The Post-COVID Education Disruption

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Change vectors were seeking an “excuse” to disrupt the Education Sector, and…COVID-19 provided the perfect one!

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.” Sir Ken Robinson

It is never an easy task to predict the new reality post-COVID-19 early last March, just 7 months ago, projecting and forecasting the broad and deep consequences of the global pandemic. The months of lockdown and “low touch” economy has forced us to question some deeply held assumptions and shaken organizations and institutions built on those assumptions. It has tested the ability of different enterprises to adapt: some quickly embraced changes to change again and again until get it right, while others, affected by the well-known disease of “re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” are still waiting for the old reality to return. COVID-19 will continue challenging all businesses and organizations for the rest of 2020 and for most of 2021 and shift consumer behavior temporarily or permanently across all human activities. The question that remains is the intensity of these shifts and what percent of these shifts are temporary and what percent will remain permanently.

In prior blogs I have identified some of the oldest industries/economic sectors known to mankind that have remained untouched by disruptive forces. These institutions have been remarkable stable over decades and centuries, and this stability has bred overconfidence, overpricing and overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world. Some of the most important include:

  1. Health care,
  2. Education,
  3. Legal,
  4. Government, and
  5. Organized religion.

While my identification of the areas which avoided disruption so far remains correct, there are important transversal areas left out from my prior discussions. Among the most important (and subject of future blog posts) are included:

  • Where, who and how the workforce operates and it is organized,
  • Work vs. the perceived value of work and its actual compensation,
  • Socialization as a basic human need: low touch vs. high touch, and
  • Where we live and the public services we receive.

The transformation that each industrial or economic sector will undertake as a response to COVID-19 is different since each one has its own dynamics, stakeholders, technology, and economic forces resulting from the pandemic’s impact. Therefore, while there are generic cross-sector responses, for the most part each is unique in different ways.

Learning alone vs. the socialization needs of the learners

In this blog, I would like to address the long-anticipated disruption affecting the education sector, especially as it relates to higher and tertiary education. COVID-19 has permanently impacted the education sector. Why? Because of the following factors:

  1. Shift in Societal preference abandoning old paradigms:
    • American middle-class families (and in many other world regions) are unable to fund their children’s traditional 4-year liberal arts college education,
    • Student debt is surpassing all the established benchmarks of national indebtedness, and
    • Education providing skills enabling to earn a living wage is favored over human enlightenment by a growing market segment.
  2. Consumer needs/affordability envelope has changed:
    • A model of just-in-time skill acquisition to support the livelihood of the learners is emerging, and
    • Shorter degrees are favoured learning highly targeted employable skills, meeting the immediate requirements of employers[1],
    • The socialization needs of the learners will be met by identifying new alternatives to the expensive/exclusive “campus experience” embraced by old paradigms.
  3. Learning preferences of the learners have evolved around three modalities to complement and/or replace in classroom learning:
    • Virtual/synchronous: enabling diverse global cohorts and global faculty, and
    • Virtual/asynchronous: enabling global faculty and students to produce and consume educational content anytime/anywhere.
    • Variety of hybrid and blended models combining these three primary modalities: in-classroom, virtual/synchronous, and virtual/asynchronous.
  4. Technologies and methodologies have evolved and will continue evolving to support a better virtual education experiences:
    • Technology will continue improving (faster, cheaper, smaller, with an ever increased functionality) to make the experience better, completer, and more affordable, and
    • New virtual teaching methodologies will emerge to increase the learning outcomes and student satisfaction,
    • Integrated environments for class creation and delivery of multi-mode highly engaging classes.
  5. Higher and tertiary education players and services offered will evolve:
    • New entrants (the disruptors) will enter, while some “old” players (the defeated) will exit the field[2] (Schumpeterian creative disruption),
    • New services will emerge connecting education/skills acquisition to other new complementary support services facilitating employment (e.g., knowledge/skills certification, degrees and certificates authenticity, keeping updated in disciplines and certificates, etc.),
    • New roadmap services to enable customization and personalization of on-demand educational services to meet degree and evolving employability requirements,
    • Stronger connection between newly acquired skills and employment opportunities market.
  6. The firms, who are the beneficiaries of the higher education products, will participate by exploring closer partnerships in the delivery of these new skills by:
    • Identification of emerging skills and future knowledge requirements of the learners, to receive trained human capital meeting the immediate skill requirements of the enterprise,
    • Apprenticeships to complement the skill acquisition provided by educational institutions with hands-on experiential learning and possibly follow-on employment opportunities, and
    • New partnerships mixing and matching virtual education with experiential learning, including joint degrees and skill certifications.
Where are the students? and the instructors?

