The COVID-19 pandemic is significantly impacting education at all levels, but most hard hit are universities and colleges. 

The pandemic exacerbates the divide between education as a philosophy and education as a business. Revenue is impacted as schools stop in-person activities. 

Most noticeable is the loss of revenue from room and board and sporting events, but other sources are also impacted. States have less tax income to share, endowment investment yields may suffer and students are demanding tuition reductions because they feel the education quality is greatly reduced by remote learning.

What does seem clear is that educational institutions that cling to the status quo will decline while those that embrace change, in both academic policy and business practice, will improve not only their institutional standing, but also the effectiveness of education in general. 

Tim R. Norton

A new approach to the business of education is required if institutions are to keep pace with changing technology and the “new normal” that keeps students and staff healthy.

The problem is that the traditional approach is still centered on the classroom or lecture hall. The term lecture was derived from the Latin lēctūra, for a reading. 

This approach goes back to the Middle Ages where the teacher would read aloud to a room of students, because books that had to be copied by hand were extremely expensive, and students simply could not afford to own an individual copy. The lecturer, or reader, would take the only copy of the text into a room at a given time and read it aloud.

Moving this approach to a remote format is proving to be extremely unsatisfactory to many, if not most, students.

The solution is to separate the different aspects of education, changing the business model while improving the students’ experience. The educational aspects are:

Content Delivery: Activities that impart new knowledge to students, traditionally lectures and textbooks. Remote presentations are seen as a way to address social distancing requirements.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Structured Learning: Activities that help students actually learn a subject. Traditionally part of a single classroom activity but less satisfying using a remote format. Both students and professors see Structured Learning as the most valuable aspect of the educational experience, but also, the most difficult to implement remotely. The reduction in Structured Learning activities is one of the main reasons students are upset about paying full price for only part of the educational experience.

Student Assessment: Activities that quantitatively measure how well students have absorbed and retained the new knowledge. Traditionally, accomplished mostly by written and oral examinations.

Institutional Accreditation: A formal recognition that an institution meets official requirements of academic excellence, including curriculum development, facilities provided to students, faculty quality and institutional procedures.

MORE: This summary is from COVID-19: The Business of Formal Education Needs to Change, which has additional details and recommendations.

As Content Delivery is driven toward a commodity, because it is freely available on the World Wide Web, the rationale for the value of the education rests more and more on the other educational aspects. 

The pandemic has exacerbated an already growing student resentment of education costs. Now institutions are attempting to hold tuition and fees at normal levels while students see much less value because of the missing Structured Learning and other social activities. 

The current focus on Content Delivery is really contrary to how institutions see their value. Auditing a course usually costs about the same as taking it for credit, which is an implicit business model where Student Assessment and Institutional Accreditation have no value.

Separating Content Delivery from Structured Learning and Student Assessment would allow schools to use the remote format for Content Delivery and offer more value with personalized learning and assessment activities.

Separating the educational aspects would allow institutions to make a better case during the pandemic that reduced Content Delivery (remote vs. in-person) is not a major consideration in the cost because they are really paying for the other educational aspects.

Once Content Delivery has been decoupled, professors can focus on providing more value to the educational process. This also solves a problem many universities are facing with COVID-19 where new foreign students cannot travel.

Intense remote Content Delivery with flexible Structured Learning activities would allow them to start on time (avoiding a major revenue hit) and still complete rigorous Student Assessment after they can travel.

Changing the academic model addresses problems caused by the pandemic. Changing the business model allows universities to charge more for Structured Learning that students value most. Together these changes increase enrollment, revenue and student satisfaction. 

Dr. Tim R. Norton held senior technology positions at many Fortune 100 companies over his 40-plus-year career. He holds advance degrees in Computer Science and taught Computer Science at several Colorado universities for more than 25 years. Although retired, he remains interested in improving higher education. 

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