Lead courses
Universities bring about some needed changes to their strategies post-pandemic - and they seem to be working. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) presents an immersive VR experience called ‘The Enemy’ through its Media Lab. It invites the visitor to experience firsthand, through 360-degree imaging, the testimony of soldiers from both sides of conflicts.

In Canada, the McGill Symphony Orchestra has musicians coming together virtually for rehearsals, and has entirely reprogrammed their season as a virtual experience. On an even grander scale, the Savannah School of Art and Design sent Google Cardboard VR headsets to the 30,000 newly admitted students so they could take a virtual tour of the campus.

The seismic impact of Covid on life in universities has catalyzed great evolution in the higher education landscape. Innovation in learning technologies is being leveraged to support increasingly hybrid learning models that will remain front and center.

Five faces of change

Shift in digital pedagogy

Instead of the passive, lecture-based learning, technology is being harnessed to improve learning by engaging students with hands-on, project-based approaches. A dynamic example would be that of a business professor who designs cogent what-if scenarios that are responsive to student input. Another would be that of a music professor who reveals detailed sheet music annotations in sync with a recorded performance.

In response to the critical need to move beyond the Zoom format of online education, the virtual ecosystem is expanding, breaking away from the constraints of a computer to interact with the physical world through augmented reality, harnessing real-world smart objects, such as smart whiteboards and smart assistants.

Gamification is also fast gaining traction–by designing lectures as a game, educators encourage students to accomplish various goals, whilst promoting knowledge retention. Notably, the University of Washington created a video game called ‘Foldit’ for the College of Engineering – a protein-folding software.

Participants in the game identify different ways to perfectly fold a selected protein structure, and competitively deduce all possible protein shapes. This information has been used to research different diseases and create biological innovations to combat toxic waste accumulation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Applied learning emphasis

Expect hands-on experience to be a cardinal component of their undergraduate studies. Many universities have incorporated project-based, client-facing work assignments, consultancy projects, and mandatory internships to give students a head start in their careers, well before they graduate.

According to a report from the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers), less than 40 per cent of US graduates who received a job offer before graduation did not have any internship or co-op experience. Employers value students who have not just applied their knowledge to get desirable grades, but have harnessed it to complete a needed, productive task.

Inter-disciplinary problem solving

The STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) movement has been growing, and is being universally recognized as a positive educational solution to truly treat the needs of a post-pandemic economy. When skills embedded in the arts and humanities are incorporated into traditional STEM courses, students are able to connect their work with real-life problems facing their communities.

Competition is increasing

The US’s most selective four-year institutions, private and public, witnessed an unprecedented 17 per cent increase in applications last year. While universities with more than 20,000 students saw the biggest jumps, small liberal arts colleges also received a windfall, with applications to Swarthmore College and Haverford College increasing by 12 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively. Strikingly, the University of California system saw freshman applications increase by 28 per cent, most likely on account of the state schools’ suspension of SAT and ACT consideration.

In 2022, college applications are expected to continue rebound from the pandemic slump. College waitlists are expected to be active over the course of the coming months – a strategy by universities to protect their yield. In order to maximize and protect their yield, colleges will want to accept very few students who do not actually plan on attending.

Thus, an essential consideration for students (especially those setting their sights on elite universities) is the demonstration of interest. Just one’s GPA and test scores are not convincing on their own; emails to admissions counselors, mailing list registrations, thorough college research, and campus visits are variables that convince colleges of students’ desire to attend.

Testing in admissions

Many admissions officers are vocal about the experiment ignoring test scores extending well beyond the coronavirus crisis. Several Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have stated they will not require test scores even for next year’s applicants, most of whom are currently high school juniors.

Without tests, however, an admissions officers’ gaze is very likely to fall upon course rigor. With critical examination of the student’s high school curriculum, he or she will be assessed on the kinds of academic challenges they shouldered.

Undoubtedly, 2022 will witness education having its watershed moment. After two tumultuous years of unimaginable change and discovery, universities are focused on a powerful, singular outcome – giving students personalized, intentional educational outcomes that connect them to meaningful career opportunities.

With students questioning the value of their education and the exponentially widening employment-skill gap, the onus falls squarely upon higher education to solve the problem. The vehicles of technology-infused instruction, skill-based learning initiatives, and renewed global student mobility are driving the education landscape towards institutional innovation, with the goal of optimizing learning like never before.