An Inflection Point for Higher Education

It is understandable if many college and university leaders yearn for the simpler days of 2019, before COVID-19 forced us to shift most classes from in-person to online delivery almost overnight. But remember that quite a few institutions were already in a perilous state last fall: the economic value of traditional higher education was rightly being questioned, as was its ability to foster the skills and knowledge that 21st-century graduates need to succeed.

That’s why it would be self-defeating for us simply to revert to the pre-pandemic status quo. If higher education is to thrive—if we are to deliver the long-term value our students deserve—we must make significant changes in how and what we teach. As a starting point, we should build upon the crisis-inspired lessons we’ve learned about how to conceive, develop, and deliver online curriculum.

I believe that we can leverage those lessons to create an inflection point for higher education: pursuing a new approach to teaching and learning that melds digital and in-person instruction into something better than we had before. Doing so will enable us to expand educational opportunities, more flexibly respond to students’ individual circumstances, and better prepare our graduates for careers in a dynamic, digital, interconnected world.

Educators at Thomas Jefferson University are pursuing that vision in several ways. We are creating hybrid classes that integrate online and in-person components, and offering “hybrid-flexible” options that permit students to attend a course digitally or in person, synchronously or asynchronously. We are also acting on the principle that digital learning is not merely an alternative to in-person teaching: It can surmount the classroom’s physical limitations and expand students’ engagement with the world. 

A wonderful example is a new industrial design course created by professor Lyn Godley and partners from 16 universities around the world. These educators challenged themselves to use online education tools to provide students with an experience they never could have had otherwise—one that would deliver both a unique set of insights and a global network of professional collaborators. The resulting hybrid course enables hundreds of students from many disciplines and backgrounds to collaborate in addressing real-world, locale-specific urban design challenges. It empowers them to create solutions for wholly new types and combinations of problems. And, as a side benefit, it gives faculty the chance to share their knowledge with many more students than could possibly fit in their physical classrooms.

This course also embodies a set of skills fundamental to students’ long-term professional success: the capacity to be creative, imaginative, and innovative; to communicate effectively, with empathy, and across cultures; to continually seek new knowledge, broader perspectives, and fresh partners; and to be digitally fluent—to understand, basically, how digital systems function and how to use them to expand one’s own abilities.

These skills should sound familiar. They are capacities that business, government, and nonprofit organizations are all striving to use in responding to the pandemic. They are also the skills that higher education has long known would be essential for individuals—and their employers—to succeed in coming decades. But unfortunately, they are not skills that most of today’s colleges and universities effectively foster. Too many academic institutions, stuck in traditional modes of learning, have avoided making the fundamental changes in curriculum and teaching methods necessary for students to develop and hone these 21stcentury skills.

But our present reliance on online learning has created a unique opportunity for colleges and universities to rethink outdated conceptions of how curriculum is conceived and delivered and the skills it fosters. If higher education leaders are courageous enough to turn that opportunity into an inflection point, we will be able to deliver on our promise of true, lasting value for the investment that students and families make in their undergraduate education. 

Mark L. Tykocinski, MD
Provost and EVP for Academic Affairs Thomas Jefferson University
Anthony F. and Gertrude M. DePalma Dean Sidney Kimmel Medical College