I spent the last two months interacting with several students, as they graduated from some of the leading universities in the US. Many students felt ‘cheated’ as they missed out on real university ‘experience’ and considered it unfair to pay the full fee for virtual lectures. Even the graduation ceremonies were conducted on zoom and to address that sense of incompleteness many students lined up in the university campuses, to at least take their own photos in their graduation gowns.

A large percentage of students demanded a refund, with lawsuits by the hundreds in US courts. While a few universities have agreed to refund partial fees, most of them have argued strongly that the students are still gaining the same credits and degrees, and therefore there should be no question of refund. That points us to a fundamental question about the raison d’être of the universities. Since most of us have a deep rooted mindset about the importance of universities, let’s not get into that argument for now and examine some clear trends.

Pandemic has transformed the education landscape. Forever.

And it’s not just about shifting the lectures and testing from offline to online but a much more fundamental and long-term change. As the lectures got digitized, the incremental costs of making them available to a much larger audience became very low. With universities losing ground and competing fiercely to gain their piece of the ‘online education’ pie, more and more universities have started offering programs at substantially low fees. Harvard University, for instance, is offering hundreds of programs free of cost, either directly or through EdX. (Leaders of Learning is an interesting free program for educators from Harvard Graduate School of Education that I recently completed). For smaller universities it makes good business sense to license content from top experts, rather than pay hefty salaries to professors. Some reports suggest that the universities and colleges across the US laid off over 650,000 teaching staff in the last one year. The situation is similar across many other countries. The traditional lectures shall cease to exist.

Who needs a degree? Many corporate giants, including Google, Tesla, Apple and IBM, have been vocal about the insignificance of degrees and diplomas. And that they recruit young people for their attitude and skills, rather than degrees and grades. The degrees shall clearly become meaningless in the coming years, and an individual’s portfolio or the practical experiences will be important. Google’s own “career certificates” highlight the trend of ‘micro courses’ and ‘learn while you work’. There are a large number of EdTech startups around the world that are disrupting the online education even further, making learning more engaging and relevant. For example, OnDeck offers short, practical cohort-based professional programs at a fraction of cost of traditional degree programs.

Learning cannot be isolated. More and more experts and practitioners are being engaged in education, as compared to academicians. There are dedicated platforms, such as MindValley and Masterclass, that are building the new age learning spaces with leaders from various disciplines. Also, with the fast changing world and the technological advancements, the learning cannot be limited to classrooms. There is a massive shift to make education a life-long, experiential activity, rather than a passive receiving of information.

What does it mean for school students and parents? Higher education is moving towards ‘micro courses’ or ‘build your own degree’. The future job roles shall involve new technologies that are not even on the radar of schools. In these circumstances, the key shall be to help youngsters develop critical life skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration and creativity, that would be super important to any career path they choose in the future. Gaining a wide range of practical experiences is of paramount importance rather than confining the kids to fixed curriculums delivered in classrooms, defined by outdated policies. Various experiences or projects in a safe environment, can help them discover and cultivate their own passions. Learning communities, such as Yotribe, are becoming an ideal way to prepare teens to succeed in life and career, where they can learn through cohort based programs, along with kids from around the world. Do we really need to worry about admissions in top colleges? Please share your thoughts or concerns.