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COVID19 is the best gift Higher Ed has ever received

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

COVID19 is not a gift in the normal sense. It's been a horrific plague. But specifically for higher ed, it has created the best opportunity for change and innovation that we've had in decades.

Have you heard phrases like these lately?  

“Once this thing is over, we can go back to normal life.”  

“This won’t last forever. We’ll get through this.”  

For those of us on recent video calls with a background of dogs barking, babies crying or birds chirping, we certainly think about getting back to normal life.

COVID19 is widely seen as the unwanted, uninvited enemy of 2020. And for good reason. Thousands have lost loved ones. Millions are out of a job. Economic impact is in the trillions. It is truly gut-wrenching. 

But for just a moment, I invite you to consider how this unwanted enemy may in fact be the best gift Higher Ed could have ever asked for.  

Unexpected Gift 

As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. And there is a lot of inventing going on in higher ed right now - like this professor who started class with a giraffe puppet. Truly, higher ed has been forced to turn on its head, almost overnight.  

For many, this is a temporary obstacle. The mindset is: “Let’s just get through this semester.” Many schools will adapt in the short-term and then return to the status quo. But the perceptive and innovative institutions will seize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and be transformed by it. At least that is my hope.


Here are THREE ways Higher Ed can take advantage of this opportunity 

  1. Change what teaching and learning looks and feels like 

  2. Clarify the school’s mission, value proposition, and “job to be done” 

  3. Form a deeper partnership with industry to up-skill and re-skill the workforce  

Let’s look at each of these: 

ONE: Change what teaching and learning looks and feels like.  

For millennia, learning has centered around the teacher, someone who dispenses knowledge through the spoken and written word to the learner. Some describe this as one-way learning, which is actually quite accurate. It is one-way learning because the only one truly learning in this scenario is the teacher. By preparing, packaging and presenting the information, the teacher is learning a lot! The learner however may or may not be learning at all.  

The conventional teaching and learning model has focused on knowledge-sharing and then testing if that knowledge can be recalled. Whether the knowledge leads to integration, application or transformation of the learner is rarely tested or measured. 

But COVID19 has changed all that, overnight. Professors can still lecture via zoom and skype. But lecturing online feels more awkward and strange than in-person. This forces professors to ask: how can I help the learner learn? Learner-centered design is not new in education but it has existed somewhat on the fringe. Now it is front and center. 

 As educators, we can make changes in these four areas:  

  1. More focus on learner-centered design and new ways of learning content. We need to ask: Who is my learner? What do they know? How do they best learn? Other than lecture, PPT or text book, how else can I help them learn? Motto: teach people not content. 

  2. Greater adoption of the “flipped classroom” approach. Our content is now online. This opens up a new set of options for how we can use classroom time.   

  3. Greater clarity on what absolutely needs to be learned.  Online classes and short attention-spans force us to think about what students absolutely need to learn and what content we can leave out 

  4. More emphasis on experiential learning (my own area of expertise). With the attention on learning and not on content delivery, we naturally think more about learning-by-doing. Applying concepts and theory through real-world projects is quickly becoming the go-to method of learning for both student and corporate learners, and is a preferred learning method by Gen Z

TWO: Gain greater clarity around the school’s mission, value proposition, and “job to be done” 

What is the role of the university? You will get as many different answers to this question as the number of people you ask. For example:  

  • Employers want universities to prepare young people for the workforce 

  • Faculty want the university to help them conduct research  

  • Alumni want the university to win football games

  • Researchers want the university to help them create new knowledge 

  • Parents want the university to give their kids a brighter future (and get a good job so they can justify the child's tuition bill)  

  • Students – as illustrated in Choosing College – choose college to help them: get away from home; meet parents’ expectations; or launch their career, among other reasons 

Is it possible, or even smart to try to achieve all of those things? Interestingly, by forcing everyone off-campus, COVID19 has created the opportunity for universities to re-evaluate each of these value propositions and ask themselves some introspective questions. For example:  

  • Can extra-curricular activities be incorporated into the students’ graduation pathway? Most universities see extra-curricular activities as just that, “extra”. Yet students spend 50-75% of their time in college doing these “extra” activities, many of which are valuable learning and skill-building endeavors. Will universities find a way to embrace these activities as a part of the student development journey through “learn-work pathways”? Or will these remain on the side, as “extras”?  

  • If 100% of courses can be delivered online, what is the value of residential education? Now that all classes are online, why do we need in-person classes? Or, what can we do in-person now, that we didn’t have time to do before, such as experiential learning projects, remote internships, etc.? Will students be more inclined to take classes online while doing internships or part-time or full-time work? BYU-Idaho for example was able to enroll 50% more students by leveraging online education, a year-round trimester schedule and flexible internships in the spring and fall  

  • Will learning be more integrated across courses and wrapped around real-life projects? We see examples of this at Northeastern University and the University of Illinois

  • Will this new model further separate “teaching” faculty versus “research” faculty? Some faculty may prefer research over teaching while others prefer teaching over research. Yet traditional career paths for faculty have focused on research and publications. Many schools have created new faculty roles to allow faculty to focus on what they do best and what they enjoy most 

  • Will workforce readiness be equally as valuable at universities as learning for the sake of learning?  Some cringe at the thought of the university becoming a “vocational school”. Others wish schools would recognize the student’s desire to be better prepared for the workforce. The most innovative schools will find ways to help students both learn to learn and develop marketable skills. 

THREE: Form a deeper partnership with industry to re-skill and up-skill the workforce. 

3 million people in the US have now filed for unemployment. Many will not be able to go back to the job they left. Changes in technology that started before COVID19 will disrupt tens of millions of jobs.  

Who will be the providers that make up-skilling and re-skilling possible? If you’re Amazon and have $700 million to spend, you’ll do it in-house. But most corporations aren’t in that position.

Universities however, are in a unique position to help solve these needs, primarily because of their: 

  • faculty expertise, learning content and deep research on industry-relevant topics 

  • trusted relationships with companies through alumni and student families  

  • credibility as reputable institutions of learning 

COVID19 has highlighted the need for workforce development and has forced universities to build capabilities to meet those needs. Do we see this opportunity? Who will jump on it? 

COVID19 is a Gift

While COVID19 is a nightmare for many – and for legitimate reasons – for higher education it is a blessing in disguise. Institutions that are perceptive and innovative will take advantage of this opportunity to have a greater impact on students, families and businesses, and will create a brighter future for all of us. I count my own institution, the Gies College of Business and the University of Illinois as one of those bold innovators. And there are examples of amazing and innovative schools everywhere you look.


Andrew Allen is the Director of the Magelli Office of Experiential Learning at the Gies College of Business. He is passionate about embedding experiential learning into the design of higher education and workforce development programs. Along with several others, he recently helped found the LX Consortium, with the goal of bringing together schools and companies that want to make education more real-world, more hands-on and more learner-centric. 


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