The Shape of Post-COVID College Education

How will a virtual semester change college education forever

When I was a little boy attending a boarding elementary school, September 1st was always the day I dreaded the most. My school always started on September 1st of every year. My parents would send me to school with two large suitcases, do my bed for me, and leave until I could see them again on the weekend. I used to be very scared of leaving home for school.

This year, coincidentally, Penn will also start on September 1st. However, instead of leaving home, I'd be staying in my basement to begin what is perhaps the most unconventional educational experience in my life.

As Penn and other colleges around the nation begin virtual instructions, I believe the experiences of this fall semester will have long-lasting impacts on how universities teach and how students learn in many years to come, in the following ways:

  1. Large intro courses will be fully online, forever.
  2. Many courses will adopt the "discussion-centric format".
  3. Universities will publish even more MOOC courses for the public.

Background: Pre-COVID and the rise of MOOCs

Even before COVID-19, higher education has already been transformed by companies offering what came to be known as "Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)". Providers like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX partner with universities around the world to offer online courses, usually for free, to the public. For example, an adapted version of a course I'm taking this fall, CIS 581 (Computer Vision), is available as part of a robotics specialization on Coursera. This means that instead of only teaching Penn students, Penn professors can teaching any person who is interested in learning about computer vision. On the other hand, this also means that I can also take courses from other universities. This is an important context that we should keep in mind as we think about how college education will change after the pandemic.

Insight #1: Large intro courses will be fully online, forever

I believe even after COVID is eliminated, many introductory courses will be fully online. This will be driven by three forces:

  1. Institutions will simply recycle recorded lecture material from this year.
  2. Students will become very used to online classes and they will have lingering health concerns.
  3. The online format simply makes more sense for large intro classes.

First, one natural question professors and universities will ask is what to do with all of the video lectures after the pandemic is over. Just store them on AWS S3? Of course not, I believe that they will be recycled for future iterations of the course. Because of this, many large intro courses will be fully online. They may still have in-person recitations or labs, but the lecture component will be fully online, forever. This is not hard to see with the following example.

At the University of Toronto, where I spent my freshman year, the size of the largest course, Introductory Psychology, is 1,500 people! The only building that can accommodate this course is a massive theater where graduation ceremonies are held. I argue these courses should simply to fully online, forever. There are hardly any interactions between the students and the professor–it's impossible: the student would need a megaphone for other people to hear!

Screenshot of the U of T academic calendar. In the past years, this course was held at Convocation Hall, which fits up to 1500 people.

Insight #2: Many courses will adopt the "discussion-centric format"

During my freshman year at U of T, my professor for a U.S. Politics course told me he wished that he could have recorded his lecture materials, and instead of lecturing for 3 straight hours, he would hold multiple small discussion sessions after students have watched the recorded lectures. I call this format that my professor hoped for the "discussion-centric format".

The discussion-centric format makes a lot of sense. Many professors lecture the exact same material year after year. In big introductory courses, there's hardly any chance for students to interact in class.

In fact, this is already being implemented in one of my courses this fall–ECON 235 (Industrial Organization). Instead of lecturing for 3 hours a week, the professor hold facilitates a 1.5-hour discussion session and has students watch recorded lecture materials beforehand.

Old lecture-centric format New discussion-centric format
3 hours of lecture with 60 students sitting in a lecture hall 1.5 hours of discussions + 1.5 hours of video lectures online
Content heavy - difficult to start discussions Dedicated discussion session
Ability to rewatch, rewind, and speed up video lectures

For students, this is a vastly superior educational experience because it increases classroom interactions and makes dedicated time for discussion. For professors, they can simply recycle the video lectures, which hardly change year after year, and focus on facilitating discussions. It's a win-win for everyone!

Insight #3: Universities will publish even more MOOC courses for the public

After the professors decide to recycle the video lectures from 2020 for future iterations of their courses, I believe universities will naturally think about how they can open-source or monetize these content. While I am not an expert on how a university makes these business decisions, I argue they should consider publishing them to a platform similar to MIT OpenCourseware. Open-sourcing these online content will make higher quality education more accessible to everyone around the world.

In conclusion, the fall 2020 virtual semester will accelerate a revolution in education, which is consists of the transition to fully online intro courses, the transition to the discussion-centric format, and the release of more open-source courseware online. The pandemic, despite its current grim picture, presents an opportunity for colleges to reinvent education for the better.