The future of higher education

The world of higher education has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and is forcing designers and administrators to change their approach.

By Arup February 8, 2021

The world of higher education has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. In spring of 2020, colleges and universities across America found themselves racing to design hybrid curriculums and implement or extend the virtual learning programs needed to support them, all while facing increasing uncertainties. With these programs now in place, decision makers and designers are focused on how we can use this cultural inflection point to make educational institutions more agile and resilient and deliver better educational outcomes.

Four thought-leading designers and administrators, as well as moderator Patrick McCafferty, shared their thoughts on how the pandemic is reshaping the future of higher education.

Roundtable participants:

  • Gilbert Delgado | Northeastern University | Associate vice president of design and construction
  • Richard Freishtat | University of California, Berkeley | Vice president of curriculum, executive education
  • Jeff Stebar | Perkins&Will | Global higher education practice leader, principal
  • David Damon | Perkins&Will | Regional higher education practice leader, principal

Question: For the higher education experts, has the pandemic significantly accelerated your institution’s virtual learning programs?

Gilbert Delgado: Northeastern is offering a blend of online learning and physical learning this fall. To support that, we’ve installed a system called NUflex that allows students to virtually attend classes in 170 campus classrooms from anywhere in the world. Northeastern already had plans to become a global institution, but the pandemic definitely accelerated the development of our virtual extension program.

Richard Freishtat: It has been a step change. The COVID-19 crisis has compelled a large number of faculty members who would once have sworn they’d never teach an online class to go virtual. The transition has been challenging, but many people are starting to recognize the potential of virtual learning for the first time.

Question: Is there an assumption that more robust virtual learning experiences are here to stay?

Patrick McCafferty: Based on the research we’ve done, yes. Virtual learning is already transforming the way people view higher education. Education is transitioning from a resource that students have to go and collect at one location to something that can be delivered to the them wherever they are via their laptops. From an institutional perspective, virtual learning is a real boon, because it opens up access to a much broader, global audience, as Gilbert said.

Freishtat: The rise of virtual learning is opening up a whole realm of new possibilities. There are clear advantages to being able to access your courses from anywhere, and virtual learning also increases flexibility around when you access it — you can learn what you need when you need it.

Question: Are we looking at a radical change in pedagogical and business models?

Jeff Stebar: We’ve all experienced a ten-year leap into the future of technology in about ten weeks. This will inevitably shift the educational paradigm in almost every of aspect. At Perkins&Will, we’re saying that the future of higher education will be characterized in three ways: it will be lifelong; it will be subscription based; and it will be delivered over a distributed global presence.

When we say lifelong, we mean that colleges will be developing 60-year curriculums tailored to meet people’s needs throughout their lives. These will be offered via a subscription/membership model that allows you to “join” a college, like you might join a country club. Instead of making a large upfront investment for four years of education, you pay a relatively modest monthly fee to retain access to in-person and virtual instruction for as long as you want.

Question: What do you see as the key benefits of adopting this approach?

Stebar: It would allow far greater access to higher education across the board. But perhaps most crucially, it would lower the barriers of entry for populations for whom higher education has traditionally been out of reach. This approach would help us solve social equity issues and the student loan crisis.

It would also enable colleges to achieve financial stability by providing them with a recurring revenue source and that makes planning for the future much easier and more predictable. Today’s higher education institutions often plan projects based on how many people accepted their offer letters that semester. The subscription model would provide a steady stream of revenue that would allow universities to plan and implement projects more strategically.

Question: What are the biggest obstacles we face in trying to leverage virtual learning to enhance social justice and equity?

Freishtat: I think the biggest challenge is cultural. There are still a lot of questions about the rigor and integrity of virtual and online learning, despite a lot of research that’s been done around it. We have a preconceived notion of what higher education should look like and a lot of people, students and faculty alike, are resistant to the idea of broadening these definitions.

Making campuses a comfortable and engaging place to be will become an even higher priority.

Question: Will this inflection point significantly reshape campuses?

McCafferty: Many of our higher education clients are placing more focus on the consolidation of physical space. I think this is partly a response to the COVID crisis and the current economic climate, but it’s also the result of an overall decline in the population of traditional-aged students. For all these reasons, my sense is that we’re moving away from the era when every single department had its own set of lecture halls or classrooms and towards a new model that prioritizes multi-use spaces that can be shared amongst departments.

David Damon: We’re also seeing a trend towards decentralization. For the past five years, every student residence project we’ve designed has featured something other than residence life on the ground floor. In effect, these buildings have “storefronts” at the ground floor and living environments above. The intent behind these mixed-use dorms is to create what amounts to a fully active university town.

Coming out of COVID, we anticipate seeing more campuses activate their ground floors in this way. Taking this approach makes for a richer, more connected experience overall. Students won’t stay confined to the south quadrant or the north quadrant, they will interact with the larger campus like they would a city. It will also keep schools from having to close down in the event of a pandemic, because everything students need to live is easily accessible.

Stebar: Planning campuses intentionally to enrich the student experience is going to be very important. Ideally, you want the campus to serve as a visual catalog of all the courses that are offered. Students walking past a science center with a public-facing lab might think, “Oh, that’s cool. I might want to get involved with that.” These encounters make the experience of being on campus unique and memorable and strengthen the school’s unique brand, which is going to be particularly important now that many students will be learning virtually. The common campus experience will become a bonding agent that creates the feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves.

The transition between the virtual experience and the physical experience should feel as seamless as possible.

Question: What goes into creating a university “brand” and why is that important?

Damon: First, I think it’s important to recognize that this brand identification has to extend beyond the campus to be truly effective. The “Northeastern” experience needs to be as defined online as it is when you’re on campus. To create this feeling of belonging that Jeff mentioned, the transition between the virtual experience and the physical experience should feel as seamless as possible.

Stebar: Right — and there are “buy” brands and “join” brands. You buy a broom because you need to sweep; you join Nike not just because you need running shoes, but because of the lifestyle they represent. I think in the future, people will want to join a brand of higher education for much the same reason.

A few months ago, there was an article in New York Magazine called The Coming Disruption, where Scott Galloway, a Professor of Marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, predicted that we will see the ascendance of an elite group of universities. Basically, his argument is that the universities with the strongest “brands” will monopolize the market. Whether or not this turns out to be the case, the more an institution can differentiate their brand and reflect the aspirations of their audience, the more impact they will have.

Question: How much do you think branding impacts student engagement?

Freishtat: We have found it really challenging to get alumni to come back and take executive level programming. We’ve actually had more success enrolling graduates from other institutions looking to diversify their skills, which I think has a lot to do with our “brand.” Berkeley, like Stanford, is associated with Silicon Valley and innovation, so people tend to come to us looking for a specific experience.

I think the trick to engaging people in lifelong learning will be defining your brand and building a program that is recognized as the best place to go to study a specific subject or skillset. Want to build your finance acumen? Go to Columbia or Kellogg. Want to become an entrepreneur? Go to UC Berkeley or Stanford.

Question: What do you think needs to happen in the coming years to ensure that the pandemic is ultimately a positive disrupter?

Freishtat: Moving forward, we need to make sure we are making research-informed decisions about which educational activities happen virtually and which happen on campus and how we leverage both of those spaces to optimize results.

Stebar: Making education more accessible to populations that have traditionally not had access will not only provide institutions with the financial stability they’re looking for, it can also help us solve daunting social equity issues. Making diversity and inclusion a meaningful part of their mission will make a difference for generations to come.

This article originally appeared on Arup’s websiteArup is a CFE Media content partner. 

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