Is the Future of Education Online?

Photo by Gabriel Benois for Unsplash

Like many other college students, my son was looking forward to the internship he had planned for this summer. And like many others, he was disappointed to learn that his summer internship program was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a graduate student in the University of Maryland’s environmental engineering program, my son will undoubtedly see many more opportunities down the line, but in the immediate future he is left without a plan, wondering what to do for the next three months and what may happen when school starts again in August. This is a position in which many college students and recent graduates are finding themselves — canceled internships or rescinded job offers, facing the worst job market in recent history.

We’re hearing similar stories across the U.S. and around the world. High school graduates will have no commencement ceremony, no prom, no senior week or graduation party to celebrate this milestone with friends and family. In fact, most college-bound seniors aren’t even sure they will be moving into dorms or attending classes on campus when school starts again. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused education at all levels to quickly pivot to an online learning format and with such short notice, many are experiencing significant challenges. But now that almost all college instruction has moved to 100 percent online, what can we take away from this experience, and how can we use it to enhance student learning?

Online education has many benefits: it’s cost-effective, can be highly customized to meet the specific needs of each student and has the potential to reach many more people than in-person instruction. By nature, the prime benefit of online education is increased accessibility, which is essential to bringing the best minds to STEM, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic situation or geographic location. After the COVID-19 health crisis subsides, we must think about how we can continue offering online education while preserving what’s important about the in-person experience. Perhaps this is the disruptive event higher education needs to reassess how we’re educating future STEM professionals. Certainly, we’ll have many examples of what works well and what doesn’t. We can use those “lessons learned” to improve the educational experience for thousands of students around the globe. It’s what we do today, in academia, that can help equip students for the unknowns of tomorrow. In effect, we’re preparing students for the “next normal” as our world will certainly be much different in many ways moving forward.

Julia Pollak, a labor economist for ZipRecruiter, recently told Business Insider that while the number of entry-level job opportunities and internships has fallen significantly over the past several weeks, graduates of “qualitatively-oriented” STEM fields are less likely to have difficulty finding a job. They’re also less likely to take an underpaying job. This is good (albeit not surprising) news, as STEM professionals play a vital role in creating the solutions to key social, environmental and economic challenges, such as the one we are facing today.

In the next few weeks, over 100,000 students around the globe will graduate from ABET- accredited programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology. While the future may seem unsure to the graduates of 2020, one thing is certain: students of ABET-accredited programs will graduate with the knowledge, skills and lifelong learning tools to succeed in any environment.

As for my youngest son, he’ll either enroll in summer classes or conduct research through his university. Internship cancellations and layoffs are distressing, but I’ve encouraged him not to lose hope. What you do now and how you spend the next few months could lead to countless opportunities down the line. Resilience and perseverance in the face of hardship are qualities that all employers look for in new hires. There are still virtual internships available with companies across sectors, but this is also a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of the additional free time and learn a new skill or sharpen an old one. Afterall, there is more than one pathway to success. The key will be to remain flexible and focus on building skills as you plot a new course forward.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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