Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

October 21, 2020

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Will 2020 Be a 'Lost Year' for Students?

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Notes from the (virtual) road.

For health and safety reasons, I’m still not traveling. But I continue to hear lots worth sharing, thanks to virtual forums with higher-ed leaders and ed-tech executives hosted by The Chronicle and other organizations.

This week I’ll highlight a few insights that stuck with me from three recent discussions, which centered on how the pandemic is changing teaching, how it’s altering the landscape for online learning, and how colleges can most effectively adapt to employers’ evolving expectations.

On teaching, one question on many people’s minds is: Will this end up being a lost year for students educationally? The educators I spoke with acknowledged the very real missed opportunities, like extended time in labs and robust co-curricular learning. But they also noted some unexpected benefits.

To adjust to limits on in-person class time, for example, engineering undergrads at California State University at Fresno show up in groups of five to conduct lab experiments and then teach them to their peers online. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, the provost there, said he’s also seen many more professors and students incorporating material from today’s public-health crisis and racial reckoning into their coursework. By focusing on food, for instance, or the meaning of family, they’re developing “transformative types of assignments that speak to what matters,” he said. There are better ways than a pandemic to empower students to take more agency over their education, but hey, I’m glad some of them are finding more meaning in their classes.

Some students are also connecting more regularly with their professors, thanks to online office hours. “They want more interaction,” said LaJerne Cornish, provost of Ithaca College.

I’m also hearing about how physical separation seems to have fostered more collaboration across institutions. Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke University, said he talks more with his student-affairs colleagues than ever before.

Something I hadn’t considered (luckily, one forum attendee did) is how the pivot to online education might change the skills colleges look for in professors. After all, even when we no longer need to distance, some features of online instruction will remain. Many faculty members now value the skills of instructional designers more than before. And while professors aren’t expected to have that background themselves, said MJ Bishop, director of the University System of Maryland’s Center for Academic Innovation, colleges might look to “hire faculty who are willing to play a new role and are eager to learn.”

You can watch the conversations with Jiménez-Sandoval, Cornish, Bennett, and Bishop, part of our event, “The New Shape of Learning,” by signing up here.

As for online learning more broadly, many tech heads see the remote pivot as a turning point — maybe even a “leapfrog moment,” in the words of Anne Keehn, global-education lead at Zoom. But what will it take to make the embrace of online education more than a blip? That was one question I posed to Keehn, three other ed-tech executives, and a professor in learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as part of the ASU+GSV Summit. Their replies were refreshingly less hype-y than I feared.

Keehn said that even though online delivery had abruptly moved from the periphery (continuing education, master’s programs) to the core, colleges still need to do a lot to improve the learning experience for students and professors for online to become mainstream. To get there, said Justin Cooke, chief content and partnerships officer at FutureLearn, which offers a digital platform for college and corporate courses, online education needs to do a better job fostering students’ “learning together.” As in, filming from the back of a lecture hall doesn’t quite cut it.

One mistake too many organizations make, Cooke said, is expecting success without providing training. The “assumption that every student can go from just strolling through TikTok to taking an online course” is wrong, he said. Another pitfall, said Chris Dede, the learning-technologies professor, is focusing too much on the shortcomings of online education rather than the factors that “become more powerful” in that format — particularly the potential for personalization (his hope, anyway).

The digital divide, meanwhile, remains a formidable barrier. “It was a bit abstract until everyone was learning online,” said Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U, an online-program management company. The pandemic has hammered home that the abrupt shift to online learning is leaving behind the same students “who have been left behind in every other way,” he said.

To watch the whole conversation with Keehn; Cooke; Dede; Chou; and Josh Nester, managing director for education at SEEK, a job-search site, “Covid Changes the Game: Higher Education Forced Online,” click here (you’ll need to complete a free registration).

And finally, employers’ changing expectations. I know that this framing itself makes some academics’ skin crawl. I get it. But when I talked about how colleges could respond to employers’ needs — and competition from alternative-education providers — with Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, and Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education, what struck me most was how their ideas were anything but reductive. Their suggestions weren’t about teaching particular skills or courses. Instead, their argument was that: Adopting certain curricular principles and structures can give students more opportunities for the kind of applied learning that employers find most useful.

Dominican, for example, has aligned with a coding bootcamp called Make School, in nearby San Francisco. The relationship began as a way for the coding students to receive the university’s liberal-arts curriculum (under Dominican’s accreditation). But in ways Dominican didn’t anticipate, it became a way to infuse digital proficiency across its disciplines. The university also has a strong ethos of encouraging students to do internships and practicums in local government and community agencies. All of those elements, Marcy said, give students “a set of skills that are translatable” to the world of work.

Colleges should be continually tinkering with at least a quarter of the curriculum, Soares said, not for the sake of change, but as “intentional experimentation” to ensure that the subject matter and teaching techniques are still relevant. That’s smart: It’s less about the “what,” and more about having an adaptable mind-set.

But I wondered how best to conquer any institutional “fear factors, especially if any changes involve ceding some academic autonomy to outside parties. “Knowing your mission and who you want to serve,” is an important guiding principle for colleges, Soares said, as is finding partners who complement the institution’s strengths. At the same time, Marcy added, a little caution also helps. “Know what the incentive is for the partner going in.” One incentive for colleges is competition: According to a recent Chronicle survey of more than 250 hiring managers, three-quarters believe that alternative-education providers can in some ways rival colleges in preparing people for careers.

To watch this conversation with Marcy and Soares, part of our “What Employers Want” program, click here.

In future newsletters, I’ll share insights from conversations on the risks of public-private partnerships and what it really takes to maintain open access in a pandemic. Meanwhile, I think you can guess my parting messages: #MaskUp. And vote — the earlier the better.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.