Podcast: Bringing Higher Education into the Digital Age

August 25, 2020

In this bonus episode of Innovation Answered, experts in higher education share how they’ve tackled the challenges of 2020. Guests include Barnard President Sian Beliock, Len Schlesinger of Harvard Business School, and the co-CEO of edX, Adam Medros. 


Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.

For this episode, you’ll want to grab your backpack, laptop, and an extra large coffee/hangover-cure — because we’re going back to college. Well sort of…

In the spring of 2020, universities around the globe were faced with a big challenge: how to respond to a sudden global pandemic. In many colleges across the US, students were told to stay home at the end of their spring breaks. Dorms closed. Lectures pivoted from the classroom to Zoom. Running discussions, administering exams, holding office hours — all of that had to be reformatted for a completely digital world.

Today, we’ll focus on two higher education organizations navigating the unknown: Barnard College, founded in 1889, and the online learning nonprofit edX, created by Harvard and MIT back in 2012.

Barnard was one school that had to pivot quickly. Located in Manhattan, a coronavirus hotspot, their team decided to close campus in March. The school spent months planning for a hybrid model where students could take courses both in classrooms and online from home. The dorms would open up at limited capacity. All students, faculty, and staff on campus would be required to participate in regular COVID-19 tests.

But on August 14, with the first day of class just weeks away, Barnard shifted its plans once again. A 14-day quarantine mandated for travels from high-risk states created further complications for on-campus learners. Without the facilities to accommodate this quarantine period, Barnard has closed its dorms and switched over to a completely online model for the fall.

Meanwhile, the team at edX, an organization that offers both free online courses and paid master’s degrees, helped their partners pivot to online learning. At the start of the pandemic, the company launched edX Online Campus, which offered a catalog of courses for free to universities in need of extra digital content. The organization continues to look for ways to meet the new demand for online programming.

Both on and offline, the landscape of education is changing. In order to learn more about what’s happening and what it means, we brought together three leaders in higher ed as part of our online conference, Charting the Future.

This conversation, recorded in mid-July, features Sian Beilock, the President of Barnard College and Adam Medros the co-CEO of edX. Harvard Business School Professor Leonard Schlesinger, previously the president of Babson College, moderates. We’ll be back with their conversation after this break.


Kaitlin Milliken: This episode of Innovation Answered was recorded on the main stage of our last virtual event charting the future of corporate innovation. But if you missed that online gathering, don’t worry, there’s still time for you to join us for Impact 2020. Caitlin Harper, InnoLead’s Events Manager, is here to share more. Caitlin?

Caitlin Harper: We make these virtual events as close to in person as possible. You have close connections with the speakers, super interactive workshops, breakouts utilizing Zoom, live stream main sessions. You have a lot to look forward to and we’re trying to make it cooler than any other virtual events we’ve thrown, adding in virtual site visits, workout classes, cocktail making classes, so there’s lots to look forward to.

Kaitlin Milliken: Are there any sessions you’re looking forward to?

Caitlin Harper: I will say, I’m super excited currently for the CEO of barre3. I’m a little bit of a fitness junkie lately. And I love their classes, and they’ll also be doing a live class for everyone as well. So it will be a very cool combined session.

Kaitlin Milliken: What can listeners do when they’re ready to register?

Caitlin Harper: If you’re ready to register, I’m ready for you to register! So please go to and you can just register right there. We have special team discounts. So if you want not only yourself but the entire innovation team to come, we have group tickets for up to 20 team members, and we would love you see you all there.

Kaitlin Milliken: Thanks, Cailtin. To learn more, visit our website. Now, back to our conversation with Sian, Adam, and Len.


Leonard Schlesinger: It’s an absolute delight to be here today and to be with you, and to be with two of the current leading practitioners in university administration and educational technology. Sian Bilock, the President of Barnard College, who has been the president for the last four years. And Adam Medros who last year was made co-CEO of edX, obviously one of the leading developers and diffusers of educational technology in the world. The last six months have brought for higher education, and inevitably for edX as well, more activity, more conversation, more progress, probably in the evolution of educational technology for higher education than we’ve seen probably in the prior 10 to 15 years. And what we’d love to do is have Sian and Adam give us a sense of what this progress has looked like in their own respective organizations. And then we’ll see where we go from there. So Sian, why don’t we start with you?

Sian Beilock: Over the last four, six months, we’ve been working hard. Barnard is the premier institution focused on educating and empowering women across the arts and sciences, more in New York City, which really was the heart of the pandemic early on, and we had to make some quick moves — first and moving to online classes for our spring term. And then, really in terms of thinking about what this upcoming academic year would look like, without all the information. Things are changing so rapidly, public health guidance is changing, really thinking about what it means to put health and safety first. But at the same time, understanding that the life of the mind, the intellectual endeavors that we take on are so important to our community. And I would frankly argue to the world right now. And so we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that looks like.

