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Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

min read

Dell Technologies

What opportunities have come about for higher education because of the global health crisis? Explore some of the lingering impacts that will likely continue to shape higher education in the post-pandemic world.

Like many of you, I've gotten to the point where I want to start looking past the pandemic. Although it's still very much here, my mind wafts forward in time to a world where I don't have to recoil when I see someone's uncovered nose and mouth, where I no longer imagine floating aerosolized disease vectors in the air around me, and when I no longer aggressively remove the outer layer of skin on my hands when thoroughly washing up. Like many of you, I'm starting to look forward with a mixture of hope, realism, and creativity to think about which lingering effects of the pandemic I'll be glad to keep. I'm beginning to try to pin down the silver linings of a truly terrible situation so that when the time comes, I'll be ready to advocate for new ways of teaching, learning, and working that draw upon the best learnings from the pandemic times.

These are a few of the things I hope we collectively hang on to—things that, for many of the institutions I've spoken with recently, are finally coming about because of the pandemic. As the saying goes, "Never let a crisis go to waste." And to be clear, the issues highlighted below are not particularly fringe or radical, but in most cases, they were hamstrung prior to the pandemic because of overwhelming institutional inertia. Now that the Academy has been put in motion, will it stay in motion?


Nearly three-quarters of college and university students have at least one of the following non-traditional characteristics: they transfer between institutions, they work full or part time, they attend school part time, they have at least one dependent, they are enrolled in a two-year college, or they are first-generation students.Footnote1 These students are no longer outliers; they are now the norm. And instructors are gaining a window into students' lives in a way they never had before. When Zoom invites us into each other's homes, we can no longer ignore the cat that traipses across a keyboard, the children doing schoolwork in the background, or the loved ones being cared for on the other side of the screen. My greatest hope is that the empathy instructors are showing to students during the pandemic will not fade once in-person education resumes.

I'm confident that this explosion of empathy on both sides of the computer screen—teachers for students and students for teachers—will be one area in which remote teaching and learning will inform and benefit the future of in-person education.

Closing the Digital Divide

Now that anytime, anywhere learning is front and center, the industry has also finally pulled one of its most clandestine secrets from the shadows: the digital divide. For how long did we see the digital divide as something that could be solved solely through education? And yet now we see that the divide extends deeper: to a gap in access. That access might be the broadband connectivity itself, or it might be the sheer inconvenience of finding a quiet place to connect and focus, which too many of us take for granted.

Finally, giving a name to this "issue that shall not be named" means that it's possible to marshal national, state, and local resources—in collaboration with industry partners—to close the access gap, hopefully once and for all. Time will tell whether or not broadband will be treated as an official public utility, but just as electricity and access to clean water improved the health, well-being, and future workforce prospects for so many, we can no longer ignore that treating connectivity and access to information as basic rights will impact this generation and generations to come.

On-Demand Learning, On the Go

I've also felt tremendous hope when hearing how college and university instructors have adapted their teaching to accommodate students with various learning needs, styles, and constraints. Anytime, anywhere learning has been catapulted into the mainstream to account for a range of potential hiccups: from a mandated quarantine to an overtaxed internet connection.

And although it initially seemed burdensome for instructors to go from one mode of instruction (synchronous in-person) to three modes (synchronous in-person, synchronous remote, and asynchronous remote), the result of the shift has been to reallocate in-person class time away from lectures that can instead be recorded and toward project-based group work.

Rethinking Assessment

Along with rethinking how courses are taught, I've been fascinated to follow the conversation around how assessment is also undergoing a transformation. A number of the schools I've spoken with flagged the difficulty in proctoring exams remotely. They've asked, "How can you ensure that the student isn't cheating when you can't see what they're doing?" Although there are technology solutions on the market that seek to address this challenge, some institutions have flipped the question on its head and have instead rethought the assessments themselves. Maybe a midterm or final exam isn't the best way for a student to demonstrate their competency in or mastery of a subject. Maybe a student can keep retaking an exam until they achieve a minimum score or until they're satisfied that the score reflects their level of understanding.

I have to believe that the "real world" of today and tomorrow, a.k.a. the world of work, more closely resembles these new modes of assessment than the old ones. We know that the knowledge workers of the future will be challenged by the ever-increasing pace of technology change, and it will be their ability to learn new things that will determine whether or not they will keep up with the modern world. Drawing a line in the sand at a moment in time won't do the workforce of the future any good; instead, iteration and knowledge refinement will help them succeed. Only by modeling this behavior during their time in higher education will institutions help their students transition seamlessly into that real world.

Leveraging Digital for Sustainability

An unexpected result of the shift to remote learning in the spring of 2020 for many institutions was the sudden recategorization of some services like public printing from "essential" to "largely unnecessary." Reams of paper sat unused in libraries across the country when students were no longer printing out readings for their classes. Additionally, business processes that relied on ink-on-paper signatures were forced to pivot to electronic signatures unless, of course, IT shops chose to send and install printers to remote employees, which most leaders I've talked to refused to do.

