COVID has quickened a digital day of reckoning for higher education

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It was inevitable. The visionaries who developed the web likely saw the possibilities early on. The University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University were among the first movers. At least a decade ago the challenge become obvious to the rest of higher education as the finest universities in the country started putting their course offering online in various ways. Then some traditional institutions like Arizona State University went all in.

Online vs. residential education had become a real choice for students seeking higher education.

The initial focus of online learning in higher education was nontraditional students: working or older adults and those who might want to dabble but were not necessarily pursuing a degree. The vast majority of traditionally aged undergraduates rarely explored their online options, in part because most traditional undergraduate institutions continued to focus their efforts on residential experiences.

Then came COVID-19. The worldwide pandemic has obviously shocked and challenged higher education. It forced an abrupt change in the educational model as faculty and students were forced off campus and online, often in the middle of spring semester. This external shock required all concerned to adjust to a very different mode of teaching and learning — in most cases against their wishes and with decidedly mixed results.

As the pandemic continued into the new academic year, a significant majority of undergraduate institutions have continued to offer online options or at least a hybrid model that combines some teaching face-to-face and some online. Schools who welcomed students back to campus have, in the interests of safety, fundamentally changed the residential experience by limiting activities, requiring masks and social distancing, and implementing draconian changes in classroom interactions. Additionally, virtually every school has contingency plans in place to respond quickly to changes in the public