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Finding a “New Normal” for Higher Ed After COVID-19

Photo: Courtesy of Philippe Bout

Anant Agarwal

CEO, edX

In 2012, there was a feeling that universities didn’t want to get left out of the online learning moment. My children call this feeling FOMO — fear of missing out. It was an exciting time but, at the time, it was a choice

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is driving a similar feeling of not getting left out, but this time, it is an imperative. When universities worldwide had to close their campuses, they had to be nimble and pivot to offer their educational experiences 100 percent online.

While I am sure some will rubber-band back  I don’t think we will ever fully “go back to normal” in terms of traditional higher ed learning. Yes, I believe in-person learning will always have a place but this pandemic is illustrating that online learning must be a key pillar of every university’s strategy. It is essential for creating business continuity and has unique pedagogical benefits over in-person learning. 

No snow days

Whether it is hurricanes, snow storms, torrential rains, heatwaves, floods, or pandemics, the ability to offer students an alternative to gathering on campus and continue their learning online is a critical safety net. I remember when we were doing an A-B experiment at MIT comparing online to in-person learning with two groups of students, the campus instructors asked their campus group to learn online during a week that the campus was closed due to snow storms, thereby enabling learning continuity. 

Online learning also offers flexibility even during normal times, for example, when classes conflict, or when students need to take a semester off for an internship or to study abroad. 

The new normal

So what will this “new normal” look like? Higher ed after COVID-19 will be a combination of in-person and online learning, called “blended learning.” This could look quite different from institution to institution, and program to program, but ultimately students will seamlessly switch between in-person and online instruction. 

Higher ed must take a page out of the corporate playbook here. Think of all the companies that have moved to fully remote work environments and realized “Hey, this isn’t as bad as we thought. In fact, it might even be better!” 

Many corporations have found that their workers are more productive when allowed to work from home, and are considering blended work environments where certain weekdays are designated work-from-home days for everyone.

Building to this

Everything edX and our partners have built over the past eight years has prepared us for this moment to support our students and the global education system – it’s in our DNA. We’ve seen success in blended learning; for example, the MIT pilot, where separate groups of campus students learned online and in-person respectively, saw the online experience deliver similar learning outcomes and less stress. 

In addition, we’ve passionately pursued a modular, stackable vision of learning that allows schools to pick and choose online content from other schools, another key affordance of successful blended learning. edX created Online Campus as a first and important step to help universities address our new normal by facilitating content sharing.

My goal as edX CEO is to continue sharing our expertise and resources with universities and schools around the world. I’m excited to share what we learn and solve together via my LinkedIn posts in the coming weeks and months. 

Next up: Let’s deep dive into how blended learning can and will come to life in the new normal. Spoiler alert, it applies to everyone, not just those in the education system right now. 

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