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Why Online Education Is At a Crossroads

James F. Manning

Executive Director, Presidents Forum for Innovation

Predictions and expectations for the future of online education are changing drastically since the start of the worldwide pandemic. At the beginning of the year, the thought that the majority of schools would be offering their courses online would have been unthinkable. But the compounding crises of plummeting economic mobility and social inequities further shifted the path for what we expect of online education.

Like Americans, online education is on a new path facing an uncertain future. Institutions are wrestling with how to best serve diverse students, and high-quality online education has the opportunity for an expanded role in determining the long-term impact on individuals’ careers and futures, and upward mobility.

Concern over the future of work — for individuals and economies — is not new. But those concerns are now more immediate with more than 45 million Americans applying for unemployment over the last 13 weeks, disproportionally impacting those with the greatest need, driving our workforce to need to retrain and retool individuals’ knowledge in a changed economy. 

Businesses are failing, supply chains are disrupted, our healthcare systems are strained, and the long-term effects of how our nation will be impacted are unknown. It is our time to step forward and think beyond what’s happening now to better prepare our communities for the future of work. 

At a crossroads

Higher education is at a crossroads: Will institutions revert to their old models or continue to change to better support individuals’ online education opportunities on their workforce paths? 

Beginning with the millions of students the Presidents Forum serves, our goal is to positively impact the higher education system and better prepare all students looking to improve their lives through education. We believe building an agile and resilient workforce by advancing innovations in education, and providing support to those with the greatest need will help learners and workers across America weather this crisis. 

Education is now forced to address longstanding challenges with immediate solutions. Access to broadband has plagued schools and communities across the United States for decades, creating a digital divide by income, geography, education level, and age. And now, the entire education system is moving online, from K-12 to postsecondary, putting a spotlight on the disparity caused by those who can reach online resources and those who cannot. 

As schools continue online, a shift to more meaningful online instruction, with attention to design, engagement, and accessibility, will be required. Leaders need to recognize that technology in education, as in any sector, can enable greater access, personalized experiences, knowledge attainment, and ultimately completion and progress.  

Improving healthcare training

Addressing shortages in healthcare and the need for a more focused effort to rapidly train high-quality nurses, first responders, police, and EMTs is emblematic of the ongoing need to embrace new and alternative pathways of education-to-work. Efforts to graduate students early are a stopgap measure that cannot fully address the underlying shortage. 

Higher education must keep learners on high-need education to employment pipelines engaged by providing additional support to persist and complete to better prepare our nation for the uncertain impacts of the pandemic. 

We need a national upskilling movement to more rapidly advance the pace at which we prepare professionals and move them where the demand is greatest. 

Shifting timetables

Finally, higher education is facing an anticipated challenge that has come early. We have predicted how the future of work would impact individual workers — from layoffs to reskilling to certification requirements. Those effects are apparent now. 

Underserved, laid-off, and disenfranchised workers will need support in rethinking how to come back into the world of work during and after this crisis. The Presidents Forum is appealing for relief and more flexible federal student aid packages, targeting both the neediest students and programs that are critical in addressing workforce requirements coming out of the pandemic. 

Colleges and universities are being tested. The impacts of COVID-19 will likely be long-lasting, if not epochal. The higher education community led in helping to curtail the initial impacts of the pandemic but advancing the certainty of education as the surest path to opportunity, especially for the underserved, will require collective effort across higher education, workforce, government, and philanthropy. 

If there was ever a moment to compel us, it is now. We must embrace change and accelerate the pace of innovation as the bridge to a more certain future, rather than falling back on the comforts of the status quo.

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