The technology is an important part of what we’re doing. But the most important thing is the content. So at Barnard for next academic year, we have changed our curriculum, actually, to address the challenges of the time. All of our first year students will be taking a class focused on big problems of 2020. And then we’ve also launched a fantastic initiative called Third Space at Barnard, where we are going to be connecting, and technology is a great way to do this, connecting students with practitioners who are actually effecting change in communities across the world to work on projects that they’re passionate about. I think we have an opportunity right now to harness the talent, the passion, and the initiative of young people. And that’s really what colleges and universities should be focused on.

Adam Medros: Yeah, it certainly is an exciting time and interesting time in the world of education. And for edX, we’ve been focused on this idea of building a platform where we make high quality education accessible to people all over the globe. We’re also focused on improving teaching and learning in general, both on campus and online. So our effort is really to make people aware that these resources exist, courses from 140 universities that can help people build their careers, that can help them learn something that they’re interested in, that can help them build their critical thinking skills.

I think what’s most interesting about this time is not the either/or question right about like online versus on campus. But the reality that online learning and online teaching can be made part of an on campus program can be made part of the ongoing education efforts that both students who are in college or graduate school undertake, as well as people who are in companies.

Sian Beilock: This is really special that both of us are talking about the content, the teaching and the learning, and what we’re putting out there, and the technology. It’s not one or the other. And I would say that this is really important. I mean, we’ve been thinking about at Barnard how we offer classes to students in high school or opportunities to experience what it’s like to be at an elite college. We’ve been thinking about how parents can join in on some of what their students are learning. This is a time that we need to be fostering speech and dialogue across generational lines. Although this has been quite a stressful and heavy lift time for a lot of us and certainly there’s grave challenges, there’s real opportunities here to rethink how we learn and interact with each other.

Leonard Schlesinger: This being a conference on innovation, I’m intrigued, to some extent how you’ve accomplished so much in the last six months. Universities are not exactly known for speedy and thorough and systematic change efforts. And, and faculty especially, speaking to you as a faculty member. In the world of, you know, never waste a crisis. How did you manage to pull this off?

Sian Beilock: I will say that what happens at Barnard is a team effort, and Bernard is really a special place. So we’re a small school but we have this relationship with Columbia University. We’re under the umbrella of Columbia and our faculty are tenured at both Barnard and Columbia. And students can take classes at Barnard and Columbia, both Barnard students and Columbia students. And it makes for a really special atmosphere. So our faculty are all tenured at one of the top universities in the country, but they’re focused on undergraduate teaching, as well. And you don’t get that at many places.

It was a recipe that actually was prime for going to the faculty. So my Provost and I went to the faculty in the spring and said, “Look, whatever happens — we don’t have a crystal ball — but we know things are going to have to be different in the fall. We can’t go back to business as usual, whether it’s on campus, or the quick pace of online, and we appeal to them. We said we need to work as a team. We need to think about the curriculum, how we’re teaching how we’re delivering.” And we said, “We know it’s going to be a big lift over the summer. It’s not what you’re used to, but we really need to do this together.” And we engaged our faculty early on and they came on board. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are.

The faculty came up with changing our whole first-year experience. Many of our faculty will be teaching instead of the traditional semester long courses, they’ll be teaching in six or seven week, intensive courses, which we know oftentimes from the educational research are better for online learning. And our faculty have stepped up to the plate in a way that… Barnard, I think is the only institution in the country. I haven’t seen any other institution that’s made such drastic changes to the curriculum in response to the current time and it’s what the young people want.

Leonard Schlesinger: What is it that you think that young people want at this point? And I’d like to hear that from you. And then I’ll turn it over to Adam to get a sense of what data they have about what young people want.

Sian Beilock: A lot of students are really asking about how they can take knowledge and use that to affect change. I mean, we’ve seen in terms of the anti-racism protests that have gone on across the world, they’re often driven by young people. They want tools and resources to help them affect change. And that’s really where an institution can come on board. With the knowledge of the faculty, the support of the institution, we can help students connect with community-based organizations, with government leaders, with individuals in their own community that have really modeled this sort of change. We can help them get background information online or in person, and then work on projects or be part of that systematic change and that requires knowledge and it requires help with the action.

