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Well before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared, higher education was in need of a major overhaul. Student debt now stands at over $1.6 trillion dollars, which is second only to mortgage debt in the U.S. But unlike homes which tend to appreciate, the value of a college degree is questionable these days. Certainly, education is always valuable. But does the sticker price of higher education continue to justify the degree in today’s world? These were issues being debated before coronavirus came along and shut down campuses coast to coast.

Fast forward now to the fall semester of 2020. Reportedly, 60 percent of college campuses will allow students to be on-site in classrooms. But even among those that do, these opportunities will be limited. Online college learning will be the new norm, and universities are struggling to prepare for both the expected and unexpected. But how will online college campuses compare to in-person experiences of the past? Can universities continue to attract students with online college learning platforms? These are questions that every single university is asking right now, and their answers could determine their fate.

“We all recognize that this is a disease that none of us control and nobody even completely understands, and so we’re planning for all contingencies.” – Jonathan Alger, President of James Madison University

Online College Campuses Today

When COVID-19 cases began to rise, and when lockdowns were put into place, universities had little choice. Students were immediately shifted to online college learning platforms in an effort to protect everyone’s health and safety. For many universities, online college learning was already in place. But even these colleges weren’t prepared for the scope of change needed. And for those colleges that lacked online college learning, the challenges were exponential. As a result, many students and parents wondered exactly what their tuition was actually buying.

A girl taking a class online in a library
Lockdowns and the threat of COVID-19 mean the online college campus has no choice but to improve.

Online college learning platforms being used by many colleges provided basic tools for virtual learning. For example, Blackboard dominates online learning management systems among colleges. Moodle and Sakai also offer open source online college learning systems that some utilize. But none of these truly provide an online college campus experience that rivals traditional university student experiences. These types of systems allow colleges to customize, interact, and educate students in dynamic ways. But they remain limited to the academic aspects of an online college campus.

“I think that even when you’re on campus, there will be online learning because it’s more effective, more personalized, and more flexible…I really think even on campus, the backbone of the learning process will be digital.” – Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera

Planning for College Students’ Return

As the fall approaches, many colleges and universities see the writing on the wall. If they choose to invite students back on campus, a resurgence or outbreak of COVID-19 could be their doom. Students and parents will only tolerate so much back-and-forth before exploring more options. Alternatively, universities can aggressively pursue online college learning systems and avoid these risks. But costs and teacher learning curves are steep, and the competition is getting intense. This is why many colleges are turning to online college learning experts for help.

Several well-known online college learning companies stepped up to the plate when the pandemic hit. For example, Pearson Education expanded its suite of online educational platforms to address urgent needs of schools. Products ranged from a full-service system to those that addressed specific shortcomings that colleges were experiencing. Coursera offered all universities their online college campus courses for free until the end of September. Called “Coursera for Campus,” access became immediately available to over 4,300 courses. But as fall approaches, universities will need to invest in longer term plans. Online college learning courses from EdTech companies alone will likely not be enough.

“Our first response to CV-19 in March was to quickly share online teaching and learning resources with educators and families…Now, we’ve invested in bringing more holistic online learning programs to schools and families.” – Thomas ap Simon, Managing Director for Pearson’s Online & Blended Learning Division

Financial and Social Issues to Address

Many major academic institutions are exploring in-house online college learning platforms that are unique to the schools. Harvard, Princeton, James Madison and others have the ability to pursue this type of approach. Smaller colleges, including community colleges and liberal arts colleges, often do not this chance. But both types of colleges must address some key issues when it comes to online college campuses. The biggest two include the cost and the social experience of the student.

In terms of costs, students and parents are reevaluating whether high-dollar expenses justify an online college learning experience. For some, it may if the university provides a certain prestige or a “wow” experience online. But others will prefer the lower cost option if the online college campus experience is the same. Notably, many college students attend universities for the social experiences. It’s a time of important emotional development and a time where key social life skills are learned. Few of the online learning systems have addressed this well as of yet. But it might just be one of the most important facets to consider moving forward.

An Academic Season of Reckoning

With millions of people now working at home, it has been clear that technologies can effectively help us connect remotely. These same systems need to be deployed in a variety of settings within an online college campus. At the same time, higher educational institutions must find ways to cut costs and pass those along to students. Online college learning systems provide an opportunity to reduce real estate and other infrastructure expenses. If students are attending many classes on-campus or living in the dorm, they’re unlikely to accept the same tuition costs. Universities that find solutions to these problems will be around for the future while others won’t be. In some form or another, online college learning is here to stay. If colleges want to survive, then improving online college campus experiences is a must.

(For more on how challenges can be turned into great accomplishments, check out Ed Kopko’s book, “PROJECT BOLD LIFE: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success“.)

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