CEO Keys: Universities Facing a More Digital Post-Corona World

04/13/20   |  
Steve Fireng

I hope this note finds you and your loved ones healthy and safe during this unprecedented time.

Today, the Coronavirus pandemic is forcing change as universities around the globe have had to transform to remote teaching quickly. This change is the beginning of what I see is a long-term shift to universities offering more online learning. 

Over the past decade, we have been witnesses to a global, technological revolution in the field of education. Online learning, not just remote teaching, once met with skepticism, has now been fully embraced by the world’s leading universities. We have seen the rise of fully online degrees, hybrid programs, and short courses for a skill-based economy. When it comes to online education, the future is now.

Will this worldwide crisis further accelerate the move to online education?

I wanted to share my thoughts about the business model, remote vs. online learning, and what universities should be thinking about for the immediate future and beyond.

What must change with the university “business” model?

In the United States, over 30% of all graduate students study 100% online (this number is less in other countries but growing quickly). This figure does not include the countless online short course offerings focused on the skills-based economy.

Despite this, universities generally have been slow to embrace online offerings for the “traditional” undergraduate programs (which cater to the technologically savvy 18-24-year-old students). While there are examples of online undergraduate programs (for example, Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University), the majority of undergraduate programs are still delivered face-to-face (F2F). This makes some sense, as undergraduate education is equal parts (a) learning and earning a degree and (b) growing as a person and experiencing life away from childhood safety nets.

That said, in my view, universities should move many more general education courses online.

These courses can be effectively offered online (for both the school and the student) as very little of the subject matter is differentiated or involves complex interactions. This should lower the cost to both the university and the students, without sacrificing the quality of education. Research-based undergraduate courses, where skill-building labs, debate, and interaction in a more intimate environment are necessary, should certainly continue to be offered F2F. 

What are the major differences between remote and online learning?

Considering the current pandemic, during which F2F learning has all but come to a halt, many Universities have moved quickly to increase their online offerings, and others have been thrust into online education for the first time.

Many quickly moved students and faculty to their homes. They set up Zoom (or other video communications platforms) to deliver the same content as if it was still in the classroom. This is understandable as even the most prepared schools were not ready for this, perhaps, once-in-a-lifetime black swan event. 

But this is remote learning, not online learning, which is an important distinction. While the live-stream conferences (i.e., Zoom sessions) involve an element of technology, these educational experiences are otherwise identical to the F2F offerings on which they are based. Merely broadcasting a lesson using a live conferencing tool is not what students and faculty have come to expect.

Online learning, in comparison, is an inspired, strategic approach to educating students outside the traditional classroom. 

It should include various instructional techniques to ensure high-quality, unique, and meaningful interactions between the faculty and students, using both asynchronous and synchronous modes of interaction. Individual courses must be engaging and objective-driven, featuring intentionally designed learning experiences, video and text-based content-offerings, scaffolded practice, and authentic assessments. 

What should universities be thinking about in the immediate future and beyond?

I have spoken with dozens of university leaders (in the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Canada) over the past month, and it seems that their concerns fall into two main categories:

1. How will we be able to deliver our programs leveraging more technology without lowering the experience and quality?

2. How will we replace lost tuition from students not attending the upcoming terms?

Regarding point number 1, universities must continue to make significant investments into online instructional design. Moving to remote learning and calling it online education is not an effective long-term strategy, as it does not serve the interests or expectations of today’s students.

Admittedly, creating a comprehensive and interactive online course takes time, creativity, and care. Therefore, a university should focus on;

(a) the programs that carry the most volume of students (general education), and 

(b) the programs that are core to its long-term growth, where investment is needed to increase the overall student experience.

Working with your corporate online program management (OPM) partner, or your internal instructional design teams, to make these programs as effective, or even more effective than their on-ground equivalents is essential. For example, if a university is committed to STEM or healthcare programs as a growth area, it should invest strategically in the design of these online programs. It should ensure that the learning experiences for these programs are rich and meaningful, sophisticated and rigorous, and offering hands-on practice. Only then will these programs stand above the less thoughtfully designed courses of the competition.

Point number 2 is more complicated. Most university executives with whom I have talked recently understand that their overall tuition (revenue) will go down in the short-medium term. This revenue decline is particularly difficult for high fixed-cost (e.g., buildings) organizations, like universities. As these costs can’t simply be restructured, quickly finding new tuition sources (including online offerings) is vital. 

But how does your university launch online programs in an increasingly competitive market? 

The first question to be answered is, what degree field, vertical, or area will allow your university to distinguish itself from the rest? Whether that is in Healthcare, Social Science, Business, or STEM, your institution needs to decide where to invest. You need to grow presence and reach in your areas of strength - not all areas. Your university cannot expect to be all things to all people.

The next several months will continue to be choppy and unpredictable, and students, faculty, and administrators alike will be affected profoundly by this new reality. 

The silver lining perhaps is that universities have thrived during and after previous economic and human challenges in the past, and I am very confident they will once again persevere. 

As I mentioned, I have spoken to many university leaders about these and other issues, so please feel free to reach out to me directly at if you would like to chat.

Also, for those university leaders looking for some “how-to” videos on taking programs online quickly, please go to

Now, perhaps more than ever, we owe it to our students to make sure there is broad access to quality higher education.