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Teaching & Learning

3 Ways to Future-Proof Your University

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on higher education. Here's how to weather the emerging "new normal" for the next semester and beyond.

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When the pandemic led to the initial shutdown of university campuses in early February, Duke Kunshan University in Kunshan, China, was among the first to move all its courses to an online format. By April, at the height of the crisis, up to 1.6 billion students worldwide were affected by school closures, including more than 200 million in higher education. Following suit, colleges and universities around the world also began quickly transitioning to emergency remote teaching, moving online to deliver lectures, administer tests and even hold graduation ceremonies.

What started as a short-term response to the COVID-19 crisis will result in an enduring digital transformation of higher education. While the move off campus won't be permanent for all undergraduate students, higher education as we know it will evolve.

The past year has been a catalyst for universities to make online learning core to their student experience, and best practices for this "new normal" have started to emerge. Here are three steps you might consider taking to future-proof your university for next semester and beyond.

1) Embrace New Models of Blended Learning

Several remote teaching models arose amid the pandemic, and nine months after the initial shift online, it has become clear that not all methods are equally engaging. Many institutions defaulted to fully synchronous instruction during the emergency remote teaching phase, in which faculty move their lectures online through videoconference tools. This model can lead to burnout for both students and instructors, and is often associated with consternation surrounding student attention.

Many institutions are deploying fully asynchronous teaching, and some are supplementing their degree offerings with ready-made, for-credit courses on online learning platforms. Professors can curate courses to fill curriculum gaps and ensure new content is aligned with their department's goals. This supplemental option is student-friendly because it is flexible and self-paced, and it allows them to easily explore new interests outside their major.

Blended learning, parts asynchronous and synchronous, has also emerged as a popular path for universities. In this "flipped classroom" model, students gain knowledge and skills from online courses, either ready-made or privately authored by their instructors. The course acts as a textbook, only it's chunked into bite-sized segments and reflects the modern digital experience young people expect. Students then come together with instructors in a virtual classroom to discuss ideas and apply skills with hands-on projects and assessments.

Blended learning marries the best of on-campus and online learning practices, fostering community and ensuring high engagement. Its pioneers include Covenant University in Nigeria, which is using online courses to enrich its degree programs with international knowledge and perspective for over 6,000 students.

2) Prepare Students for the Jobs of the Future

The pandemic caused widespread unemployment and accelerated digital transformation and automation, impacting millions of workers globally. In the United States, already-high unemployment rates for young workers ages 16-24 almost tripled from spring 2019 to 2020. Rates are even higher among young Black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islander workers.

While four in five students report accelerating or sustaining their job search priority due to the pandemic, only two in five students feel confident they will find a job or internship by summer 2021. As more jobs require digital skills, we expect students and employers will increasingly look to universities to prepare students for this new competitive labor market. Future jobs are expected to be highly digital, so universities must build curricula that teach skills across cybersecurity, data science and cloud computing. Universities can also supplement degree programs with courses taught by leading industry educators like Google, Amazon and Facebook, whose tools are often used on-the-job.

In North Carolina, Johnson C. Smith University built a Data Science program to enhance students' job-ready technology skills with online courses from Google, IBM, and John Hopkins University. Other universities have integrated corporate apprenticeship programs to give students experience solving real-world problems.

Hands-on projects are emerging as an impactful form of vocational training, meant for the digital world. These assignments, which help students apply skills in short-form, real-world scenarios, can drive higher rates of skill development, in addition to gains in satisfaction and career outcomes.

3) Collaborate with Peer Instructors and Institutions

One of the most inspiring practices we've seen during the pandemic is a collaboration among instructors and institutions. Professors and university leaders worldwide are readily sharing tips and resources to help each other teach more effectively and even upskill amid an unprecedented crisis.

At the innovative University of Szeged in Hungary, for example, faculty members and senior-level students reported using online courses taught by international experts to build their expertise and grow their research, whether by accessing a new library, providing new study materials to students, or authoring their own digital content. Meanwhile, Doctoral students are leveraging research and teaching-centric online courses to future-proof their skillsets.

Renowned institutions and long-time online educators like Duke University, Imperial College of London, and University of Michigan offer strategies on designing engaging online courses, delivering labs remotely, and fostering inclusive and equitable online learning environments. Continued knowledge-sharing, be it teaching strategies or cutting-edge course content, will be vital to building resilient university teaching models at scale, now and for years to come.

The university experience is no longer limited to the walls of the campus. Around the world, faculty are teaching and students are learning virtually everywhere — bedrooms, dining tables, backyards, you name it. We expect that while the move off campus won't be permanent, the pandemic's impact on higher education will be. To stay competitive now and in the long-term, universities will likely need to adapt and pave the way for a new normal.

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