Mark Kennedy.

Mark Kennedy. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The pandemic has accelerated digital forces that were in motion, disrupting most every activity and institution, including higher education. COVID-19 is not altering the direction of seismic trends driving the need for change as much as it is magnifying them. Individuals, organizations and states that are able to pivot quickly will succeed in the future. For institutions such as CU, that means embracing a model that blends the best of online education technology with the on-campus experience.

Trends that were evident before the pandemic will be of heightened importance when we emerge from it, including technological advances and the rise of the experience economy.

As technology continues to accelerate during the Fourth Industrial Revolution, some suggest nearly half of today’s jobs could be automated within a decade, requiring nearly one-third of workers to prepare for a new career. Nearly everyone will need to be a lifelong learner.

Because research universities are sources of innovation that lead to new industries and jobs, places like CU will be even more essential to the future of Colorado and its citizens. The Fourth Industrial Revolution’s convergence of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, machine learning, quantum computing, 3D printing, 5G data transmission and other technologies is fundamentally changing our world.

The news that 3D printing is helping address the shortage of protective masks is just one of many examples of the revolution picking up steam.

We moved from a service economy to an experience economy long ago. You pay more for the experience of a cup of coffee at Starbucks than one from a vending machine. The experience economy favors places like Colorado, which offers the experience of living among mountains, blue skies and an invigorating climate, as well as the open, optimistic spirit of the West.

While the quality of the online educational experience has improved, people also yearn for a genuine in-person experience, in education and other activities. Each approach has its place.

Higher education enrollments have declined on campuses and increased online over the past decade. Increasingly, students find it beneficial to mix on-campus and online courses. Innovative professors have progressively incorporated digital components into on-campus courses. This has blurred the lines between the two.

Adaptive digital tools can transmit knowledge in ways that recognize what each student knows, what they don’t and which learning style suits them best.

Students increasingly prefer this to traditional lectures that do not account for such individuality. Conversely, digital platforms might never match the in-person experience of facilitated dialogue and debate. Each has its place.

Universities that orchestrate the optimal combination of online and on campus teaching will be the most appealing, given the accelerated advances of digital and the heightened focus on experience. We must meet students where they are, building on what they know, in ways that are responsive to their learning styles and stages in life. Doing so will advance their understanding as well as their careers, or allow them to change careers. That is our mission.

As we consider how we might open our campuses in the fall, we are exploring a hybrid of on-campus and online experiences. This should not be viewed as a compromise for the moment. It is the continuation of a trend that only accelerates the adaptation of results that would have eventually occurred, spurred by the pandemic push.

In the post-pandemic new normal, it will not be on campus or online, but instead on campus and online, with digitally delivered segments of on-campus courses, and on-campus and online courses within degrees.

Just as the pandemic has accelerated our embrace of digital tools, from video conferencing to online shopping, so too has it quickened innovation across education. Higher education is adapting. We are changing. Yet this change requires investments in technology and adapting instruction, even as our revenue streams become more uncertain. When the pandemic lifts, the future of the state’s vitality and the preparedness of its citizens for the new reality will depend on a robust higher education system. If we keep that in mind today, we will thank ourselves in the future.

Mark Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado.

Mark Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado.

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