The inadvertent shift to more sustainable processes has been one of the most common unanticipated benefits of the pandemic. For many institutions, the digitization of business processes has been a long-standing barrier to the subsequent digitalization and digital transformation that they aspire to take on. The pandemic has forced some of the more Luddite-aligned employees at institutions to open their minds to new ways of working that are, in many cases, more efficient and more effective than their predecessors. Once again, time will tell how much of a push the pandemic will provide to institutions along their digital transformation journeys, but there's no denying that the digitization of certain processes will most certainly never regress backward to pen-on-paper processes.Footnote2

Expanding the Institution's Customer Base

At the time of this writing, current research indicates an approximately 2.5 percent decrease in student enrollment numbers for higher education institutions in the fall of 2020.Footnote3 In the short term, this deficit of students will directly impact many institutions' bottom lines. In the longer term, however, the jolt to expand the geographies from which an institution recruits may, in turn, lead to enrollment surpluses.

Consider that on-demand, on-the-go learning expands the reach of an institution, allowing it to offer learning whenever it fits into a student's busy schedule, irrespective of where they're located. By not pinning learning down in time and space, institutions can educate more students than before. We've seen this effect in entertainment: When Netflix mailed DVDs, their ability to meet customer demand was predicated upon DVD availability and the timing of the postal service, but now that the content is available to stream, Netflix can meet customer demand whenever and wherever while continuing to expand its customer base.

Although I don't expect an effect as drastic as the streaming dominance of Netflix over the video rental model of Blockbuster, the immediate consequence of expanding the capacity of an institution within an environment in which the number of students is fixed or declining will be that some institutions will emerge as winners, while others may not emerge at all. Coupled with a potential rebound similar to what was seen following the Great Recession—when those who were out of work sought education to reskill and upskill—there is a tremendous potential for higher education to morph into something new. Although its new shape will still need to meet pre-pandemic needs, my hope is that those needs that went unmet prior to the pandemic might finally be addressed. Students will still have to determine for themselves the value they place on an in-person experience (similar to the pre-pandemic rising costs of going to a movie theater), but expanding the options for students to get their education will also expand the options for institutions' bottom lines.

Remote IT Work and the Evolution of IT Teams

One theme I've heard from many CIOs has been that they could not have imagined how well their teams would have shifted to remote work. It's not that they didn't think their teams could do it; the barrier they've described was a cultural aversion to remote work within their institution. And much like dominos falling, once the barrier to remote work was removed, a number of services started to expand: establishing chat support capabilities, extending VoIP services, building collaborations on campus, consolidating IT infrastructure, building service catalogs, and even shifting to on-demand IT.

What has impressed me about these teams' pandemic initiatives isn't so much what they've been able to accomplish but the speed with which they've been able to implement new systems. Some projects were completed in days when previously they might have taken months or more. Key to that speed has been the recognition of how critical Technology (with a capital "T") has become to the experiences of students, faculty, and staff. In addition to pivoting quickly and iterating, these teams are in many cases finally getting well-deserved recognition from the rest of campus, especially administrative leaders; those non-IT leaders finally have something "tangible" to help them understand why the IT investments they've been making were so critical.

The Worst Case

I think the worst possible takeaway we could learn from the collective response to the pandemic is that the best future state of higher education would be to return to how higher education was before the pandemic. Like Pandora's box, we've now caught glimpses of what the future of higher education could look like, and there's no putting it back now. Although that future state isn't fully settled upon, I hope you agree that we'd be naive to try to go backward.

Yes, in-person education is valuable, but does everyone need to do it 100 percent of the time? Maybe not. It would have taken generations for the industry to agree on that question if I had asked it in the fall of 2019. But now? I think that's something we can all recognize the value of; now we just need to figure out how to make higher education work for more students who have more complex circumstances and needs than maybe they ever have before.

I hope you'll find hidden opportunities to champion as you begin to reflect upon what you've learned during the pandemic. I hope you'll focus on maintaining the momentum of change even after we're given the "all clear" to return to our pre-pandemic ways of life, and I hope you'll choose to embrace the lingering effects of the pandemic to continuously improve the quality of higher education for the future. Please share what you're trying, what's working, and even what isn't working with me at [email protected] so we can all be the better for it.


  1. Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education: A Supplement to the National Education Technology Plan, research report (Washington DC: Office of Educational Technology, January 2017). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. There's a caveat worth mentioning: The spate of recent ransomware attacks has forced some business processes—e.g., handling patient medical records—back to pen-on-paper while the digital processes are secured. Maintaining a focus on cybersecurity throughout the digital transformation journey is critical to safeguard an institution from needing to revert to old ways of working. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Fall 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates, research report, (Herndon VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, December 17, 2020). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Jeffrey Lancaster is Senior Higher Education Strategist at Dell Technologies.

© 2020 Dell Technologies.