Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Trends in the Near Term and an Emerging Concern for Higher Ed

We have experienced dramatic changes in the past year and a half as Covid disrupted our campuses, classes, research and services. What can we expect in the coming academic year?

Turmoil persists as we approach the opening of the fall term. With only a couple of weeks to go, we are experiencing a massive new surge in the virus due to the predominance of the far more contagious Delta variant that targets younger adults. The roller coaster ride of the past year and a half continues. 

The latest numbers show the largest enrollment declines in higher ed in a decade, with 600,000 fewer college students this past year than the year before. This trend downward is likely to continue at least one more term before stabilizing when the Covid crisis subsides for good. It turns out that the magic of the vaccines does not fully protect against infection or reinfection with the Delta variant. Looming on the horizon is a virulent Lambda variant that may further extend the epidemic and the drop in enrollments.

After a challenging spring 2020 term of remote-learning student evaluations, each succeeding term is seeing a shift in pedagogy to embrace online learning best practices with resulting better evaluations and increasing student demand. The continuing contagion crisis has helped to fuel an increase in online learning and hybrid/blended courses and degree offerings among universities that had not previously offered off-campus online programs. This has led many to predict a hybrid future for higher ed. 

Meanwhile an increasing number of employers have dropped their degree requirements, opening their doors to the non-degreed and under-degreed applicants. Concurrently, artificial intelligence has taken on more and more job roles at lower cost and higher reliability than humans. In part, this has fueled the increase in online non-degree certificate and certification programs. Competition has expanded with the growth of non-traditional providers such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, 2U (now with edX), and a host of others. Demand is high. The key to success seems to be to match programs with the ever-changing employer needs and to build industry networking among students to enhance placement numbers.

These trends have spawned an increase in enrollment in non-degree certificates and certification programs. Interestingly, nearly half of U.S. adults with a college degree now also hold a certificate in a non-degree education program, according to a Strada-Gallup Education Survey released in July. 

Universities are seeking ways to re-engage students who have dropped out. Colorado is leading the way in allowing universities to award Associate’s degrees to students who have dropped out, but have completed the necessary credits to otherwise qualify for the Associate’s degree. It remains to be seen if this practice will spread and will encourage students to return to the university for further learning.

Overall, it seems that many of the technologies and techniques that were stimulated by the pandemic will continue and expand in the coming months. The acceleration of technology and novel practices are here to stay

Along with the shift in enrollments; delivery modes; technologies; and trend toward shorter programs has come a very concerning trend among the victims of long-Covid. Significant, possibly permanent, cognitive loss is showing up among some long-Covid sufferers. As yet, these effects have been under-reported and have not hit the radar of colleges and universities. A large-scale research project hosted at the Technology Centre and Biomedical Research Centre at Imperial College London published in The Lancet uncovered a statistically significant loss of cognitive ability among some who contracted Covid (emphases below are mine):

The observed deficits varied in scale with respiratory symptom severity, related to positive biological verification of having had the virus even amongst milder cases, could not be explained by differences in age, education or other demographic and socioeconomic variables, remained in those who had no other residual symptoms and was of greater scale than common pre-existing conditions that are associated with virus susceptibility and cognitive problems.

The scale of the observed deficit was not insubstantial; the 0.47 SD global composite score reduction for the hospitalized with ventilator sub-group was greater than the average 10-year decline in global performance between the ages of 20 to 70 within this dataset. It was larger than the mean deficit of 480 people who indicated they had previously suffered a stroke (−0.24SDs) and the 998 who reported learning disabilities (−0.38SDs). For comparison, in a classic intelligence test, 0.47 SDs equates to a 7-point difference in IQ.  

Cognitive ability and mental agility are at the core of higher education. Imagine a colleague, a star scholar-researcher, down the hall from you, who experienced a bout with Covid, seems to have recovered fully, but without her top-notch mental acuity. She has lost her brilliance in mid-career. Or, what if your leading graduate students and postdocs suddenly lost their edge in creativity and problem-solving ability? Worse yet, what about those colleagues and students who are not at the peak cognitive ability of their peers? Will this push them out of the field?

In many cases, these seem to be occurring silently and without other warning. These losses likely will be hidden until discovered in deficits in performance of expected activities. Silently and seemingly without other symptoms, we in academe are confronted by compromises of the essential tool of our trade – our mental acuity.

How will we determine who has been impacted? Surely, we will not administer IQ tests to everyone we suspect has suffered a rough bout with Covid, or will we? If your colleagues or students had suffered strokes, services would be administered. In those cases, the afflicted would have a chance to improve through therapy and new work strategies. Without such a diagnosis, will those affected slowly slide out of higher education or remain underperforming in their positions without any assistance or support? Will this be a lasting scar of the pandemic in higher ed?


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog. 

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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