The Innovation Upside of the Covid Pandemic

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Living with Covid-19 has often felt like an upside-down world: distanced from family and friends, work and school limited to screens, and the disruption of all-things-normal. While Covid interruptions and changes have fostered a sense of anxiety and frustration, and much worse than that for many—its disturbances have also planted seeds of opportunity, helping many reprioritize and reimagine what life can offer. Perhaps there has been no better example of this than in education, where many families are ready for renewal and reform.

There's no question that the Covid pandemic threw our education system—from primary school through the university—into further disruption. The shift to remote learning exposed deep, pre-existing cracks in our public school system, causing many children to fall far behind. Meanwhile, so many colleges and universities' failure to bring students safely back to campus—combined with repressive curricula and soaring tuition costs—has led to profound disillusionment. 

We have reached a crossroads in higher education. It's hard to imagine that, post-pandemic, students and teachers will simply want to return to the status quo. Rather, the time is right to create models for higher learning that better serve the diverse needs of young people. We've known about the inefficiencies, costs, and rigidity of higher education for years. Still, Covid has shown us that the future of higher education doesn't need to look like the past.

Spending a year largely confined to our homes has demonstrated that our current system designed around in-person classes, delineated by semesters, and defined by degree programs, may not be the only or best arrangement for all students. Pre-pandemic, there were already signs that higher education was inching—like so many industries, from fashion to home goods to food—toward a direct-to-consumer model. Sites like The Great Courses where students of all ages can learn about subjects from history to psychology to literature, or MasterClass, which offers courses with culinary, literary, and artistic authorities, as well as Outschool, which offers creative, small online classes for children, have each helped fill a learning void.

There is also a growing demand for higher education that goes beyond traditional degree programs. Take Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, which recently announced a program to help students who have already earned partial credits complete their degrees. The college leadership recognized that other family and work responsibilities, and high tuition costs, make the traditional four-year experience unfeasible for many. They understand the need for education to be more fluid so that students can pursue their goals at varying times, despite life's interruptions.  

We have seen an increase in high-school internships and programs intended to provide young people—especially girls—with the training necessary for good-paying, satisfying jobs. Other industries—perhaps, most notably technology firms in Silicon Valley—have begun focusing on training students in specific, high-level skillsets like coding through industry credentialing. And top math and science schools like MIT now offer online courses to help students launch a career without necessarily investing in a comprehensive four-year degree.

The higher education bubble has burst. The Covid pandemic has refocused our attention on refashioning higher education to establish more flexible pathways to learning and employment while diversifying access to education for those who need it most.  

The pandemic has been the source of terrible loss, but it has also forced us to constructively reevaluate education and reimagine what learning can and ought to look like. Whether it's through online courses, alternative credentialing, or new institutions altogether, it's time to recreate higher education for the better. We need only the imagination to do it.

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