“It takes more than technology for great online learning.”
Interview with Christopher ‘Chip’ Paucek, Co-founder and CEO of 2U
To create a top-quality online education experience, higher education institutions need to do much more than simply digitally replicate the in-person classroom, says Christopher ‘Chip’ Paucek, CEO of 2U, an edtech company that works with nonprofit universities globally to develop online degree programs, boot camps and short courses. In this interview, Paucek explains how universities in emerging markets can better adapt to make education online successful.
What’s been the impact of the pandemic on education broadly and on the demand for degrees and other adult learning?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a paradigm shifting moment for higher education. The pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends towards online education, resulting in more universities embracing longer-term digital transformation strategies to strengthen financial stability and meet a growing range of learner needs. Worldwide, demand for online education continues to grow.
In fact, more people than ever before are making online degrees their first choice. Strada Education recently found that Americans’ interest in online and hybrid education is strong, regardless of COVID-19, with 42 percent of people saying that if they were to enroll in postsecondary education in the next six months, they would prefer online education—a preference that would remain even if COVID-19 weren’t a threat.
In the last few months, we’ve also seen accelerating demand for non-degree educational offerings—a trend we believe is driven by working professionals looking to add new skills and credentials and job seekers striving to switch careers in an uncertain economy. We see this demand for online degrees, short courses, and intensive training courses known as boot camps, growing across the communities we serve in over 175 countries.
What are the specific challenges that universities in emerging markets face right now?
Enrollment in higher education globally is poised to more than double in the next two decades, driven almost entirely by the growing middle class in India and China. In fact, by 2035, students from these countries are projected to account for 50 percent of all higher education enrollments worldwide.
This is a significant development on two fronts. First, many students from these countries are focused on pursuing education as a pathway to employability in high-growth, high-tech industries. Second, even with increased investment in more in-person faculty and new physical classrooms, we won’t be able to accommodate a fraction of the 120 million projected new higher education learners by 2030. Nor will many of these learners have the means or the access to attend traditional colleges and universities in person. Taken together, these factors will put enormous pressure on educational providers to deliver high-quality learning experiences.
Simply digitizing lecture videos won’t cut it—nor will the 5-15 percent completion rates of traditional MOOCs, massive open online courses available to everyone to enroll. Online education will have to be purpose-built to deliver engaging, effective learning experiences that leverage the best digital capabilities and content—and deliver these cost-effectively at scale. While degree offerings will remain essential, alternative credentials will also be critical to supporting this massive population of learners.
How can you impart workplace-relevant skills when so much instruction must be conducted remotely from people’s homes?
In powering high-quality online education, 2U is one of the biggest proponents of live online video—we just surpassed 787,00 live video sessions. But live video instruction is just a fraction of what’s needed to make online learning high quality for students. This year, students around the world experienced what it was like to have to rely on, for example, 90 minutes of live video lecturing for instruction: it’s no surprise that students and teachers don’t love it. There’s a difference between putting a lecture online and creating the perfect mix of live online instruction with solo study time using engaging, pre-recorded videos and assignments. You need to flip the classroom: by doing so, you create an opportunity for people to learn the content on their own time so that when they get to the class or the live session, they can talk about it and engage with the content or, in some cases, run exercises together.
To date, many online learning experiences universities offer are no more than direct replicas of the residential classroom, when digital tools and technology allow us to do so much more than this simple translation. 2U uses principles of learning science to transcend this replication and achieve truly transformative digital education by enhancing the student learning experience. And this quality has not gone unnoticed by students in 2U-powered programs—in fact, a recent study we did with Gallup found that 92 percent of students in the programs we power would still pursue an online graduate degree if they had to do it over again. The findings show that creating an engaging and rigorous experience online is not only possible, but in some cases can surpass in-person delivery.
How do you see the Online Program Management (OPM) business evolving in terms of size, number of players, emergence of alternative models?
As higher education continues to evolve and innovate amid COVID-19, an increasing number of universities are establishing long-term partnerships with companies like 2U to bring their institutions online. HolonIQ recently found that over 770 universities are now working directly with over 200 edtech companies to deliver their online educational offerings. Needless to say, the market is certainly expanding and will likely continue to do so.
I do want to note, however, that 2U is more than an OPM in the traditional sense. Universities choose 2U because we’re a partner, not just a platform. It takes more than technology for great online learning. We’ve developed a unique blend of tech, people, and data to support university innovation and to deliver great student outcomes. We also do much more than bring degrees online—we support our partners in building a strategy for stackable/modular online learning through our range of alternative credentials across the career curriculum continuum.
When the pandemic is over, which parts of online higher education will likely go ‘back to normal’ and which parts will be changed forever?
While COVID-19 has thrown online education into the spotlight like never before, the need for accessible, affordable, blended, relevant and high-quality online learning will extend far beyond the pandemic. Universities that lean into the benefits of online learning will not only serve their students much better in the short term, but will position themselves for future success and ensure a sustainable and resilient future for higher ed—because however this pandemic resolves, we’re never going back to the world that existed before.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in November 2020