higher education changes post-pandemic

Higher Education in a post-pandemic world – what changes should we expect?

Clearly we’re still living in a global pandemic and facing some unknown changes that will inform our post COVID-19 reality – but what can we already see in the impact on higher education? The emergency shift to remote learning and subsequent scramble to prepare for a potential online-only fall term provides the most public discourse and if you are interested in this topic, I’d recommend the podcast by Phil Hill and the folks at Mindwires. The impact on enrollment for the fall will be known soon – institutions have seen varied results so far with some declining and others actually increasing. The question remains - will institutions be able to successfully deliver a hyflex term? Will students endure the uncertainty of starting on campus only to have to return to remote learning? These are ongoing concerns and we’ll all be watching as the school year begins.

Several industry trends that were already on the rise pre-COVID have been dramatically accelerated. For instance, many institutions in the US had been on the brink of financial disaster - struggling with declining enrollment, increased cost of competition and unsustainable tuition discount rates – and now the loss of on-campus housing and other revenues has pushed some institutions over the edge. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education there are at least 224 institutions that have resorted to layoffs and furloughs and we’re seeing a growing number of small colleges close their doors.  Another accelerated trend is the overall shift to digital and online resources across the industry; many institutions were forced to abandon their traditional ways of work and, practically overnight, accept that its necessary to provide all campus services remotely.

One area that I’m watching closely is student mobility and the subsequent need for seamless handling of transfer credit – a growing concern for global institutions, particularly in the US where many students had already been seeking cheaper and more convenient options for their education. The demand for institutions to accept and provide credit for transfer courses will be accelerated by the conditions of this new normal, and those that are still to come. The “summer swirl,” as discussed in the Hechinger Report, (the notion of students seeking a cheaper and faster way to knock out general requirements over the summer at community colleges vs their home 4 year institution) quickly became the defacto practice this summer and even going into the fall for students who decided that an online course is an online course, so why pay the steeper prices of their 4 year institution?

When you combine the increased number of students seeking education at multiple institutions and looking to transfer that credit – with the emerging world of self-sovereign career and educational records – we start to see how a world of stackable, DIY credential building can finally be supported and scaled across the higher education industry. Self-sovereign educational records just means that, as a student seeking employment or continued education, I can credential myself with a blockchain-powered record of my achievements. A transcript, or now comprehensive learner record, that is immutable, verifiable and carried with me wherever I go. This means I can easily and readily present to institutions or employers my prior learning in a machine readable and verifiable format. This is a huge innovation in the world of transfer credit articulation, credential verification, and the like. I believe that the pandemic, which has been a catalyst of the “summer swirl,” will also be a catalyst for institutions re-evaluating their policies and procedures around transfer articulation agreements and prior learning credit towards credentials.

Another trend driving accelerated change is the growing practice of large companies offering their own training and credentials to employees. As an employee who earns a certification of some type through my employer, I want to be able to bring that to future employers or higher education institutions and be credited for that prior learning. With the ability to carry my own credentials and learner record with me through a blockchain-backed network, future employers and institutions don’t have to spend time and effort checking up on me, and can instead focus on evaluating fit for other, more valuable criteria.

It remains to be seen all the ways that higher education will be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we’ll note increased acceptance of online and remote learning, slimmer offerings from institutions that must cut back to stay in business, and a renewed view of practices around student mobility and transfer credit. The acceleration of these trends will certainly drive innovation in our institutions, and in the industries that serve them, as they get to take a breath and learn from the rapid changes we’re all going through.