The closure of Cambridge University in 1665 because of the plague forced Isaac Newton to stay at home, where he discovered that white light contained all colors in the spectrum, developed the fundamentals of calculus, and formulated the basics of the law of universal gravitation. *

Higher education institutions were already bracing for challenging times ahead. Falling numbers of high school students till 2025, deep questioning of the value of college by some stakeholders, rising costs of college, shifting student expectations to name a few. Then came COVID-19, which has accelerated these pressures necessitating thoughts of innovation and change. 

By and large, from all accounts, higher education has done remarkably well in the past 12 weeks. The abrupt but necessary wholesale transition to remote teaching due to COVID-19 enabled massive exposure to virtual education and also provided a glimpse of the future. Institutions have learned a lot as a result from this forced experiment of virtual education to mainstream audiences. The more innovative of the bunch are also starting to imagine how to leverage this momentum… to imagine new possibilities when it comes to online learning much like Isaac Newton.

At the end of the day, learning online is not going away. The higher education market is likely to segment itself into three distinct types of education providers: residential-only, pure play online, and hybrid institutions. Each institution will target different educational segments based on the different attributes that they value. I'm confident that the size of the education market will increase because of the increased options available to learners.

As I have said elsewhere, COVID-19 is changing mindsets about virtual education, and online learning based on well-planned pedagogical principles will thrive in the future. For those who intend to leverage what online learning provides, these topics will be at the forefront of their planning and consideration.

  • Online learning will be perceived as different not inferior: The higher demand for online education will attract quality investments and pure play online learning will become even more attractive to many educational segments. To see an online-only product through the lens of a residential program is limiting. The goal shouldn't be to port face-to-face programs to an online format, but to create new models for online learning. Comparing a good face-to-face program with an online offering is like comparing apples to oranges. It's like asking which is better: a play or a movie. It is not possible to take one and make it work in a different delivery mode without proper adaptation based on the medium's strengths and the audience characteristics. Each modality has its strengths. Institutions would need to build programs based on their unique strengths. If face-to-face engagement is equivalent to a Lexus, the goal for an online program should not be to build a Lexus (never a winning strategy) – it should be to build an online Tesla by competing on different attributes. 
  • Specialized quality online learning providers will thrive: Quality online learning that delivers scale, and consequently, offers affordability will accelerate as value becomes more important for certain segments of the population. These online players will likely target people who are currently non-consumers, since there are millions around the world that do not have quality educational options. These online-only specialists will thrive as their business models are unencumbered by legacy costs, including physical buildings and research expenditures for residential institutions. Traditional universities will spin off separate online units to capitalize on digital streams. COVID-19 has hastened the acceptance of virtual communities (virtual happy hour, anyone?!). Such online-only specialists will build on this trend and integrate good engaging content, frictionless student experiences, and virtual communities. Quality institutions that generate network effects will likely win out.
  • Lifelong learning will emerge as an important revenue stream: Rapid technological change in the global business world coupled with the advent of advanced technologies will require the continuous updating of skills; hence lifelong learning will take root in the collective psyche. Progressive universities that include anytimeanywhere lifelong learning (not just executive education) in their product portfolio will see bright prospects. We need different products that range along a continuum of education from smaller “byte-sized” credentials that stack all the way to for-credit certificates to degrees. Deans will need to be Chief Innovation Officers to drive success in the lifelong learning domain.   

Higher education works. Rather than being the exclusive preserve of the elites, as it was in the 1800s, the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and Title IX democratized higher education; the results are there for all of us to see. Inclusive higher education is the cornerstone of global economic prosperity. This is why families place a high premium on the value of higher education. A recent survey suggests that 87 percent of families with high school students agree with the sentiment that higher education is a good investment in the student. COVID-19 will act as an accelerant for change. Institutions that adapt to the emergent conditions and provide relevant value propositions are likely to see their fortunes rise.

Raj Echambadi
Dunton Family Dean
D'Amore-McKim School of Business


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