Post-COVID19: Future Scenarios for Higher Education – What’s Next?
“Everything is going to change because of COVID-19.”
“After COVID-19 everything will just snap back …”
Two apparently fundamentally different views about the future … and both of them could actually be correct. In this article, I will do a structured analysis of how COVID-19 will affect Higher Education in the US and the rest of the world, being on a crossroad [blog].
Higher Education Pre-COVID-19
Contrary to theory, higher education, as it is applied today, does not see learning as a continuous process but as an activity “performed” during a limited time, taking between 3-5 years for an undergraduate program and between 6-24 months for a graduate program. We can divide this process into three (3) major timeframes:
- Before (obtaining access to educational program)
- During (access to the educational program on campus)
- After (leaving educational institution)
Students require to perform specific tasks in order to obtain access to programs in higher education. These tasks are usually highly selective, with standardized and centralized tests in the center of this “access control”, making sure that only the best candidates make it to institutions of higher education. For a variety of reasons alternative models to prove worthiness to be able to access universities have been scrapped over time and today, the great majority of universities require these standardized tests.
Different models have been developed around this “learning experience” on campus, but models look very similar, whether you live in Boston (Massachusetts) or Boston (Medellin). Factors that might or might not have an impact in this learning experience are:
- Social Interaction between Students
- Interface with Industry and Government
- Educational Models
- Job Opportunities
Most students still believe that they are “now done learning”, once they leave university. Degrees are given for a lifetime, not considering changes and continuous development in almost all areas of knowledge. Many institutions and people trust blindly in titles, believing that for instance, an undergraduate degree in architecture serves only for designing houses.
Problems of this worldview
The problems of this system are multifold and have been researched and documented extensively, whether before, during or after the experience in the higher education system. -
Many attempts to implement changes in higher education to overcome those difficulties have been attempted in the past, based on arguments around “there is not money”, “it’s not the right time”, “nobody wants that”, “that’s too risky” and “we have always done it THIS way”.
And then came COVID0-19
Suddenly, and without any warning, the black swan  is now standing on our doorstep and there is no way around him. COVID-19 is creating a (temporary?) new reality that everyone has to respond to. And everyone does. It’s a brave new world.
Out of the blue standardized testing can not be done and universities would either have to:
- cancel the following semester: because students cannot comply with their entrance requirements and present standardized test results, or
- find alternatives to determine which students can enter higher education
Facing these two options, amazingly, finding alternatives doesn’t sound too bad and many universities are deciding not to require SAT or ACT standardized tests
With physical distancing being a new requirement, higher education realizes that they can:
- either offer courses online, or
- not offer any courses at all
All institutions have found ways to respond to this and what had been opposed by administrative staff and many faculty for more than a decade, has now been implemented for almost* 100% of the student population with a week or less.
* (Some universities continue to provide presential classes in larger classrooms to allow for physical distancing. e.g. Nanyang Singapore)
This is an area where we have not seen the immediate pressure of change that goes beyond the cancellation of a graduation ceremony or performing the same online or using a blended robot/virtual model . However, with more and more services being moved online it might be just a question of time that universities move to fully digital certificates [Certix].
The previously described shows the reaction of institutions in higher education during COVID-19. However, the most important question is:
“What happens after COVID-19?”
Here we are coming back to the previously stated beliefs, that “things will snap back” and “things will change forever”.
How can it be that both statements might be true? In human behavior as in physical systems, we are regularly observing something that is described as hysteresis, the phenomenon in which the value of a property lags behind changes in the effect causing it. We can observe this kind of behavior for instance in magnets when switching polarities. But we can also observe this in human behavior, once new habits have been developed.
It is very likely we will observe this kind of behavioral hysteresis in many of the stakeholders in higher education. Visualizing this hysteresis, take a look at Image 1, which shows a simulated, projected behavior along a Y-axis showing levels of change against an X-axis showing time.
Image 1: Capability to change and innovate of institutions of higher education and the influence of COVID-19
Zone A (grey: short COVID-19 quarantine) shows the level of change and innovation pre-COVID-19, with a certain level of innovation, in this case for example in the virtualization of programs.
Zone B (red: prolonged COVID-19 quarantine) shows the reaction of the system (higher education) to COVID-19, a sudden “quantum leap” in development, achieving levels or change many institutions have not observed over the last few decades.
Red Line shows how the development and innovation could have moved forward without a significant event like COVID-19
Zone C shows the time post-COVID-19, when “things will snap back”, and they will, however, because of the hysteresis in human behavior they will not switch back to previous levels and will not touch the Red Line again.
Yellow Line shows the potential future development (scenario A) assuming that change and innovation will continue on a trajectory parallel to the one we observed in the Red Line.
Green Line shows a more optimistic vision (scenario B) where hysteresis did not only leave us at a higher level, but the rate of innovation did also increase and the trajectory becomes steeper.
Blue Line shows a vision that could become real under a prolonged quarantine. If physical distancing and quarantine continue during various months, institutions would continue to innovate on top of the initial changes and innovations done at the beginning of the quarantine (line continues to go up). Due to this exposure to new concepts and accelerated innovation, future innovation dynamics would improve after the quarantine ends.
What has to happen to either have scenario A or scenario B?
Assuming that no significant legal limitations will be put on gatherings of large groups of humans in the future (there is a non-zero probability that this might happen) the immediate reaction of three (3) stakeholder groups will determine which scenario will turn into reality:
- Students: Do students appreciate the advantages of online learning to the extent that they request to have more educational content delivered in this format? Here we have to keep in mind that the delivery of online content during COVID-19 is sub-optimal – meaning that neither content nor delivery methods have been sufficiently developed and fine-tuned. Under a prolonged quarantine, a Blue Line (scenario C) could emerge.
- Academic Staff: Does faculty appreciate the advantages of online teaching to the extent that they will be more open and actually actively request from universities to offer courses online? Observing the positive impact faculty can have with this delivery method over time, the Blue Line becomes also more likely from the point of view of faculty.
- Administrative Staff: Whether or not administrative staff appreciates the advantages of online teaching becomes less important when taking into account that the installed infrastructure (building, campus, classrooms) represents a significant cost factor that cannot be ignored. The longer COVID-19 takes, the more pressing this issue gets. Institutions finding innovative solutions to adjust to less use of physical infrastructure will most likely come out as winners of the post-COVID-19 period (2020-2025).
Although from the point of view of innovation in institutions it would be preferable to go for the Blue Line and a prolonged quarantine, this would certainly imply increased suffering in large parts of the population and are therefore not preferable. For this reason, I am only looking at scenarios A and B.
Coming back to the initial statements
YES: “Everything is going to change because of COVID-19.” (Everything always changes … there is no magic to it!)
YES: “After COVID-19 everything will just snap back …” (Just not to the previous levels!)
Institutions have an unparalleled opportunity to get either on the Green Line or the Blue Line. Faculty and Staff should keep pressing for changing in order to stay ahead of the curve and not fall behind in this wave of innovative disruption that we have not previously seen in our lifetime.
With this change, institutions should look for ways to innovate by taking small but determined steps: Implementing new ways to evaluate candidates (Before), innovating in continuous omnichannel education (During) and using secure disruptive technologies to document the academic achievements of students (After).
Certix is working with academic institutions to prepare for a post-COVID-19 future, avoiding fraud in academic titles and certificates completely. If you are interested in learning more about how you can prepare your institution for secure certificates|titles, while significantly lowering costs to maintain the integrity of your certificates|titles, write us at [email protected]
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