Susan Whealler Johnston
President and CEO, National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)
If there had been a question about it before, the global COVID-19 pandemic provided the answer: Information technology is at the center of higher education.
Of course, for decades, technology has supported institutional operations. It’s helped with information sharing, marketing, data analysis, security, and myriad other functions. But during the pandemic, the advancement of technology’s role in higher education reached warp speed, when students and faculty were forced to rely on technology to continue their educational pursuits.
Students have been using technology for educational purposes for years. In 2011, Babson Survey and Quahog research groups reported that 31 percent of all higher education students were taking at least one course online. By 2018, a little over one-third (34.7 percent) of all college students were taking at least one course online.
And then COVID-19 hit. In the midst of the spring 2020 semester, large numbers of college students were sent home, and after a short break, they were welcomed back via technology. In a NACUBO survey of 105 of our member institutions, 94 percent reported transitioning to online education in two weeks or less.
For many institutions, online education continued through the summer, and in the fall, hybrid instruction largely took its place. This spring, many institutions are still offering hybrid education as they work to retain and accommodate the health and safety needs of their students.
There’s well-earned pride in how quickly faculty and students transitioned from in-person to online instruction. Following on that success, there is speculation that even after the pandemic resides, online instruction will remain as an important part of a menu of offerings for most institutions. It can help open up markets and it can address the new ways of learning many college-aged students find attractive. But if higher education is to rely on technology to deliver education in a significant way, there is important work to be done.
Instructors need more training and support to ensure that they are delivering high-quality educational experiences through what is for many a new medium. They need the technology and tools, in the classroom and at home or in their offices, that make the most of the limited time and mixed modality of hybrid classes, as well as purely online classes. They need good practices and innovative pedagogy to ensure distance learning is not just convenient but a highly effective educational alternative for students.
Access to higher education has received a lot of attention in recent years, but typically this attention has focused on affordability and financial support for students. With online and hybrid learning, access has a different meaning. Do students have access to the equipment they need — computers, printers, phones? Do they have convenient access to the internet?
Traditionally underserved students may be the same students who have challenges with access to a digital classroom. Students from low-income backgrounds may thrive on campus — with in-person classes, easy availability of professors, and tutoring — but struggle mightily when they move online for a variety of reasons, chief among them being access to equipment and broadband. How will institutions address equity from a distance? What can institutions do to make the equipment available? What can local, state, and the federal government do to ensure all students have access to broadband?
NACUBO believes colleges and universities need to be radically student-centered. In a new world in which online and hybrid education are the norm, we cannot reach this state without attention to the practical issues of how instructors deliver education and how students have access to it. While this is an institutional challenge in part, it cannot be addressed as thoroughly as necessary without governmental assistance.
Only when all college students have access to high-quality online and hybrid education in practical, affordable ways, can we truly say that we’ve reached the goal of being radically student-centered. We don’t have time to waste.