How Covid-19 rendered the impossible possible


In an article published in Wired in 2012, Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicted that many universities would close within ten years. This, he predicted, would be the result of the increasing importance of MOOCs,which would potentially destroy a significant number of higher education institutions. Although Mr.Thrun has changed his mind in the meanwhile, he might not have been wrong after all with Covid-19 rendering the impossible possible: universities went 100% online in almost no time.
Of course, one has to put this into perspective since many online courses were rather amateur style and quick and dirty solutions and would not lead to high satisfaction ratings among students in times of non-crisis. Nevertheless, this forced digital transformation driven by Corona has a couple of exciting impacts worth analyzing.

First, the mandatory move into the online world has had a profound impact on professors and teaching professionals. Many of them were concerned about teaching their lectures online and more than reluctant to go in front of the camera. Now, after having experienced online teaching, they got to know the many possibilities the online teaching platforms provide and also see advantages in comparison to face-to-face teaching. Some of them have become real advocates and many will stay loyal toward the online world.

Second, students as well have experienced that learning content via virtual channels can be (even more) efficient. This might potentially lead to an increased demand for online or at least blended programs in the future, which in turn will intensify competition and the globalization of higher education with many new universities worldwide potentially entering the online teaching market. In this context, the question arises whether future students will be willing to invest the same tuition fees for digital and blended formats as for analog lectures.
If this is not the case, it will cause severe problems for university presidents, vice-chancellors, rectors, deans and university’s general top management around the world.
Finally, the just mentioned university management most likely will jump on this opportunity, having unsuccessfully tried for years to convince faculty to propose more online courses for future classes. Now the proof exists that online courses are possible and feasible while before Covid-19, many of the teaching professionals claimed the opposite for pedagogical or various other reasons. This development could also be further intensified by the ongoing sustainability debate à la Fridays for Future. Completing programs online could reduce air travel and associated CO2 emissions.
However, one needs to be prudent. As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Corona-forced online teaching was, for the most part, more hands-on than really up to standard. Quality teaching in the virtual world will demand high investments into infrastructures, support staff, and some changes with regards to compensation models for faculty and clarifications touching upon copyright questions and alike.
Also, higher education top management should not be tempted to think that buildings might become less important in the future. Often the opposite is the case: Studying is more than learning content and also includes the creation of networks and friendships for life, discussing and exchanging opinions with peers. All of this will be more accessible on-site than online. Future buildings definitely will not need as many classrooms but will have to provide meeting and working spaces – all this delivered in a pleasant atmosphere for students (as well as faculty) wanting to come to the university physically.
All in all, for many study programs, online learning is to be considered instead as an add-on to face-to-face teaching (at least at the top universities) and might render production cost of teaching more expensive than is currently the case.
However, if online classes now will be on the steadfast rise, competition in an already quite competitive market will increase even more on a global scale, which most likely will put several higher education institutions in awkward financial positions over the coming years. Bringing us back to Sebastian Thrun’s prediction for 2022…

Professor Kaplan serves as Rector of ESCP Business School. Previously, he held positions as Provost and Dean for Academic Affairs, Brand and Communications Director, and elected Head of the Faculty’s marketing department. Kaplan did his Habilitation at the Sorbonne, his PhD at the University of Cologne / HEC Paris, and an MPA at the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA; Class of République). Andreas Kaplan is founding member of the European Center for Digital Competitiveness.