Can we plan for normal?
While In Europe the COVID19 situation seems to be under control, China and Iran are locking down cities and closing everything down, again.
A second wave of the pandemic was a scenario many of us have foreseen.
Still, in Europe, we are already reopening schools and planning for a normal start of the next academic year.
But can we plan for normal? Should we call it normal?
Now, the opinions on how the post-pandemic world will look like are diverse. But the only thing that seems to be a consensual opinion is that education as we know it has to change. But how will it change? That is the answer no one seems to want to answer.
Let me explain.
The online teaching market is having its say
Online teaching practices are not something new, but the pandemic gives them the light it was missing, for sure. Online diplomas and certifications exist for more than 20 years. But these were hardly competitive in the education market.
I mean, having a diploma from the Global University was never something that would shine on your CV. Even an online MIT certification was not something to brag about. At least not when looking to land your first job.
This kind of education format was mainly attractive to adult learners. Because working adults looking to continue education, they want just that,to continue education. They are (all) not going for (just) the perks. Adult learners can’t afford to leave their paying jobs to attend a full-time program at a traditional university. And it is also unlikely that their employees would pay the fees of an MBA program at a top tier college. Unless your employer is Apple or Facebook. But also you don’t need a university degree to work on Apple or Facebook.
But when it came to young undergrads looking to study for the first time, traditional on-campus universities were winning on the battlefield. These young adults were (are) looking for the campus experience. Of course they care about the quality of the courses, but they are hoping to live the full college experience. The dorms, the fraternities, the parties, the coffee break, the international exchanges, the face-to-face tutoring, and yes, the classes.
With the lockdown situation and the new sanitary conditions, the trend is reversing, somehow.
The on-campus experience is getting overrated
Small local universities, online-only academies, and flexible colleges are grasping now more attention than ever. Finally, they are getting to compete with the top-tier giants and might have a chance of winning.
Because when you put every institution under the same conditions and rules, well things like on-campus experience weigh less in the decision.
The thing is that these online universities and certification institutions have been doing online teaching for a while now. They are 20 years ahead of us; they have the know-how, the budget, and the technology. They don’t need the campus experience to attract their students.
But reputed (and usually expensive) schools, they are not ready to give up to the face-to-face student learning experience, not just yet. Online programs are just one minor piece of the puzzle for these institutions, they have these programs mainly for having a say on the adult learners population. The on-campus programs are the ones that pay the bills.
The on-campus experience is for these schools the hook to attract the big fish. But when you can’t offer that because of sanitary issues, well the hook seems less attractive.
This is causing freshman to take a gap year and wait until normality comes back to register for college. Others are demanding the reimbursement of their admission and tuition fees because e-learning is not worth the $30k a year.
Now, these demands are hurting the pockets and reputation of traditional private schools. But are opening the way for small, flexible, and open and less traditional education systems.
With that much time in their hands, recently graduated students are not just playing video games, they are looking to educate themselves and develop their skills. MOOCs, Webinars, learning apps, Online Business Academies (like HubSpot or Facebook) YouTube videos, TikTok are some sources that have been gaining momentum in the past months, since the lockdown.
The catch? They are free, they also offer pretty good content and learners actually get to develop their skills.
Of course they are not replacing completely the MBAs, since most of them don’t provide learners with certification. But they are getting the visibility they were lacking until now. And this could be the right opportunity to disrupt the education industry and win.
Back to local education
During the last decade, the international mobility of students has grown at impressive rates. In the US, 5.5% of the student population comes from overseas. This number equals to 20% in the UK, and 10% in France. In 2016 almost 5 Million students were international mobile, compared to 4M in 2012. That’s quite a number.
Most international mobile students in the US come from countries like China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. For Europe, most international students come from Asia, Africa, and other European countries.
International mobility is one of the main economic sources of higher education institutions. Not only because these international students pay for the “full” on-campus experience, but also because they contribute to the international ranking of the schools. The more the institution is able to attract international students, the better it is for its positioning in the international arena.
Now with the pandemic situation, the frontiers being closed and the visas being banned. The situation is getting complicated. Most of the exchange partnerships and programs are hurting and on stand by as the future seems blurred by a possibility of a second wave, and thus a second lockdown.
While this looks bad for big and top tier universities in the US and in Europe, it looks good for smaller and local institutions. It is the time when maybe students (and their parents) will give a better look at the education offered in their countries.
It is also the opportunity for governments to focus on their schools and education system and gain back the interest of their national students.
Not only this will be great news for national schools, but for the nations themselves as they probably lessen the drain of national brains.
Take the example of China. The government has taken several actions to reduce the drain brain of young talented students by improving their national education system. The various reforms in domestic education have reflected on a higher number of degrees granted by the Chinese universities and the repatriation of many Chinese talents living abroad.
The internationalization of both schools and students is important. A cross-cultural classroom is an amazing place to learn about communication, management, diversity, culture. But focusing on attracting international students at all costs is probably not the best way to go.
Maybe there is a way to rebalance the exchange between students and nations.
If there is something that we can learn from this pandemic is that we need more flexibility. We had to abruptly change our way of working, teaching, learning, socializing. In the beginning, it was overwhelming, especially for organizations and people that were not used to remote working. But then most of us found a way to adapt.
What we’ve learned? We have to be flexible. What happens if a second wave knocks on our door next semester. What if the sanitary conditions demands us to have up to half of our class present in our classroom. What if we get to teach half of the semester and then we are in lockdown again.
We need a more flexible education: flexible schedules, flexible formats, flexible assessments, flexible classrooms, flexible credits. But flexibility also means two times more work — at least. And as much as we think that educators are superhero, we only have two hands. So if there is more work to do, schools will need to hire more staff, more faculty, or at least rebalance the teaching and service responsibilities between them. Students need to be flexible too. Adapt to the different alternatives offered to them.
We need also a more flexible mindset.
Looking at the post-pandemic future is raising questions that many of us, in Academia, have raised a long time ago. Maybe this time we will listen and finally take the actions needed to make our education systems better for everyone.