Summer is almost over and the fall semester is about to start for most universities. I am reminded of this as I prepare to teach Cornell EMBA students this coming weekend in August. I teach online for now, but the future of how teaching will evolve this academic year is not clear. I fear that I am not alone. Most students, faculty and business school deans that I have spoken with in recent weeks have expressed both considerable uncertainty and concern about how teaching and learning during the semester will evolve.
In over three decades of academic life, I cannot recall a similar moment when such uncertainty and fear has hung over universities across the world. On one hand, the pandemic continues unabated in many parts of the world including in populous countries such as the USA, Brazil and India. There are concerns that while death rates have stabilized or decreased in most areas, clusters of infections are starting to appear in younger populations. This raises the risks of fatality or long term health damage among students. There are also additional concerns about transmission of infections across the key groups of an university ecosystem – students, faculty, staff and the surrounding town population. The situation in the USA is especially complicated both by the soaring infection rates and the specific positions adopted by the current administration. Compounding the situation is a growing anxiety about the implications of the pandemic on the financial health of universities and colleges. Many universities and colleges are suffering from significant budget shortfalls and it is not clear if this financial pain can be sustained beyond this academic year.
I hope that most of you read the Chronicle of Higher Education and subscribe to its many free newsletters. The Chronicle of Higher Education has done a stellar job in collecting and publishing information about the plans of different universities in response to the Covid crisis. In particular the Chronicle of Higher Education has complied information about the Fall plans of over 3000 universities in collaboration with Davidson College. As of 6th August 2020, the Chronicle finds that only 2.5% of universities plan to open fully in person for the fall semester while another 21% plan a fall semester that will be “primarily in person”. At the other end of the spectrum, 4.7% of universities plan to go fully online and 24% plan to be operating “primarily online”. It is noteworthy that a full quarter (26%) of the universities have still not disclosed what they plan to do for the Fall.
Waiting during the summer lull may seem easy to do, but things will only get harder in the coming weeks. Colleges with plans to open for instruction in person are being questioned about their decision as being motivated more by financial reasons as opposed to anything else. Pressure from alumni and parents is building on the leaders of universities to prove that they are taking the health and well being of their communities seriously. Interested readers can view a recent MSNBC interview with President Daniels of Purdue University about his plans to open for the fall in person.
While college leaders plan and hope for the best during the fall, a bigger question remains about how the pandemic has changed future of education. While many aspects will evolve, one important change is that the nature of education and learning will become hybrid by default. Online education has traditionally been treated with skepticism by many faculty. Many research studies have shown that online education does not offer the same quality of learning as face to face classes. In many cases, such as courses with labs and experiments, it is not easy to move the instruction online.
The Covid crisis has forced colleges and universities to move to fully online instruction over the last months. Some may yet continue in a fully online mode for parts of the next academic year. However, looking ahead beyond the pandemic, it is very likely that education will not revert back to the “way it was before the pandemic”. Education will evolve to become hybrid in nature integrating the best what in-person instruction can offer and the unique aspects of what online education can provide. Some of these changes, such as flipped classrooms were already starting to appear before the Covid pandemic but these trends will accelerate now. While a small minority of faculty were doing flipped classes before, the vast majority of faculty will integrate such approaches and shift to a different mode of learning and class discussion.
We are entering a phase of rapid learning and experimentation in hybrid education. Learning platforms will evolve at a rapid pace as technology providers invest more in this growing domain. As business schools and colleges deal with the uncertainties and challenges of starting a new academic year, academic leaders need to also start evaluating what a hybrid future looks like for their institutions. This will entail a questioning of all aspects of their learning and business models. For one, schools will need to invest much more into building their digital competencies. New technology platforms will have to be built and integrated. Essential digital skills will have to be taught to faculty, staff and students. New partnerships will have to be formulated with technology leaders and startups. Further investments in buildings and other capital projects will have to be questioned and measured against the benefits of new technology investments. The benefits of access and reach provided by technology will have to be leveraged to reach new markets and launch new programs. Lifelong learning can be made into a reality and not just remain a slogan. The changes are many and the ultimate beneficiary should be the student who becomes a lifelong learner.
The future of learning is hybrid. Let’s embrace and create the new future together.
Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He is also the President of Portulans Institute and co-chaired the Global Future Council on innovation ecosystems for the World Economic Forum.