Adam Medros: I think on our side like to think about what the young people want… To some extent, edX is not trying to attract 18-year-old students instead of college, right? We are focused on adult workers. People already in the workforce that are trying to build new skills or who never completed their academic degree, or they are completed in a subject that is no longer relevant to what they’re trying to accomplish. That doesn’t mean that we don’t attract some of the young people. But I also think that what they want is not necessarily different. I will absolutely agree with Sian that we’ve seen incredible uptake in you know, what you might consider the hits and the things that are in in in demand around computer science and data science, but we’ve also seen incredible growth in topics like the humanities, like religion and to live life type of studies.

We definitely believe the way the platform is built, we believe in this idea of bite size modular, watch a video, engage with the video, take an assessment. Probably learning that’s going to feel more like social media type of devices than a traditional classroom lecture. And I think that part of the reason why there’s impact from edX, both on campus as well as online is because you can, you know, you can do that sort of flip the classroom and let students engage with the lectures in a way that is more impactful to them. They can rewind, they can self-assess, they can figure out whether or not they’re really catching the material. Then you can bring in the classroom and the life, you know in life professor in a way that I think meets more of their expectations about ongoing conversation and contextualization of the material they just talked about.

So they can put it in the context of what’s happening socially. You can teach data science by talking about coronavirus, right? You can teach data science by talking about economic disparity in the US. And that makes that topic so much more relevant in terms of how do you use the data and how do you consume the data. 

Leonard Schlesinger: So very interesting things going on. But this is not what the rest of the world talks about. When we actually engage in the conversation about what’s going on in your colleges, the standard storyline at this point is “if it’s all on computers and a lot of it being delivered by technology, and it’s so good, why are we paying so much?” So how do you actually engage with those questions when they come up before you at Barnard?

Sian Beilock: Well, I will say that, you know, I think anyone who is 18 to 24 and in college and had to come home and any parent who has 18 to 24-year-olds at home is sort of counting off the days until their child can go back. Obviously with health and safety being a prime concern. I mean, there’s something so special about a residential experience. But it doesn’t mean that exclusively that has to happen with everyone on campus. And I think while we’re dealing with the health and safety of this current pandemic, we have to be really careful about how we’re populating campuses. And at Barnard, you know, we’ve always had an orientation that, first of all the tuition even for the full pay students doesn’t pay for their education, it’s subsidized some. And more so that for those students who are not have means we essentially want to support them to be on campus.

So Barnard is need blind. We meet full financial need. And we end up spending a considerable amount of money on financial aid just to support our students. And so the idea really is that we are providing, and product and experience that all students can take part on, and that we’re supporting students who don’t have the opportunity or the ability to pay for it to be on campus. And I think that’s something that’s really special.

At Barnard this year, we actually are adding a third semester. Students of course, pay for two semesters, but they have the ability to take three this year and our hope is that they can all be on campus for at least two of those semesters if they need be. But we hope they take classes across three semesters.

Leonard Schlesinger: Great. And Adam, how did the cost issues work for you? And how do you talk about him and edX?

Adam Medros: With a mission of increasing access, you can break that sort of idea of access down into some components like affordability and availability, so being able to time shift, modularity, so being able to take pieces of a degree and break them into parts.

You see this happening at the master’s degree level. Moving master’s degrees online is actually expanding the market because of the lower price and because of the modularity and the availability changes there. We’ve launched a program called MicroBachelor’s. MicroBachelor’s is not, it’s not targeted to 18-year-olds. It’s targeted to 35-year-olds who don’t have bachelor’s degrees. And because of that, it’s designed to be a modular program for them to be able to build up about the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree while they’re working over a number of years. And at a price point that probably is more in line with that target audience than then a four-year degree from Dartmouth, my alma mater, or Harvard, or Barnard. The HBS person in me wants to say, “Hey, look, the market will bear whatever the market will bear in terms of pricing for elite, or name brand universities.” But I think the answer to that is way more complex.

Leonard Schlesinger: Oftentimes as we think about higher education, is how the faculty breaks out on this. I’d be intrigued Sian, if you could actually talk a little bit more about your faculty, both demographically and age wise. There’s a notion that somehow there’s a portfolio of younger PhDs who are more technologically savvy, who are incredibly enthusiastic about these changes, who gravitated towards all the things that were going on, and a few other people who probably were going at it a little more slowly and some who have to be dragged and kicked into. How did the breakdown work for the school?

Sian Beilock: It really was an ideology that we are going to support our faculty to make these changes. So we invested several million dollars in technology support for our faculty as they went online. We have a Center for Teaching and Learning that has been essentially supporting and running workshops with our faculty, not as much about the plug and play or how to use the technology, which is important, but it’s really about how you can adapt your content to these different modes of learning. And there’s no question learning in a classroom is different than learning online. The goal was not just to have faculty just transfer their class and speak it into a screen. The goal was to say, “Hey, how can we be flexible in what the challenges that have brought us and really change how we’re engaging our students? How they’re learning? How we’re delivering content? The kind of content we’re doing?” And we couldn’t have gotten our faculty there unless we put the support structures in place.

So we have a huge investment. We put a huge investment in the last six months into different technology. Studios to allow faculty to record lectures or interact with others in different ways that support, but also into folks who can help and support faculty and thinking differently about their pedagogy.

Adam Medros: Yeah, I think if there’s been a benefit to coronavirus, right it seems strange to use the word benefit and coronavirus together but, in the terms of online teaching, online learning, the attention it’s brought to the the what it takes to build quality online learning experiences. And I think that it’s been both a positive that by being forced to adopt online teaching, a number of faculty and a number of institutions that before now, we’re really opposed to the idea of bringing a class online or teaching a class online, we’re forced to try it. And we’re forced to one, in some cases, realize that it actually can be quite engaging.

And we’ve heard comments from faculty members who were previously adamantly opposed to it who said, “That was the most engaged session I’ve ever run of that class, because there was a chat room because there were tools to be able to sort of both present the material and engage on the material.” But I think that like, what we’re gonna see is this kickstart, all that investment in things like instructional design, and high quality teaching, as well as and this…this is going to be controversial. Universities asking the question of like, “Well, why do I want to rebuild that class when I can take another university’s version of that class? Effectively a digital textbook. And I will teach against that material.”

One of the things that we’ve launched, as part of this pandemic has been what we call online campus, and online campus is an opportunity for a university to come in and actually have access for its students to our catalog. So you could imagine saying, “Well, I don’t have time to build a computer science, intro to computer science course, I’m going to use Harvard’s CS50 course as my course material, but I’m going to teach against that material as opposed to that material as a stand in for me.” And I think that’s going to kickstart this real revolution in editing and mixing content in the same way you mix source material today in a traditional classroom through literature, books and articles and things like that.

Leonard Schlesinger: But the real question that sits before us, are we dealing with just a temporary dislocation? Or are we dealing with fundamental changes both in the nature of residentially-based education and the nature of technology-based education?

Sian Beilock: Well, I’ll just start and say, I really don’t think it’s an either/or. Many of us have had really powerful college experiences. Bernard had 9,600 applications for 600 spots last year. There’s something powerful about that residential experience. We are successful in helping our students go off and take their first step in jobs or in graduate school. It’s pretty great to launch them into the world and these women into the world in this way. But this opens up opportunities.

For us, we’re thinking a lot about how we do alumni university, how we think about extending a lot of what we’re doing to our 35,000 alumni who graduated from Barnard who are not in New York City. We’re thinking a lot about pre-college and about access. One of the principles that Barnard operates around is this idea that you can’t have academic excellence without a diversity of experiences and views. And we know that a class of 600 is not enough to capture all the talent out there. So how could we use online education to work with pre-college students to introduce students and help educate them about what the value of a four-year degree looks like? Or how you even fill out your financial aid application? I think there’s really power for us to take some of what we’ve done and open it up broader, and I’m really excited about that.

Adam Medros: Yeah, I think, I think in the very near term, what you’re going to see is online education as a defensive mechanism, right? Schools are going to have to have a backup plan. You’re already seeing this with the fall and who knows what the future brings in terms of when this pandemic ends, whether another pandemic comes. So schools are going to have to adopt some sort of online strategy as a backup defense plan. But I think what they’re then going to find is that schools like MIT that have made online a big part of residential have found that it actually increases the efficacy of teaching, right? It reduces stress levels. And so we’re going to move into this world of true blended education where you’re going to see an online component, I think, as part of on-campus.

And I think that will eventually lead us, whether it’s 36 months or whether it’s 60 months from now, you’re going to see this more modular approach to education. Again, maybe not at all universities were where different universities are offering different experiences, but I imagine that we’re going to see a growing number of students want to have some combination of in classroom social, face-to-face instruction, online, coupled with work experience, and that’s going to solve this, this myriad of challenges we have particularly in the US around student debt. The dropout rate or the failure rate of people in college. And this, this constant question of like, is college preparing people for the jobs that need to be done in the workforce today, and so I think that online plays a huge part in solving all those things, as well as the the other items around ongoing connectedness to your alma mater, that is top of mind for any university president.

Leonard Schlesinger: So I am thrilled that you gave us the opportunity to get a taste of this from two very different perspectives. Thanks so much for the opportunity.


Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Len, Sian, and Adam for speaking at our Charting the Future Event. Our podcast will return on a weekly basis in 2021. Until then, you can check out exclusive, web-only content at Subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you listen to podcasts for more bonus episodes. As always, thanks for listening, stay safe, and we’ll see you soon.