How COVID-19 Is Transforming the Coming Academic Year for Higher Education Institutions

The burgeoning Covid-19 crisis is creating a new and challenging environment for higher education institutions as the new academic year rapidly approaches. As with virtually every other business or organization, you can think of—from retail outlets and restaurants to transportation, hospitality, sports, healthcare, and countless others—universities and other learning institutions must find innovative ways to get students back to the books in the safest manner possible. That means experimenting with online classes as an alternative means of instruction and evaluating how to potentially allow students, faculty, and staff back on campus. 

Reopening Higher Ed is a Complex Undertaking

Reopening higher education institutions can be a highly complex undertaking, not unlike opening a small city, according to a recent McKinsey report. Campuses have highly diverse student, faculty, and staff populations—each spanning different ages, health conditions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and other considerations. Close interaction between students (who may be at lower risk or potentially asymptomatic with Covid-19) and staff and faculty (who are generally older and may be at higher risk) is a problem that must be addressed and evaluated. And in campus life, there is a wide range of activities through which these groups interact—including instruction, housing, eating, research, sports, and much more. 

There are general guidelines in use that most people are quite familiar with already that can help reduce the spread of the virus, including social distancing, self-isolation protocols, wearing masks when in public, and restricting indoor dining and drinking. Higher education institutions that will have thousands of students back on campus will need to design ways to encourage and even monitor student behavior to mitigate the risk of passing infection on to others and creating a potentially bigger health crisis.  

The Need for Testing and Contact Tracing

Universities are investigating new ways to keep students safe, and that includes Covid-19 testing. The CDC released an interim set of considerations on the appropriate use of testing for institutions of higher education. There are several types of Covid-19 tests that have been approved or authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the CDC notes that testing is just one component of a more comprehensive reopening plan that should include safe social behaviors, maintaining healthy campus environments and operations, and knowing how to handle cases where someone does get sick. 

In addition to testing, the CDC recommends Covid-19 contact tracing whereby individuals who had contact with an infected person are identified and contacted. Contact tracing can be a complicated endeavor for universities with so much potential interaction between people, and guidelines must be created to ensure privacy and confidentiality that is consistent with laws and regulations. Universities will need to build viable plans to address all of these issues in advance of fully re-opening. 

Schools Turn to Digital Learning

To help keep everyone safe, online instruction is becoming the default option for the coming school year at many higher education institutions. Like most other businesses and organizations, universities are making the most out of the current challenging environment as they try to balance safety of students, faculty, and staff—while still staying true to their high standards of learning and education. What higher education institutions have had to adopt out of necessity can indeed become a new area of strength. 

Some students will actually find that online classes fit their learning style better than traditional classroom instruction, at least in some subjects and courses. Higher education institutions that embrace the prospect of online classes as a regular part of their curricula will have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining students. 

To be successful in this new era, they will need to remember a few key things. First, the most effective online classes cannot merely be traditional classes presented online. The course syllabus, lectures, labs, exercises, and peer interactions all must be re-designed for an online delivery model. Digital classes should also be designed and delivered in a highly effective, highly-engaging manner by instructors that know how to present online. 

The Impact of Blending Learning Models

As universities adapt to this new environment, they can turn to “blended learning” techniques that have a proven track record of effectiveness and student satisfaction. The blended learning model combines comprehensive learning paths, high-touch engagement between instructors and students, hands-on labs and projects, and a flexible, modular approach to let students decide which courses they want to take along the learning path. 

Online learning leaders like Simplilearn can show organizations how to select certain courses and turn them into a highly successful online bootcamp format—one they can offer to alumni as well as current students. The Simplilearn model provides for maximum learner engagement with the material at a pace that maintains learner enthusiasm.

For schools of engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, and business, the courses in Simplilearn’s catalog closely match a number of courses in respective institutions’ existing catalogs. Simplilearn has created joint programs and catalog sharing partnerships with a number of institutions, including Purdue University, Duke University, and California Institute of Technology’s (CalTech) Center for Technology and Management Education.

An added appeal of adding these online courses in the digital bootcamp format is that they are ideal for working professionals seeking new skills and continuing education. That makes them attractive to an institution’s alumni, so they are a great way to preserve and deepen the lifelong relationships the institution has with its alumni.

Get a Head Start and Plan Today

Nobody knows how long the need for social distancing and self-isolation will last as the world fights the Covid-19 pandemic. Some learning institutions might stick with online teaching for the foreseeable future, and others might develop a hybrid approach (with some in-person classes) if deemed safe. Be sure to plan your strategy now to ensure that you’re fully prepared for Fall 2020 and beyond. 

Further, if you are an employer that needs to upskill your current and prospective employees, chich out Simplilearn’s corporate training programs to help you get through these unprecedented times.

About the Author

Stuart RauchStuart Rauch

Stuart Rauch is a 25-year product marketing veteran and president of ContentBox Marketing Inc. He has run marketing organizations at several enterprise software companies, including NetSuite, Oracle, PeopleSoft, EVault and Secure Computing. Stuart is a specialist in content development and brings a unique blend of creativity, linguistic acumen and product knowledge to his clients in the technology space.

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