
This new vision and its implementation will need to be intentional, institution-wide, and enabled through active support from everyone involved. A vague sense of appreciation among faculty and staff for the character of the institution will no longer pass for a “shared vision.” The feeling at institutions that are successful in the cultural transformation will be more like an employee-owned company than “shared governance,” where latter of often means “mutual agreement to leave everyone alone and everything as it is.”
This work is going to require new levels of collegiality and shared imagination. It will also require enormous attention to detail. When serendipity works in residential education, one reason it does so is because the student is physically surrounded by people who can help. Students are less likely to fall through the cracks when their dorm mate or classmate or advisor or professor or random student on the quad can show them how to leap over a particular crack. Online, the opposite is often true. Randomness is an enemy more often than a friend because the cues for where to go and what to do have to be consciously created, as must be the environment that encourages the formation of social support networks. There will be no more closing the door to one’s office or classroom and ignoring the parts of the university that aren’t your direct responsibility. Everyone will be in the same boat, sink or float. At the moment, everybody is just bailing out the water. But pretty soon, they will need to start rowing in the same direction with a level of shared intention that they have never practiced before.
For academics, the future of work is here. Somebody needs to tell them that.