Lead From the Future

The brand of remote instruction most colleges are offering now will create a backlash against online education. Colleges will have to significantly expand the learning ecosystem to overcome it, write Peter Stokes and Mark Johnson.

April 1, 2020
 
 

Imagine a 19th-century steam engine rolling elegantly across the prairie under blue skies. Now imagine asking it to be ready to behave like a bullet train a week from Monday, as the darkest clouds gather on the horizon.

Something like this happened in the early weeks of March when, in response to a looming public health crisis on a scale not seen in more than a century, college and university leaders across the country asked their faculty to be ready to deliver all instruction remotely with a mere week’s preparation (formerly known as spring break).

The energy marshaled by faculty, staff, administrators and their institutional partners (OPMs, video-capture technologies and online proctoring services, among others) was nothing short of heroic. As a result, millions of students now have the opportunity to complete their coursework while the nation undertakes the altogether unprecedented task of self-isolating in a grand collaborative effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 virus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost as soon as the order to entirely revamp how instruction should be delivered was given, the digirati opined that at long last the dam would break and the world of higher education would finally, out of necessity, be made safe for online learning.

Except it won’t. Get ready for the backlash.

Returning to the bullet train, one would have to be naïve to assume that tracks that were laid so swiftly would provide a smooth ride, that the trains would all arrive on time and that the passengers would find those rides comfortable and satisfying. Peter first taught online 25 years ago, and Mark’s team at Innosight has advised some of the leading providers of online learning at scale, so we’re both quite familiar with online learning’s strengths and limitations. Only a Pangloss would think that what is currently being improvised in real time will generate many permanent converts to the movement.

To the contrary, the soon-to-be-certain conflation of remote instruction with online learning is likely to set us back a few paces before we can move forward again. Before faculty members even found out about the perils of Zoombombing, they knew that hosting a web conference would not, by itself, ensure student learning.

Not surprisingly, some faculty have quickly shifted from one mode of delivery to another, abandoning the web conference altogether and retreating to the video lecture. By day three of our vast national experiment, one dean told me, an angry parent had reached him by phone to let him know that he wasn’t paying tuition so that his kid could watch videos of professors giving lectures. The parent wanted “real” online learning. So do we all.

Over the last few days, some of our education industry colleagues have expressed surprise when we warn them of the coming backlash. But the presidents, deans and faculty we’ve spoken with agree. We’re all going to be taken to the woodshed -- by parents and students, and by the very faculty and instructional designers we asked to undertake this thankless task.

So, what do we do next? How do we overcome the bad feelings that are likely to hover over this effort? How can we learn from this experiment and build a better delivery model for 21st-century instruction? It is urgent that we do so, because we are now living in a world where pandemics -- and the economic upheaval that accompanies them -- may prove to be seasonal events. How can we prepare for such an uncertain tomorrow?

By leading from rather than to the future.

Even before the rise of COVID-19, we were on pace to witness as much change in the next decade as we experienced in the previous century. When a disruption on the scale of this virus occurs, trend lines steepen and the pace of change accelerates even more; inflections that might have taken years tip in a matter of months.

Organizations and institutions that don’t recognize this become susceptible to the present-forward fallacy, the seductive notion that they can sustain themselves indefinitely by continuing to do what they have always done, making incremental improvements along the way. That’s not, in fact, how big, breakthrough changes happen.

Let’s go back to that 19th-century railroad train. The early passenger cars looked exactly like stagecoaches, with the good seats inside and the cheap seats on their roofs. It wasn’t much different when the earliest automobiles hit the roads. They looked very much like the horseless carriages that they were, and they were almost as noxious and noisy and uncomfortable to ride in as those early trains.

Their inventors weren’t thinking about what was to come so much as what already was. Thinking from the present forward, they harnessed new technologies to what already existed instead of using them as propellants to new possibilities. Eventually systems thinkers like Commodore Vanderbilt and Henry Ford came along and created the infrastructure and the ecosystem that they required.

But the same problem later repeated in the newspaper business. When the internet began to cut into classified ad sales, its present-forward thinkers responded by making literal PDF replicas of their print newspapers available online.

To realize the full potential of a new technology, capability or model like a steam engine, remote instruction or digital media, you need to think in a different direction, from the future back. A handful of visionary newspaper publishers recognized how different the digital environment was to print and created websites that updated themselves in real time and that were hyperlinked, allowing for nonlinear navigation, searching and more.

They did that by envisioning that different environment of the future and then translating it into a strategy that they could carry out from the present forward, laying out a series of benchmarks and milestones along the way where they could assess their progress and pivot if necessary.

Much the same thing will need to happen with remote instruction before it can be truly called online learning -- a more expansive ecosystem must be created around it. To do that requires much more than one frantic week of preparation. You need a vision, a strategy and a disciplined learning-based approach, in which you constantly test and improve.

Needless to say, the onrush of the COVID-19 crisis provided limited opportunity for a disciplined approach to reimagining the future of education delivery. But when the crisis finally recedes, it would be careless not to make the time.

Bio

Peter Stokes is a managing director in the higher education practice at Huron. Mark Johnson is co-founder and senior partner at Innosight and author of Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2020).

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