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Don’t Learn to Swim in a Flood: How One University Dealt with the COVID-19 Crisis

  • 4 Min Read

Today’s schools—no matter where they are in their own journey—need to create resiliency and sustainability.

John Baker

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It seems like a lifetime ago that I was reading some of the early stories and saying to friends and colleagues, “This sounds really bad.” Now it’s all but impossible to remember what life was like before—while at the same time, COVID-19 continues to have massive implications for our future that we don’t fully understand.

A few weeks ago, I sat down for a video chat with David Harpool, the president of Northcentral University in San Diego, California, to talk about ways that institutions of higher learning have been dealing with the disruptions of the past year—from their students being unable to attend classes in person to an unprecedented drought of international students and its subsequent impact on revenues to the challenges of maintaining and expanding a technology infrastructure to manage a massive amount of change.

“The thing is,” says Harpool, “a flood is not the best time to learn how to swim. We started dabbling in online learning and began testing it out 25 years ago. It wasn’t much—it was based mostly in email, chats, and maybe a few discussion threads—but a willingness to explore online learning meant we were built for this type of crisis. In fact, we’ve grown almost 20% during this year.”

For Harpool and Northcentral University, this meant starting with a pedagogy for online learning. He says that while it’s understandable that a lot of institutions have simply taken what they do in the classroom and rushed to put it online, that’s hardly ideal. A better way to go—and the route that Northcentral chose years ago—was to recruit and train faculty who were fully committed to using technology to teach. After trying to piece together the technology to support the pedagogy on their own for a number of years, they began to ask themselves a foundational question: “How do we best support all the forms of communication so that our faculty and our students are using their primary preferred way to communicate and to learn?”.

“We knew that having a great technology partner would help us take back a measure of control in a world that quickly became defined by uncertainty. Because technology, or at least the right technology and the partner behind it, can create certainty for learners,” says Harpool. “And so we found D2L. And as we’ve used D2L’s Brightspace platform and partnered with D2L, it’s led us to the next step, which is now we have embedded assessments of learning to find out how effective we are. However, to build that foundation, we built everything we did intentionally for online; we didn’t move from ‘on ground’ to online in crisis.”

I’m seeing most universities creating what they call their crisis management plan, which is really no more than just using technology to take what they’re doing now and getting it online. And then the thoughtful universities are saying, “Okay, now we need a real strategy toward online learning that is based on pedagogy and the right faculty and curriculum developed in a learning management system.”

The next step, explains Harpool—and this is true for every institution no matter where they are in their own journey of moving online—is to create resiliency and sustainability.

“Universities are realizing that you can’t just build a new building every time you want to increase capacity. It’s just not realistic. You can’t build the buildings fast enough to meet the need for higher education,” says Harpool. “A resilient and sustainable system of higher education has to be cost-effective. But so is access and affordability; it’s just not realistic for most working people with children to just drop everything and go to school for two years. Nor can some people pay a California cost of living while going to school.”

Technology, he says, is changing that.

“It’s definitely making it easier and less expensive to do things,” says Harpool. “That, in turn, allows us to address the cost issue. All of this means that we’re living in a unique time in the history of higher ed. And when we teach higher ed 50 years from now, we will look back at this moment and find that this is where the technology shift in higher education occurred.”

The future, says Harpool, is a mix of the grim reality of financial pressures closing in on schools and the hopeful possibility of new partnerships and ways of funding education.

“We’ll probably lose at least 50 colleges this year—institutions that will close because they refuse to adapt to new methodologies and do not have the capacity to evaluate and adopt new educational technology,” says Harpool. “Nor will ‘one size fits all’ be the future of higher ed. We will see different models for different sectors of the higher education market. Because the needs of a 50-to 60-year-old woman raising kids by herself with a job who wants to earn a master’s degree are different than those of a 24-year-old who’s coming straight from an undergraduate degree.

“On the other hand, there will be some flexibility in higher ed in the future that we’ve not had. And I think you’re going to see universities working more closely with partners to reduce risks and costs and to allow themselves to continue to keep pace with technology. A partner, say, like D2L.

Written by:

John Baker

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