Will COVID-19 Save Higher Education? – Forbes

Posted: July 2, 2020 at 7:50 pm

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Student in class from home during lockdown

When the pandemic hit hard in March, virtually all U.S. universities switched to online education in a matter of weeks. With no time to prepare, instructors delivered lectures via videoconference, just as they would have face-to-face. Unsurprisingly, results were mixed, with many students and parents concluding that online courses arent worth the price of tuition. With the pandemic still raging, faculty are working hard to prepare for another semester of online education.

Were missing the forest for the trees. The real challenge is that the value propositions of most universities have been deteriorating for years. Universities have become too expensive leading to crushing debt burdens for many. Were not providing access to higher education at the necessary scale. The world has changed but universities havent adapted nearly enough.

Paving cowpaths

In 1990, Dr. Michael Hammer launched a management revolution with an article in Harvard Business Review, aptly titled Reengineering Work: Dont Automate, Obliterate.

Frustrated by the disappointing returns that companies were getting on large tech investments, Dr. Hammer wrote: It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should reengineer our businesses: use the power of modern information technology to radically redesign our business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their performance.

Universities have endured in the same form for centuries - professors lecturing from the front of a room to students sitting behind desks. Courses follow a standard, linear structure, meeting each week with assignments in between. While many students live in a digital world, not much has changed other than PowerPoint slides replacing blackboards and chalk.Sure, some universities have implemented learning management systems like Canvas, but these are used primarily to share syllabi and disseminate grades. The essential experience hasnt changed.

Software thinking

Think of a university like you would Netflix, offering a curated and personalized catalog of online (and offline) courses in a variety of fields. Online courses can be offered live or on-demand and can be designed to include varying degrees of interaction with the instructor. Recorded content can be released on a schedule or all at once. Consider the possibilities.

Many courseslike a class on Shakespeare or Introductory Accountingdont require new content for years on end. A class recorded once and offered multiple times reduces instructional costs while increasing convenience for students. Yet, we teach the same class anew every semester. We rarely offer entire courses on demand. In the software world, reuse is a virtue. In education, its an afterthought.

Software codifies and scales knowhow. At the 10-campus University of California, we do not leverage scale; instead each campus operates independently. Some introductory classes are taught dozens of times a year system-wide, and the university pays an instructor for each offering. In the physical world, this made sense. In software, where the biggest advantages include zero marginal cost and no capacity limits, this makes little sense.

Software companies adopt a modular and agile approach to product development. A look under the hood reveals that standard modules are sourced from vendors and accessed by APIs. Similarly, universities should build offerings from existing courseware when appropriate. In many foundational subjects, excellent online courses exist, but offering these to students disrupts a universitys business model. Just as streaming services offer on-demand experiences with world-class performers, a university could offer classes with the best professors. Furthermore, when new capabilities (like machine learning) are widely needed but the talent to teach them is scarce, this approach will facilitate widespread skills development.

Digital technologies have democratized content creation. Some of the most valuable software systems were built by open source communities. Individual creators have contributed to the store of knowledge through Wikipedia and platforms like YouTube in diverse domains. Yet, universities rely on proprietary lecture content developed by their own faculty.

Just like we view behind the scenes interviews with actors and directors during a Netflix show, online courses can include deeper discussions with experts, offer visualizations and simulations of scientific phenomena using virtual reality, and arrange augmented reality visits to faraway geographies. Wouldnt it be fun and engaging to chat with a tour guide in France as you visit the Louvre for a class in conversational French? Or videoconference with a Walmart executive for a class on logistics? Thinking like a software company encourages course content to be co-created by experts and non-experts.

Do online courses compare in quality?

Theres often an assumption that in-person teaching is better. Certainly, the best instructors, especially those who truly inspire their students, are very valuable but also rare. Like any other population, professor quality varies. Think back to your time at university.

Like programmers do while writing and reviewing code, professors can try multiple takes in recorded segments. In contrast, there are no do-overs in live classes. Theres a reason why studio recordings have higher fidelity than live performances.

Online classes allow for new course designs. Previously, a professor had no choice but to give the traditional lecture. As the success of Khan Academy has shown, it can be more effective to assign the lectures as homework and spend class time working on problem sets. Features like breakout rooms on videoconferencing services make it easy for professors to work collaboratively in these virtual workspaces with students.

In the consumer software world, user experience is critical. Student engagement has been a longstanding challenge, one that is exacerbated by online delivery. Among other things, instructional design practices require content to be offered in bite-sized segments with frequent assignments and quizzes and hooks into the next module. Theres a reason that TED talks are 18 minutes long and drama series have cliffhangers.

In some settings, in-person interactions with professors and fellow students can be better online. In practice, classroom discussions are dominated by the outspoken few. Students who speak English as a second language tend to participate less. Videoconferencing software democratizes the classroom, presenting students equally on an instructors screen, making it easier to draw in students.

Reinventing higher education

It starts with how we see ourselves. Universities are platforms that bring together students and professors. Today, our platform is being digitized and creating new opportunities, but we fail to see ourselves as software platform enterprises.

Companies like Apple, Alphabet, and Netflix have built successful software businesses by operating platforms where they sell their products and services to customers, while also integrating external suppliers.

Universities are closed systems, operating like traditional vertical industry businesses, offering courses only by faculty in their employ. Their structure reflects the design of the product it once was rather than the software business it can be today.

While the economics of digital production and delivery are compelling, I am not making a unilateral argument for online education. Courses in different disciplines have different teaching requirements. Universities serve different student segments with varying preferences and needs. Still, a strong case can be made that universities should more fully integrate this new modality.

We must reinvent education as a software enterprise, employing platform strategies and harnessing software industry practices like open source, modular, and agile development. Doing so will unleash rapid innovation allowing universities to deliver on the promise of higher education.

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Will COVID-19 Save Higher Education? - Forbes

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July 2nd, 2020 at 7:50 pm

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