What Is the New Normal In Higher Education?


How will higher education change as a result of COVID-19? It’s a question many students, parents, and educators are thinking about as they try to plan ahead in an uncertain future. Experts say a few pandemic-born policies are guaranteed to stick around as schools adjust to the new normal.

Online Backup Programs

Whether or not a school returns to full on-campus attendance, it will need an online backup plan in case of similarly unexpected conditions in the future. Many schools learned the hard way this year what it takes to switch to an online learning environment, and they won’t take the chance of not being fully prepared again. That won’t necessarily mean more schools will exist online, or more online programs will pop up that didn’t exist before, but it certainly spells out better preparation in case they need to adapt quickly in the future.

“Robust online programs will become core components of many schools’ academic portfolios,” writes Matt Tate, Marketing Coordinator of Appalachian State University.

Derek Newton, an edtech specialist, agrees: “From now on, every school in the country, and probably in the world, will have a plan in place to move their academic repertoire online, quickly and completely.”

Mobile Apps to the Rescue

The idea of the “distributed campus” is no longer just an idea; COVID-19 has forced it into reality. Now, with the help of mobile apps, students can take the campus with them, at home or on the go. Experts say this trend won’t go away. In fact, it will become part of the new normal and remain an option even when some schools choose to open up their campuses completely. Many of these apps support students who are learning remotely in ways that have become increasingly essential since the pandemic began: for example, providing a student check-in function; tips about how fellow students are doing; push notifications and alerts with school updates; and secure communications options for students, teachers, and staff.

Digital Competencies

Soft skills will still be needed, and a strong emphasis placed on “human” competencies like the ability to connect and work with others in an online environment, but students will also be expected to develop digital competencies perhaps more swiftly than before COVID-19 began. Knowing how to adapt to new technologies and learn to use new platforms and software quickly will become increasingly important.

Better Online Course Quality

“Zoom university isn’t proper online learning,” says Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s vice president for open learning. The pandemic has forced schools around the world to examine what makes a great online learning experience, and to strive to deliver that to students. For example, in Pakistan, when schools closed in March, instructors “didn’t have the tools to teach online and many students lacked reliable Internet access at home,” says Tariq Banuri, chairman of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission in Islamabad. “But the commission has been working to standardize online teaching and to get telecommunication companies to offer students cheaper mobile-broadband packages.”

These are just a few of the adjustments that will be part of the new normal in higher education in the months and years to come. As online learning becomes a bigger part of that, students may start placing less value on institutional prestige and status and more value on the quality and flexibility of the learning experience itself. Course designers will need to keep this in mind as schools find innovative and cost-effective ways to stay afloat from this point forward.


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Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

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