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Advice for Higher Ed Leaders: Expect More Disruption & Build Resilience with Digital

By Guest Author July 28, 2020

Innovation Leadership Forum

By: Jeffrey Selingo

Last Thursday, Arizona State University President Michael Crow joined me and Allyson Fryhoff, Chief Strategic Engagement Officer at, at the Innovation Leadership Forum for a virtual conversation on how higher education is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and how institutions can accelerate their digital transformation to support students now and in the future.

Here are some of the highlights of our conversation with President Crow.

How can institutions prepare for not only what the next year holds, but also what the future higher education ecosystem should look like?

Quote from Michael Crow, ASU President

We can expect substantial disruption in the future — climate-related disruptions, economic disruptions, and technological disruptions. We must become more resilient. Institutions should be laying down track now for what’s next.

To build more resilient institutions, higher ed needs a lot more cooperation between colleges and universities, where they can share assets (like courses) and have relationships to take advantage of each other’s strengths. Then, we need more partnerships with the private sector in terms of technology enhancement and capability.

One opportunity is building out programs for lifelong learning. We have this notion in higher education of serving only early learners, adolescents. We have to build a lifelong learning platform that allows a person to come in and out of learning environments easily throughout their life and career, and then into whatever one thinks of as retirement in the future. Institutions should be available to learners throughout their lifetime with easy transactions for learning and earning credentials. Some colleges do that now, but not very many.

We are still in a world where every college, every university, and every community college is trying to solve every problem themselves. In order to build resilience for our institutions, we have to learn how to collaborate, share assets and tools, and problem solve together.

How do we get out of this mindset that higher education is a scarce commodity and connect more people with opportunities for lifelong education?

You’ve got to empower certain institutions to operate and adapt at scale. You’ve got to get more colleges and universities to break down their walls and allow people to come in. You must find a way to respect and recognize other learning modalities, like the training Salesforce does in Trailhead and how it can be linked into other kinds of programs and exchanges for certifiable and stackable credentials. Not everyone has to do this, but we’ve got to start respecting the learner and what the learner needs.

Most colleges and universities see their job as producing what we call a “master learner,” to produce a person capable of learning anything. The tools and assets we use for that could also be useful to others who are not in college, who might need a course or two or a new perspective. Colleges and universities have become more open to disaggregating their content, providing learning opportunities to broader sets of people. There are universities and colleges that need to make this a part of who they are more than what they have already done up to this point.

Across the country and across industries, we’re seeing a transformation of how governments and companies are approaching issues of racial and economic justice. How can higher ed institutions advance equality and how can technology help?

We’ve taken the view at ASU that unless our student body is as diverse as our society, the universe is not successful.

We have to stop this notion that somehow universities and colleges are institutions for the few — that universities are a scarce commodity, that there are very few seats, that there are very few ways to engage, and that you have to go at a certain time in your life.

Throughout much of the 20th century in the U.S., we invested in big public works projects from water projects to the interstates to higher education institutions. Then we stopped. We have decided to stop doing what we need to do.

There should be high-speed internet available to every person in every home, every location, everywhere. If we have that, we can then greatly enhance learning outcomes. We can distribute manufacturing activities and have 3D printers in people’s houses, and work can then be evenly distributed. We are forgetting the tremendous assets of infrastructure that have been built for the generation that we are now living off of.

At ASU, we’ve proposed the emergence of a “national service university.” A new, more innovative and agile, class of American research institutions, led by the design of ASU, that is meant to increase degree attainment by learners of all backgrounds by focusing on student success and knowledge creation.

What are the top priorities for ASU in the next couple of years, and have they shifted as a result of the pandemic?

The pandemic has accelerated our rate of change into a third modality of teaching and learning called ASU Sync, which allows students to move between the physical classroom and online courses.

What we realize is that in the next two-to-five years, pandemic or not, we can now reach more learners across the totality of their lives than we thought possible, without diminishing the core academic culture. This year, we will have about 80,000 students in digital immersion mode online and we can move back and forth in this sync mode. Technology has become our foundational capability that has allowed us to expand what we can do on campus and online.

How has ASU embraced digital transformation both on the learning side and the institutional operational side?

We have changed everything — all of our procedures, processes, student recruitment, student management, counseling, and academic management.

We’ve got fantastic technology platforms from Salesforce and more than 250 other technology partners that we’ve woven together. Those systems allowed us to take our same faculty and double our four-year graduation rate, all enhanced by this technology. We are now able to move with agility, speed, and scale. We’ve lowered our costs against inflation in the last 10 years. Without technology, we wouldn’t have been unable to accomplish any of this.

Watch the full conversation with President Michael Crow from our virtual Innovation Leadership Forum.

About the Author

Jeffrey Selingo is a special advisor at Arizona State University and the author of two New York Times bestselling books on higher education, with another book forthcoming in September, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (Simon & Schuster). You can find out more about him at