The Evolution of Online & On-Campus Education

July 21, 2020

This spring, universities around the globe were faced with a difficult situation: how to respond to a sudden global pandemic. Barnard College, situated in a coronavirus hot spot in New York City, pivoted to online classes and closed dorms in March of 2020. Now, its faculty and administrators must face the new challenge of reimagining the fall semester.

“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,” said President Sian Beilock. “We [the administration and faculty] said we need to work as a team. We need to think about the curriculum, how we’re teaching, how we’re delivering.”

As of July 2020, Barnard will make many classes “high-flex,” or available in classrooms and online simultaneously. Students traveling outside of the tri-state area for Thanksgiving will not be able to return to the dorms afterward. And all students, faculty, and staff will be required to participate in regular COVID-19 tests, according to the college’s website.

Beilock discussed these changes and others during a keynote session at InnoLead’s Charting the Future of Corporate Innovation online conference. Adam Medros, President and Co-CEO of edX, also shared how the educational landscape is changing.

Harvard Business School Professor Leonard Schlesinger, formerly President of Babson College, moderated the conversation.

Focuses for the Fall

While technology has been a large part of Barnard’s reaction to COVID-19, Beilock said that the curriculum must also shift to focus on the challenges of today. “All of our first-year students will be taking a class focused on the big problems of 2020,” she said. “And they’ll be able to take that class whether they’re on campus or remote across the world.”

Students will also be connected with practitioners that focus on these challenges in the real world, allowing them to work collaboratively on projects.

Meanwhile, the team at edX already knows the ins and outs of online education. The organization offers online courses from over 140 universities, including MIT and Harvard. Their team, according to Medros, is focusing on connecting people looking to learn with their wide range of offerings, including “MicroBachelors” and “MicroMasters” degrees.

“Our effort is really to make people aware that these resources exist…that can help people build their careers that can help them learn something that they’re interested in to help them build their critical thinking skills,” Medros said.

Making the Experience Match the Price

Even in the midst of a global pandemic and recession, the price of college continues to increase. At Barnard, tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year increased 4.8 percent from the year prior. However, students have the option of participating in an extra semester of programming without an additional fee.

“We actually are adding a third semester — where students pay for two semesters, but they have the ability to take three this year,” Beilock said. “Our hope is that they can all be on campus for at least two of those semesters…but we hope they take classes across three semesters.”

edX’s online format reduces the price of education in hopes of increasing access to college-level courses, according to Medros. He pointed to online master’s degrees as an example.

His team has developed a program called “MicroBachelors,” which uses a similar format. “It’s targeted to 35-year-olds who don’t have bachelor’s degrees,” Medros said. “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 [the] price point…is more in line with that target audience than a four-year degree from [a private university].”

What Changes Will Persist

While many things have changed in 2020, Beilock said young adult students remain interested in having a residential experience. According to Beilock, this year the college had 9,600 applications for 600 spots. However, access to education and diversity have become big, lasting focuses for her team. “You can’t have academic excellence without a diversity of experiences and views,” she said.

Additionally, her team is looking into online education opportunities geared towards prospective applicants in high school. These courses could walk through the value of a four-year degree, she suggests, or how to fill out financial aid forms.

While attending class in-person will continue to have value, Medros speculated that many universities may develop a blended approach. “In the very near-term, what you’re going to see is online education…as a defensive mechanism,” he said. “Who knows what the future brings, in terms of when this pandemic ends, [and] whether another pandemic comes.”

Medros said that some aspects of online learning, like the ability to have a flexible schedule or reduced cost, are likely to gain momentum.

“I imagine that we’re going to see a growing number of students want to have some combination of in-classroom social [engagement, with]…instruction online, coupled with work experience,” Medros said, “and that’s going to solve this myriad of challenges we have — particularly in the US around student debt, the dropout rate, or the failure rate of people in college.”