Universities in a more virtual world: what the US is teaching

06 Jul 2020

Universities in a more virtual world: what the US is teaching

As global educators adjust to a more virtual world, we hear from Dr Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer at Arizona State University, as part of Odgers Berndtson Education Practice’s In Global Conversation series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led universities around the world to change their teaching and learning delivery overnight.

How has Arizona State University found the transition to online and digital delivery? How are staff and students responding?

The recent conversations on this topic have been unfortunately binary, discussing the outdated framing of ‘online vs not-online’. This is not how we have experienced it at ASU.

Twelve years ago, we started ASU Online with 400 students, taking a run at a market that was undeveloped in big public American universities. We were looking to diversify and take a risk.

Fast forward to this year, where we now run 230 different degree programmes for 60,000 students, who often never set foot on campus, but still have a strong affinity and identity tied to the University. It was in this context that we pivoted our wider teaching online on March 16th due to coronavirus.

ASU Online grew by more than 20%, and, in parallel, we were looking to deliver the in-person classroom experience in a digital forum. In an unbelievably short timescale, we managed to pull it off without a hitch.

The University delivered over 25,000 classes, involving 18,000 faculty, and finished the semester with high scores for engagement and experience.

The staff responded well. We had solid delivery programmes for learning and collaboration. We engaged faculty members with software toolboxes and peer-to-peer support to help teachers learn how to teach in a new environment.

Our new model of ANU Sync, a live remote platform for education, has received a very positive response from staff and students, who find it both engaging and highly flexible.

A values-driven university, we are hugely committed to inclusion, being relevant to our community and having an entrepreneurial spirit that threads everything together. So, we were well-placed for the pivot, having already gone through a culture shift earlier in our history, which meant that we hugely value online learning as an opportunity to enable access and opportunity for all learners.

Coupled with the right incentives and focussed early engagement, the faculty and its outstanding leadership have been able to deliver on all fronts, growing the offering even further with sometimes more demand than there was capacity to deliver!


Education Leaders In Global Conversation

Get future perspectives from higher education leaders during a time of unprecedented change. Explore a new topic every month, with key learnings, insights and developments from the forefront of the sector across the world.

Register now

What has been the biggest challenge in moving to a platform of online course delivery at this time, while maintaining the quality of teaching?

Many of my peers in other institutions have told me they can’t wait to go back to the way things were, essentially holding their breath throughout this dislocation in wait for a return.

From the very beginning, ASU has had no interest in going back. We see ASU Sync as a future permanent feature in a growing menu of choices for a student learner.

COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, it is a new reality that we need to engage with and develop ourselves for what will be a changed marketplace.

It has given rise to new innovations in flexible delivery and greater recognition of individual student need and preference, which play strongly into ASU’s strategy and values.

A big challenge of this new asynchronous mode was for our international students, for whom this is a critical offering. We have developed ASU Local in order to deliver real-time teaching in the right time-zone for a student, wherever they are in the world.

Another challenge has been in aiding the staff from a technology perspective. This has meant developing tools to support traditional teachers to deliver in a brand-new model. A highly-distributed instructional design model has helped us support each other to take that step. They have done an amazing job, speaking to the culture of the organisation. We will continue to learn into the summer, with a series of ‘train-the-trainer’ courses that we are launching.

While the move to online was not as radical a change for us as some other institutions (my team might disagree given they had to do it within four days!), we see this as a critical step in the evolution of the ASU model. This Sync mode is one more essential part of that development, as is looking to a more blended model.

What interesting innovations are you seeing in the wider HE sector in the context of digital delivery and technology?

We are always trying to work with leading thinkers and doers in the sector. For example, engaging with leading technologies and educators at our LearningMan summer camp.

I am intrigued by the use of blockchain technologies to address fundamental challenges in learning.

To this day, we are still an industry focused on a model where students leave a university with a piece of paper degree as a sum total of years of effort and experience. This doesn’t say anything more about who that student really is.

Blockchain is being innovated as a way for learners to share evidence and accomplishments in more technological and digital portfolios, changing the assessment model and offering a new perspective on how to measure student success.

It’s a long transformational effort that will run into all types of resistance as it displaces traditional core functions. There’s also some interesting work in XR (extended reality) learning, with new modes of teaching based on experiential learning. Pedagogies are being developed around augmented reality, and methods to combine them with traditional class learning.

Looking ahead, what will these changes mean for how your university will deliver its courses in 2021? What changes do you think are likely to endure in a post-COVID world?

In the short term, I expect that our ASU Online offering will grow robustly in response to people wanting to continue learning in a downturned market. They’ll use the opportunity for a return to education through the easiest method of online learning.

On the other hand, our international student marketplace is the most vulnerable at the moment. This is due to government policy on visas, which is proving to be a huge challenge for the whole Higher Education marketplace.

We’re responding by working on ASU Local, trying to make it as viable as possible. I think our ‘combination-model’ of traditional on-campus experience blended with ASU Sync mode will probably grow further, as our Online work did twelve years ago.

While we can expect to see some modest growth to start, it will continue to develop and respond to external conditions, becoming more innovative and permanent.

In the wider marketplace, there will be those reluctant to venture too far from their comfort zone, but the future of the sector will thrive on the introduction of new concepts, new partnerships and new interesting ideas. With that in mind, there will be more robust growth going forward as the story grows and evolves to address changing market needs, of which there are still so many unknowns in a post-COVID world.

Thank you, Lev, for sharing the view from Arizona. Hear from Australia and the UK too by downloading all three interviews here.