Changing How We Teach In America, Starting Today

By Caleb Hicks, president, Lambda School.

Higher education is struggling to adapt to the current pandemic in unprecedented ways. Campuses across the country are shut down, students have evacuated their dorms, and instructors are scrambling to move their classrooms completely online.

It’s not just about homework and assignments — teachers are trying to engage students while re-imagining the entire classroom experiences in real-time. It begs the questions: What does the classroom of the future really look like? And how can parents, educators, and students best understand and prepare for this new reality?

It starts with the obvious: remove the barrier of physical location with remote learning options. Next is community. Foster student engagement and maintain support systems to ensure digital classrooms are still just as accessible as they are effective.

The classroom of the future will have to meet students where they are, building on basic remote operations with inventive, interactive curriculum and accessible financing options designed so that diverse communities can succeed in this new normal.

The classroom of the future is live, interactive, and entirely online. 

In 2016, nearly a third of all students took an online education course, and in the past two decades, the technology needed to offer full courses online has improved significantly.

Online learning offers flexibility and often complements in-person courses or lectures. For many students, however, remote learning is the only option. It opens up access to students who would otherwise be out of reach. In particular, students who are their family’s primary caretaker, those who live far from brick-and-mortar institutions, or those with disabilities are sometimes excluded or discouraged from enrolling in higher education without online options. Remote instruction, by design, brings more students into the fold.

Online instructors, though, have a challenge to meet: creating a learning experience that extends beyond a recorded lecture. To ensure student success long-term, student engagement and community building within a virtual classroom is critical. Impact can be easily lost behind a screen, but if you focus on live and collaborative instruction versus static recordings, students feel empowered and held accountable to play an active role in their experience.

Specifically, maintain smaller group settings, no matter how large the lectures are. Have students start and end days in breakout peer groups, where they can have deeper 1:1 discussions and opportunity for collaboration. One way we’ve utilized this at Lambda School is by using Zoom’s breakout function to seamlessly split students off into virtual small-groups during larger lectures. We also facilitate regional student meet-ups in person as well as peer-to-peer communication via Slack to maintain a sense of student body unity.

Aligning incentives keeps students and institutions working towards the same goal.

Students today shoulder a disproportionate amount of risk when they pursue higher education. Federal interest rates on student loans are now paused because of COVID-19, but the underlying problem still exists: student loan debt sits above $1.6 trillion. People are asked to pay hundreds of dollars in testing and application fees, and then often sign loans before they even graduate from high school or step foot in a classroom.

This is all without any guarantee of quality or instruction, adequate support systems, or a job after graduation. Soaring costs of higher education and predatory lending not only impact high school graduates embarking on traditional, four-year degree programs, but they’re also prohibitive to adults at any age looking to re-enter the workforce.

One way to align the incentives of the student and the school is tying future income to tuition through Income Share Agreements (ISAs). With ISAs, the school makes an upfront investment in the student instead of the other way around, providing infrastructure, education, and support, while the student pays little to nothing upfront. In this way, the school is held accountable to student outcomes, meaning it’s in the institution’s best interest to develop skills-based curriculum, offer career services, and support students at every stage of their journey.

Our students have the option to pay nothing upfront, and nothing until they get a job earning $50,000 or more. Even then, payments are proportional to their income and are capped at $30,000 or two years – whichever comes first. Traditional higher education institutions, like the University of Utah and Purdue University, also offer certain ISA financial agreements to students. With this type of financial mechanism, the school and the student are held accountable to each other as they work towards a mutual goal.

Don’t discount hiring trends when building curriculum.

Most students’ goal is to earn a high paying career after graduation, so institutions need to re-frame curriculum with industry hiring needs in mind. Curriculums should be to be designed to be welcoming and comprehensive, but also effective in landing students jobs in their chosen fields.

For example, it’s more important that students fully master skills than graduate in a predetermined or arbitrary time frame. A curriculum designed around mastery-based progression (versus strict, time-based structures) offers students the opportunity to truly learn skills before moving on. With instruction all online, there’s greater flexibility across the board.

Materials can be made easily accessible throughout the duration of the course, and students can go back and repeat a section without falling behind. Life often gets in the way without discrimination (COVID-19 being a great example), so educational institutions should remain nimble to adapt to student needs, whether it’s additional instruction to grasp a certain lesson, or time off for personal reasons.

In the same vein, instruction should be iterative, and revolve around experiential learning where possible. Curriculum should closely mirror the workplaces students are preparing to enter. One way of doing this is to pull small groups of students across cohorts and sections to work on one, large-scale project from idea to execution. We call this exercise Build Week, and it’s meant to prepare students to work collaboratively and cross-functionally. When the curriculum is built for hiring needs, it’s also beneficial to have instructors who not only know the material, but have been in this workforce themselves.

Finally, soft skills can’t be forgotten in future, digital education. Skills like sending professional emails or setting up direct deposit shouldn’t be assumed. It’s in the institution’s best interest for soft skills to be incorporated throughout the curriculum (not only at the very end) to ensure graduates feel fully prepared and ready to embrace roles in the workforce.

Ultimately, this scramble we’re seeing in higher education to understand remote learning isn’t a passing trend. More and more institutions – both the new online schools as well as legacy universities – will need to adapt to our increasingly digital world. Every school needs to figure this out, and fast.

Creating learning environments that are accessible, supportive, and diverse is the only way to push the entire higher education landscape forward. Redesigning classrooms from the ground up, with meaningful changes to financing, instruction, and curriculum, will ensure that more students are welcomed into schools. It also means educational institutions can more effectively act as an engine for economic and social mobility.

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