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During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Asia in late 2002 and 2003 and the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, online learning came to the rescue of scores of colleges and universities and tens of thousands of students.

SARS was a serious cousin of the current virus. It spread quickly across Asia and into other parts of the world, notably Canada. Claiming some 800 lives, the virus closed campuses much as COVID-19 has in the afflicted regions. U.K. universities led the way in offering online delivery of class materials to students at Hong Kong universities. It was this innovation that illuminated the path for rescuers in disasters to come.

I was studying the implications of online learning interventions during SARS when Katrina devastated nearly two dozen college and university campuses along the U.S. Gulf Coast. With my colleague Burks Oakley, then associate vice president for academic affairs for the University of Illinois, we brought the opportunity for online learning intervention to the attention of Frank Mayadas, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This quickly expanded to engage a host of other higher education leaders at the Sloan Consortium, the Southern Regional Education Board and many others. The remarkable effort was chronicled by George Lorenzo. Ultimately, the effort dubbed “the Sloan Semester” engaged more than 100 colleges and universities in offering online classes at no charge to students displaced by the hurricane. The intent was to provide transfer credit for those students to continue their degrees from wherever they took refuge while their campuses were closed and under repair.

With relatively little notice, the pandemic swept across the country as universities were poised to begin spring break. Most campuses did not reopen after the break. With one week to prepare, remote learning was put in place, moving classes designed for campus delivery to online delivery. This, of course, continued for most campuses through the fall semester.

In each of these circumstances, the delivery of online classes was orchestrated differently. To some extent, we learned along the way. Many campuses had built the online delivery option into their business continuity plans. Many had set practices to create instances of LMS templates for each class that was to offered -- populated with students, syllabi and active grade books. Although that eased the technical challenges, much remained to be done in faculty development in the pedagogy and best practices of engaging students in active online learning.

So where are we now? Higher ed enrollments were down nearly half a million students in the fall. This follows a smaller, steady drop each year over the past decade. Students have stopped out, dropped out and are pursuing a host of alternatives ranging from certificate programs and professional certifications, many of which are served by economical MOOC and at-scale programs. As Coursera notes in a recent blog post, “In 2020, a record number of people turned to online learning as a source of hope, growth, and resilience amid economic uncertainty, and campus and workplace disruptions. Since March, there were more than 69 million enrollments on Coursera -- a roughly 430% increase compared to the same period last year.” And this increase comes as annual population growth in 2020 was the lowest in a century or more in the U.S., meaning the stock for future students is decreasing.

The model of higher education premised on 18-year-old freshmen, right out of high school, is coming to a close. We have an oversupply of colleges and universities to meet that need. The shakeout has begun with faculty layoffs, program cuts and deep deficits. The trends I have been following show this to be undeniable and pervasive.

That brings us back to online learning to the rescue. As the U.S. Department of Labor reports the average tenure at an employer is just 4.2 years, we are seeing an ever-increasing number of adults returning to universities for continuing and professional education to retool and upskill for new and changing careers. And, by and large, they are doing this online.

It is online learning to the rescue again, but this time the change will be far more lasting than an epidemic or hurricane. The emphasis for many universities who survive this shakeup will be to serve the "60-year learner" who returns again and again to prepare for work in an ever-changing economy fueled by artificial intelligence.

Is your university prepared for this shift? Are professional, postbaccalaureate and certification programs under development and expansion? How are you reaching the adult students who will need these programs? Who is leading this change that is at the foundation of the future of your university?

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