Harvard Business review

Imagining the Hybrid College Campus

The pandemic undoubtedly inflicted real pain on higher education during the past year, but it also brought about clarity for what’s next. Much has already been written about how Covid-19 forced schools to accelerate their blending of in-person and online learning. While this abrupt shift created significant challenges, this hybrid model will in the long run greatly enhance the classroom experience. Toward that end, universities need to act now to break down barriers to access and reach a broader, more diverse population of students in the pipeline to college, to meet the needs of a changing workforce, and to provide life-long learning and career opportunities for working adults.

Few will argue that the pandemic has laid bare the need for higher education to change. With overall enrollment falling by 3% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, and with future enrollment projections trending downward, many colleges will need to adjust the way they do business if they are going to survive financially. Even among institutions that have fared better than anticipated during the pandemic, a once-in-a-generation opportunity exists to leverage the emergency changes of the last 18 months for long-term good.

Toward that end, universities need to act now to break down barriers to access and reach a broader, more diverse population of students in the pipeline to college, to meet the needs of a changing workforce, and to provide life-long learning and career opportunities for working adults.

The pandemic undoubtedly inflicted real pain on higher education during the past year, but it also brought about clarity for what’s next. Much has already been written about how Covid-19 forced schools to accelerate their blending of in-person and online learning. While this abrupt shift created significant challenges, this hybrid model will in the long run greatly enhance the classroom experience. New digital tools, for instance, can help educators better assess student engagement, thus providing instructors with a clear road map for how to refine and improve their courses and teaching methods.

But there are other lessons to be gleaned from this tumultuous year that extend well beyond the classroom. During the summer of 2020, in the early months of the pandemic, Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence and the Strada Education Network gathered a group of leaders in higher education together to discuss how the staggering disruption to higher education’s traditional residential face-to-face delivery could provide clues to reimagining how institutions conduct business and serve students going forward.

What came out of surveys and discussions with the group is that a hybrid approach to delivering education should be expanded to not only include academic courses, but also the other major elements that drive the learning experience and make the campus run — namely student services and the workforce.

The hybrid campus, as we’re calling the concept, transcends our current idea of blended education into a more holistic vision for delivering everything an institution offers, from academic advising to courses to career services. An opportunity exists for institutions to harness their new investments (and learning) in digital technology to enhance the student experience and the shift to more remote work. If done correctly, this approach could make institutions more student-centered, and ensure their sustainability.

Think of the hybrid campus as being similar to the retail model that sits somewhere between the physical and digital worlds, with little distinction between the two. Many retailers that started online also operate physical outlets to spark sales on their websites and increase customer loyalty. Most customers, however, don’t make a distinction between the two. What’s critical here is for the physical and the virtual to complement one another — not to create separate domains or identities for the institution.

Some features of the hybrid campus would be fairly easy to implement. They include rethinking the academic calendar to cycle students through campus beyond the traditional semester schedule, or adding low-residency options, where students might live on campus for a few weeks per semester and then spend the rest working at an internship while taking online classes — or take the opposite approach through remote internships and job shadowing, while taking in-person classes. The hybrid campus offers opportunities to improve the speed and quality of services that don’t always require face-to-face interaction, such as virtual advising and online office hours with professors, which became popular during the pandemic. For example, the University of Utah now uses virtual assistants to answer common questions related to financial aid and admissions.

Other changes require making better use of data. By managing students as lifetime constituents (not just as full-time residential learners) and harvesting real-time information on the changing needs of the workforce, colleges can develop flexible academic programs for the evolving economy and organize noncredit and short courses into plug and-play, always-on continuing education for alumni.

It is also imperative to use data to identify student preferences and to identify common metrics to figure out where students typically get stuck in their academic journey. Furthermore, investment in developing courses designed for the digital age (instead of simply recording classroom lectures or teaching via Zoom) is another important step toward the hybrid campus.

Few universities have more experience with the hybrid approach than the University of Central Florida (UCF), which began experimenting with blended and online classes in the 1990s, and where 90% of the university’s 59,000 undergraduates take such classes today.

UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning has played a vital role in this transformation, serving as a clearinghouse for online learning strategies and practices and as a hub of training for professors. One strategic element they employ is a “mix map” that faculty members prepare to help decide what’s best delivered online and what’s better for in-person instruction. That helps explain why UCF students give the highest marks in satisfaction surveys to mixed-mode or hybrid courses.

We tend to think of universities for teaching students and conducting research, but they are also workplaces. The hybrid campus will require college leaders to identify the functions that are critically important to the institution’s mission and then focus their precious human resources on those functions. Other services could potentially be better delivered by external entities that can invest in those services and provide them at scale. We have already seen such changes in areas like online student mental health therapy and telemedicine services.

In our research, as campuses began to develop reopening plans, we saw a significant percentage of staff express a strong desire to permanently remain fully remote or hybrid. This opens up further opportunities for senior leaders to source talent from well outside their geographic boundaries, or to simply outsource certain services outside the academic core.

As noted above, many decisions will be driven by data. One institution that has put data to good use is Georgia State University, which used analytics during the pandemic to anticipate which students were having financial difficulty. The university then reached out to those students to provide aid directly without ever requiring in-person interaction. Since April 2020, more than 34,000 Georgia State students have received emergency aid through this direct process.

At the heart of any radical change in higher education, not surprisingly, is a willingness by the administration and faculty to embrace new governance processes, structures, and performance measurements. Yet as we saw during the pandemic, it is indeed possible; changes that were thought to take years — if they ever happened at all — to implement through shared governance were put in place almost overnight when campuses were temporarily shuttered last year. The investments that were made in online education and the knowledge gained from the “grand remote education experiment of 2020” — both the benefits and the drawbacks — seem too potent to ignore.

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