As we emerge victorious from the ongoing pandemic, some physical classrooms will fill-up again, but virtual education will remain installed in both fashions (synchronous and asynchronous). While the classroom components require all students to be co-located, the virtual-synchronous components would enable educators and students alike to overcome the co-location limitation, enabling diverse global cohorts and faculty, while virtual-asynchronous will enable teaching and learning to occur anytime/anywhere.

Amid any disruption in Machiavellian terms, the incumbents are often the “naysayers” representing the most visible and loudest majority, because they know exactly how much is at stake and potentially lose. With respect to the education industry, this transformation will be painful as a significant number of the colleges and universities (mostly concentrated in the bottom tier) will be unable to re-invent themselves as their attempts will be likely in the general category of too-little-too-late due to severe deficit of imagination and funding to re-invent their business.

Complicating matters further, leading Ivy League and Oxbridge-tier colleges and universities will watch the disruption from afar, instead of leading this transformation. These academic institutions have no urgency or immediate benefit to be gained from leading this parade, since their brands and endowments will sustain them for decades to come.

I fully expect these institutions’ tenured faculty members to become the loudest proponents of the status-quo, since “they have done well under the prior order”… and “partly because of their incredulity, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.” Niccolò Machiavelli anticipated this behavior well over 500 years ago!

The goal of education under any paradigm (old or new) is : “The whole purpose of higher education is to help individuals find their talents and develop those talents so they can use them to the service of society. And if there is anybody we are leaving out of that equation, it is not just bad for them, it is also bad for society.”[3]

This ongoing disruption will cause a democratization of educational services, causing a paradigm shift moving the arc of power from the teachers first, and the institutions of higher education later, to the actual learners.

The end goal post-disruption is to create a system that is much more open, inclusive, and available enabling everyone, in particular those that previously have been excluded to participate. Even at the expense of the old business model. The changes in store for higher education are going to look a lot like the painful changes we have seen in every disrupted industry of the last decades, such as telecommunications, retail, financial services, news, media and entertainment services, etc.[4] … Why should higher education be any different?

Shortly after the pandemic forced us to move our classroom to virtual space (March 2020), my teaching partners[5} and I, decided to launch the EVE (Excellence in Virtual Education) Project, with the goal of making virtual teaching at par or better educational experience than in-class, on-campus teaching, in term of its educational value. You can learn more about the EVE Project by visiting The Three Amigos website.

Until our paths cross again amigo – Carlos B.

[1] The social contract between employers and employees has evolved over the last two decades from long term to
consensual short duration engagements.

[2] Residential colleges may experience a decline similar to live theaters after the advent of movies and broadcast television or the on going extinction of movie theaters today

[3] Higher Education Was Already Ripe for Disruption. Then, COVID-19 Happened by Scott Barsotti, September 14, 2020

[4] Are Universities Going the Way of CDs and Cable TV? Like the entertainment industry, colleges will need to embrace digital services in order to survive. Michael D. Smith, June 22, 2020

[5] Hap Klopp, Paul Campbell, and I (Carlos Baradello), a.k.a. the Three Amigos, presently co-teach at Hult International Business School in San Francisco, California. They have been co-teaching together in the areas of Global Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Intrapreneurship, Disruptive Innovations, New Product Development, and others for more than 7 years at both the graduate and undergraduate levels at various global universities.


About Carlos S. Baradello

Investor, thought leader, university professor, and advisor in areas of corporate innovation, born global entrepreneurship and venture capital investing.
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