Higher Education Was Already Ripe for Disruption. Then, COVID-19 Happened.

Back in the spring, when COVID-19 was emerging around the world and leading to widespread shutdowns, schools at all levels had to adapt quickly. Classes went online. Students were sent home. Everyone did their best to get comfortable with teaching and learning over video conferencing apps like Zoom.

At first, the hope was that this forced experiment in distance learning-for-all, undertaken at breakneck speed, would be short-lived. Schools in the U.S. finished out their spring semesters online, and celebrated their graduates with virtual commencements. But now, it’s unclear just how short-lived that experiment will be. Many American universities are online only for the fall 2020 semester (at least); others, like CMU, are opting for a hybrid model of in-person and online.

Heinz College professors Pedro Ferreira and Michael D. Smith have spent years examining the impacts of technology on fields such as entertainment and digital media. They believe trends toward digitization and customization in education have sped up, making way for a new normal. After the pandemic, we may never go back to the way things were.

Smith, J. Erik Jonsson Professor of Information Technology and Marketing, suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing.

“There’s this assumption that the best way people learn is by sitting quietly in a class for 80 minutes at a time, and then regurgitating facts every four weeks on exams,” said Smith. “In fact, that’s not how most people learn. I hope that we can take these disruptions — and this need to embrace technology in new ways — as an opportunity to open up education to people who learn differently.”

Students who are shier about participating in class may be less shy in a video call or chat setting, for example. Learning online requires everyone to reimagine what class participation and interaction looks like, which can facilitate different discussions than might have happened in-person.

Ferreira, associate professor of information systems, remarked that many students and faculty were concerned when the pandemic began that online learning would flatten the experience and reduce the interactivity that makes classrooms so dynamic. After a few months, however, many found that they preferred the online format for various reasons.

“In many settings there’s actually more interaction,” said Ferreira. “If a student team is presenting work, usually you would need to interrupt the presentation to ask a question. Now, we’ve seen that audience members can submit questions via chat features and get answers from other team members who aren’t speaking at that moment. And that happens on the fly.”

Ferreira pointed out that the role of teaching assistants has evolved similarly in many classrooms, with TAs tasked with monitoring chat threads during class, answering questions submitted by students and providing real-time feedback to the instructor if something needs to be clarified. He mentions that many educators are opting for blended courses that pair asynchronous lectures that students can watch and re-watch on-demand with synchronous discussion and problem-solving sessions that maximize interaction and dialogue by bringing the whole class together online at one time.

The flexibility of that kind of format works very well for some — but attention still needs to be paid to students who may struggle with the online setting or feel isolated.

“Flexibility does not necessarily equate to better performance,” said Ferreira, indicating that without the structure of the classroom, greater pressure is placed on students’ ability to optimize and manage their time, which could advantage some students over others.


As more and more educational content is pushed online from professors and universities alike, Ferreira and Smith believe we are headed toward a world where academics mix and match course content to create knowledge on-demand and allow students to design their own curriculum. For some, that may sound ideal, but students will need help choosing the content that will best suit their goals and build their competencies the way they intend.

“In a world where we have an explosion of content, which courses are the right courses to take? Students will need guidance for that,” said Ferreira.

He believes we are on the verge of witnessing a never-before-seen level of personalization in education, and that recommender systems will have a huge role to play. Ferreira is an expert in recommender systems, like the algorithms that make recommendations to online shoppers or movie streamers — but he cautions that in the context of education, recommender systems must solve a completely different problem.

“There’s a difference between a video you’ll like and a video you’ll learn from,” said Ferreira. “We need to put people in front of different content, assess whether they’re learning, and improve these recommender systems in a way that allows them to best guide individual students.”

Smith suggests it’s exactly the kind of problem online networks are well-suited to solve: creating more choice, more interactivity and more customization. At the same time, the quality and overall experience of online learning will continue to improve (Zoom was not created to be a distance learning platform, after all). As that happens, the traditional modes of educational delivery may be questioned in some fundamental ways — a shift that universities will have to prepare for, or they could be threatened by start-ups that enter the space with innovative options.

“Once someone invests the fixed costs and creative energy necessary to create, for example, a highly-produced and engaging Intro to Computer Science course and puts it online where anyone can access it, do we need 1,600 other people teaching Intro to Computer Science? That’s the shift we’re about to face in higher ed,” said Smith.

“In a world where the class was taught locally, we needed 5,000 local colleges and universities to deliver that content. When it goes online, we’re going to see economies of scale change how that looks.”


In a recent article published in The Atlantic, Smith suggested that the relative stability of higher education and its place in the economic feedback loop created an industry plagued by overconfidence, overpricing and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world.

“We can’t imagine that ‘our’ students would ever want to take a DIY approach to their education instead of paying us for the privilege of learning in our hallowed halls. We can’t imagine ‘our’ employers hiring someone who doesn’t have one of our respected degrees. But we’re going to have to start thinking differently,” wrote Smith.

Both Smith and Ferreira voice concern that fully online models of education can exacerbate existing inequalities — such as who has access to technology.

However, as Smith notes, “our current system of selecting who gets into college has significant social and economic barriers, too.” With the right approach, Smith believes the shift toward more personalized online education options will improve accessibility and optimize the experience in a number of ways, including cost.

Of course, change won’t happen all at once, and hurdles remain such as accreditation.

“When recommender systems get involved [in creating a curriculum from online sources], what do we accredit? The algorithm?” asked Ferreira. Credentialing bodies may resist the formation of non-traditional educational products and formats that challenge their existing models. And while regulatory barriers can be great for incumbents by protecting the status quo, it doesn’t make them invulnerable. After all, some large employers have already expanded their training programs to include post-secondary credentials. While a specialized training credential is not a substitute for an interdisciplinary academic program, it’s a trend that could accelerate due to the pandemic.

Smith’s take is that universities stand the best chance if they embrace change and stay true to their foundational mission.

“Let’s make sure we don’t screw this up,” he said. “The whole engine of higher education is to help individuals find their talents and develop those talents so they can use them to the service of society. And if there’s anybody we’re leaving out of that equation, it’s not just bad for them, it’s also bad for society.

“I think we could create a system that’s much more open, inclusive, and available and allow people who’d previously been excluded to participate. That should be the goal in all this, not protecting an old business model.”

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