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Expect Even Bigger Changes Ahead

COVID-19 hastened large-scale digital transformation in business schools—now we need pandemic-independent innovations that respond to global trends.

To say that education is in a state of transformation is a pandemic-sized understatement. Overnight, entire educational systems have migrated from analog to digital classrooms; suddenly, more than one billion students worldwide are studying online. And yet, a year into the pandemic, one question lingers: Will the future bring more of the same? Now that COVID-19 vaccines have shown us some light at the end of the tunnel, this question looms even larger.

While the pandemic has forced many universities to look inward, we now must take the opposite approach. After interviewing dozens of industry executives on their predictions for the future workforce, we have come to two conclusions: First, our “old normal” is forever gone. The world’s adaptations to the pandemic, higher education’s innovation, and underlying societal trends will converge to create a dramatically different model of learning.

And, second, the transformation ahead for higher education will be even more profound than we expect. We all will need to change what we do and how we do it. 

Our collective future will be shaped by several clear emerging trends, in education and in society. If we are to be ready for the future of higher education, we must be proactive. We must design our programs with that future in mind today.

Ongoing Changes in Society

Although the pandemic brought about a rapid transformation of higher education, much of this transformation was already underway. In fact, for years, we have been watching forces change our society—and our classrooms—in several fundamental areas:

Our notions of self and our interactions with others. Today, due to our use of social media and other technology, we are no longer just humans—we each have become our own digital brands. Furthermore, when it comes to social bonding, we no longer draw sharp distinctions between our friends in the physical world and our “friends” online.

Our ability to focus and our consumption of content. With so many sources of information available to us, our attention spans have been reduced to mere seconds, which means that we are spending more time consuming short-form content generated by social media influencers. But it would be a mistake to view these influencers solely as entertainers—for many people, they are now resources, role models, movement leaders, and even educators.

With so many sources of information available to us, our attention spans have been reduced to mere seconds, which means that we are spending more time consuming short-form content generated by social media influencers.

Our conception of the world. In the past, we largely would have grown up with local mindsets, expanding our worldviews over time. But today, we are global from day one. We don’t even need passports—we “travel” abroad daily as we consume international resources through the internet and access international music and video collections through our streaming services. Students today are twice as likely to have studied or worked abroad than students 20 years ago. In today’s world, if we want our institutions to be “future-proof,” we must also make them “global-proof”—that is, we must make sure we remain responsive to global social, political, and economic trends.

Our workplace. At work, we are being asked to do more, better, faster. We are being inspired and challenged to innovate, and we are being told that anything is possible. But at the same time, we fear that automation will take over our jobs. With our sense of job security threatened, many of us are changing jobs with increasing frequency. As a result, students will ask significantly more from their universities, in terms of career preparation and ongoing support.

Ongoing Changes in Education

Yes, COVID-19 has accelerated the growing acceptance of online education, making virtual learning the new dominant mode of course design. Online course delivery offers many important advantages to students, such as greater convenience, more variability, and lower cost. But for the best learning outcomes, human beings also need immersive, engaging, and dynamic educational experiences—preferably within groups.

Technology has yet to demonstrate the ability to deliver such experiences effectively, so we will need to build a new educational system that provides the immersive educational experiences students desire. As we do so, we should be informed by five overarching trends:

Edutainment is the new standard. Some of the best educational content comes in the form of edutainment. Think of Bill Nye the Science Guy or the NOVA docuseries. Today, standalone YouTubers command more mindshare than entire school systems.

It has become “showtime” in our own virtual classrooms. As one example, Harvard Business School has converted a television studio into a high-end online classroom; students from all over the world log in to dissect real-life business situations, while the professor moderates comments from the virtual audience. We can either fight this trend—a tall task—or adjust to it.

It will be increasingly necessary for educators to spark and engage students’ passions—and link those passions to learning. Only then will students get excited about becoming lifelong learners.

Passion-driven learning is key. It will be increasingly necessary for educators to spark and engage students’ passions—and link those passions to learning. Only then will students get excited about becoming lifelong learners. We already are seeing business schools embrace this mindset, such as Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden and emlyon business school in France, teaching, for example, accounting or the role of soft power for marketing through the lens of sports.

Celebrity can effectively capture learners’ attention. One way that educators are making students more passionate about learning is to make celebrity role models more central to the curriculum. We can see this approach being successfully adopted by enterprising companies such as MasterClass, a subscription-based service that offers learners access to courses delivered by well-known experts from every arena, from chef Gordan Ramsay to television producer Shonda Rhimes.

As social media channels give students round-the-clock access to the lives of athletes and other celebrities, students will often view these figures as authentic, influential, and worthy of trust. With that in mind, we might use examples such as tennis star Serena Williams, NFL quarterback Tom Brady, or NBA forward Dirk Nowitzki to get students excited about developing their leadership skills.

Experiential learning is essential. People learn better when they have opportunities to apply their knowledge in real-life scenarios, receive immediate feedback, and attain industry-specific skills. For example, students enrolled in a master’s-level strategy course at WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management in Düsseldorf, Germany, conduct field studies on strategy in professional football. Under the guidance of industry leaders, they can apply state-of-the-art practices in real-life cases.

Artificial intelligence and gamification make individualized learning more scalable. These technologies enable instructors to closely track a student’s learning progression and provide more frequent, targeted feedback.

Some providers already have invested in technologies that allow their instructors to deliver personalized learning to larger numbers of students. These include Minerva Project with its Forum Learning Environment; IE Business School with its “Window on the World” (or WOW) virtual classroom; and Stanford University and its use of the virtual platform VirBELA. In the Forum and WOW room, faculty have access to real-time data on student participation, which they can use to provide more individualized instruction. Platforms like VirBELA allow faculty to incorporate gamification techniques that continuously motivate learners with performance-based rewards.

Innovation communities are becoming models for lifelong learning. These virtual collaboration networks are often global, informal, and decentralized. One good example of an innovation community is Patient Innovation, a hub where patients can share solutions that have improved their health conditions. Innovation communities are effective because they not only align people around common causes and complementary skill sets, but also allow them to learn and apply new knowledge more quickly than they could on their own.

Educators could integrate innovation communities into their courses by coaching their students through real-life projects on globally distributed teams. A decade from now, students might not remember the assignments they worked on, but they might still work with the same passion-driven learning cohort.

Designing Our Future—Today

The global pandemic has provided us with unique opportunities to adapt our programs to a new reality. We now must take stock of what we have learned, so that we can design learning experiences that are far more human-centric than they have ever been before.

If we do not continue to innovate with the trends above in mind, the future of education will be designed for us, not by us. We may not like the outcome.

Erdin Beshimov of MIT Open LearningErdin Beshimov is a senior director at MIT Open Learning and founder of MIT Bootcamps at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

TC Haldi of MIT Open LearningTC Haldi is a senior director at MIT Open Learning and leads MIT xPRO.

Sascha L. Schmidt of WHU-Otto Beisheim School of ManagementSascha L. Schmidt is professor and director of the Center for Sports and Management at WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Sebastian Flegr is a research assistant at WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management.