Higher Ed in the News: 9/21

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News, a high-level look at the state of online education and how schools are responding to calls for improved equity. You can read previous editions of this series here and here.


With no other choice, higher ed is finally embracing technology

We’re in the midst of a technological evolution that has accelerated to lightspeed since COVID-19 changed the world. A recent Ed Surge article by Debora Spar, Senior Associate Dean of Harvard Business School Online, reveals what this intense transition has taught us about online education and what the lasting shift to digital learning could mean for the future.

Over the last six months, schools have had to learn by doing as they adapted coursework for a virtual environment. They’ve found out that formal lectures and office hours translate fairly well through Zoom, while labs and similar formats require new adaptations. And while video conferencing platforms have certainly helped connect us during social distancing, they have also introduced a variety of new distractions to the classroom. (Check out our tipsheet on Zoom fatigue for more on this topic.)

As colleges and universities invest more in technological enhancements for online education, the consequences for their students, faculty, and other schools will be significant, Spar writes. For students, increased access to courses led by renowned instructors and less expensive, more convenient options from traditional institutions could improve equity significantly. 

For faculty, it may lead to challenges, as colleges will be able to reach more students with fewer instructors, thanks to scaling and asynchronous course construction, and are likely to downsize their staff as a result. Those who work at schools who fail to evolve and continue to rely on traditional in-person instruction will be at risk of losing their jobs as well, since those institutions are likely to be out-maneuvered by tech-savvy schools rewriting the educational boundaries previously defined by space and time. While it’s clear the best time for higher education to embrace technology was a long time ago, the next-best time appears to be right now.


Taking action against inequality, for real

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing movement for social justice has further exposed the deep inequalities in America based on race, income, and education level. While the virus itself impacts people of color in the United States hardest, the economic impacts of the pandemic are also more likely to hurt them as well. This, some believe, could “intensify the job-displacing trends.”

With the importance of higher education likely to increase, the authors of an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed call for college, industry, and policy leaders to create a new academic model and system to support students of all races and economic backgrounds. “Underrepresented students” degree paths and career or earning aspirations often don’t align, which negatively impacts opportunity for diverse students in fields like STEM, health, and business.

The authors believe colleges need to do a better job of helping both low-income students and students of color “link their interests to a larger career and personal purpose.” 

One example of strong action against this inequality is at the University of Chicago, where the English department will only admit graduate students pursuing Black studies. The school cited the culpability of English disciplines in “providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction and anti-Blackness,” and also “developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.”

Their hope is that their program can play a role in undoing the historic anti-black nature in the discipline and also help build a better connection to the south side of Chicago, where the university has a “complicated history.”