Nikias Offers Bold Predictions on the Future of Higher Education Following the Pandemic

Future of Education webinar screenshot

In a screenshot from the webinar are, top left, USC President Emeritus C. L. Max Nikias; San Ling, deputy president and provost at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore; and Hostess So-Young Kang, founder and CEO of Gnowbe, Inc.

At a global webinar focusing on the future of education in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Emeritus C. L. Max Nikias made several bold and passionate predictions.

“It’s a kick in the pants and like any other kick, it hurts,” Nikias said about the pandemic’s disruption of universities. But he saw the pain as leading to a “new renaissance” in higher education with a very positive outcome for students and families. “The online technology and online education will be embraced at a much faster pace because universities will have no other choice. The competition out there will be real. It will be formidable. It will be with excellent academic quality and it’s going to be less expensive. So the consumer will have many choices and it’s going to be a great thing for families and students.”

According to Nikias, new not-for-profit colleges and universities will spring up to offer online education that will emphasize student selectivity and rigorous curricula at a significantly lower cost than residential schools. “The residential model will continue to exist but second and third tier universities will have to provide value, or close down.”

“I agree that students will have a lot more choices, but online will not replace face-to-face interaction,” said San Ling who is deputy president and provost at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Institutions of higher learning will need to create new sources of revenue and at the same time control their costs.”

“The big irony here is that most of the online education technology was invented in the university environment, yet universities have been slow to adopt it,” Nikias said. He predicted that breathtaking technologies such as artificial intelligence and game-based learning coupled with the roll-out of 5G networks will soon dramatically improve the online education experience. “It will be different, and so much better than talking heads on Zoom. And again, it will be high quality academically.”

Ling cautioned that online education requires a great deal more discipline on the part of students. He questioned whether many of them were ready. “People learn in different ways. Agility will be a key skill of the future as students quickly move from one domain to another. Left to yourself, the danger is you may not push yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Nikias said the expansion of online will not be limited to universities’ education mission. “University administrative activities will also move online. It’s going to be online everything. Schools will have to make big expenditures to upgrade their IT infrastructure and online platforms.”

He said the pandemic is causing similar disruptions in healthcare. “It has forced healthcare providers and patients into telehealth, but that change will stay with us. And like education it will get better.” He added that neither healthcare nor higher education will ever return to the pre-pandemic normal. “There will be a new normal for everyone. Air travel never returned to the normal that existed before 9/11 and this is bigger than 9/11.”

The two professors addressed the digital divide, which hit K through 12 students hard. In Singapore, Ling said all school children transitioned to home-based learning with the Ministry of Education handing out 12,000 devices to students who did not have the means to learn remotely. Another private group produced 3,000 refurbished laptops in three months.

“USC has formed partnerships with local schools (USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative) to help with IT infrastructure and to provide training for students and teachers,” Nikias said. “It is very important that nobody be left behind. Universities have a role to play here.”

The webinar, entitled “Future of Education: Views from the Top – East vs. West” was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that is profoundly disrupting universities and colleges with the possibility that many of them could soon fail.

So-Young Kang, founder and CEO of Gnowbe, a mobile micro-learning and engagement firm that produced the webinar, acted as host.

USC President Emeritus and Professor C. L. Max Nikias holds the Malcolm R. Currie Chair for Technology and the Humanities and is the director of the USC Institute for Technology Enabled Higher Education.

See a short video clip from the webinar: