In the Age of Virtual Classes and Online Degrees, What is the University Really For? (and What Should It Become?)

Rachel Dzombak
15 min readDec 27, 2021


By: Rachel Dzombak and Sara Beckman

an interdisciplinary team working on disaster response challenges

On April 7th, 2020 week 3 of the COVID19 shutdown, I emailed a student asking to meet. A master’s student in the last semester of his program, he had a heavy course load of six classes, which I saw as a means to squeeze every drop of value out of his high tuition payment and take a few electives to round out his education. He replied quickly, saying he was busy only Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays 10–11 am. Surprised, I asked what happened to his classes. He said that in five of his six courses, the faculty and students aren’t meeting as a group. Instead, the professors are recording and posting lectures for students to digest at their leisure.

Maybe this was an anomaly. Maybe it was just his instructors.

When I met with other students over the next few days, I asked: What’s happening with your classes?

One student, an undergraduate studying computer science and pre-medicine, said that most of her teachers were recording lectures to watch whenever she wanted, but that was also the case for her computer science classes before the COVID19 emerged. Since going remote, however, the exams had changed. Now, the exams were harder. Because instructors realized students have access to any and all resources, they had raised the bar and made the exams more rigorous. The student told me she didn’t mind. She said the complexity of the tests made her learning seem more “real” and compelled her to talk to her peers about strategies for approaching the quantitative problems. Her bigger issue was her role as president of the UC Berkeley Swing Dancing Club, which has a large following of students and community members in the Bay Area. Figuring out how to retain the emotional connection that the Swing Club provides its members while people are physically isolated and geographically dispersed — now that was a problem. Her mom delivered her lunch while we were on our Zoom call; that, she said, was a nice perk about being home.

Still another student, also back home with his parents, faced similar predicaments. He now had only one hour of “live” class per week. The rest of his classes were switched into pre-recorded lectures. Moreover, he was a student-athlete, a baseball player. He typically lightens his curricular load in the spring semester because baseball takes up so much time. But baseball season was cut short; It ended just as it was beginning. Now, he had lots of time, too much time. He was practicing pitching in the backyard. All of his classes switched to pass fail, and he had already done enough in the semester to receive passing grades. He shared that each assignment he completes or lecture he watches feels like an inconsequential choice. The professor isn’t the arbiter anymore. It’s up to him what he wants to learn and when.

In Fall 2019, the Bay Area experienced high winds, resulting in power shutdowns for several days to mitigate wildfire risk. UC Berkeley cancelled four days of classes and hundreds (if not thousands) of events, meetings, seminars, and conferences. People called the cancellations “unimaginably disruptive.” At the time, we joked that the cancellations were a boon for the Center for Teaching and Learning, where for years researchers had been debating with faculty about new ways to deliver university courses. Those four days of cancellations provided a short introduction to the COVID-19 era, in which all institutions of higher education are now swimming — we just didn’t know it.

COVID-19 has hit higher education particularly and peculiarly hard. Students were forced to make rapid decisions about where to shelter-in-place, with some universities providing students with more choices than others. Instructors (us included) focused immediate attention on translating courses into online offerings to help students learn remotely. Some instructors barreled ahead with existing plans, and aimed to replicate in-person course plans online, recording lectures and posting them. Other instructors worked to re-think course elements: How do you conduct a sensing lab remotely? How many hours does anyone really want to spend on Zoom? How does this assignment need to change to meet the situations students are now in?

Now, nearly two years in, the pandemic continues to present a profound moment for higher education. The university model is experiencing a systems shock — a challenge to assumptions that govern the design of colleges and universities and practically all their component parts. COVID-19 provides a critical opportunity to reflect on how digital resources and communications have changed learning and the very purpose of the university. If watching a lecture online is an appropriate substitute for an in-person class, why isn’t it the norm? If professors can teach, assess, and grade students without seeing them, what’s the point of a bricks and mortar university? And how, besides delivering classes and degrees online, are institutions of higher education changing to align with the needs of today’s students?

One glaring reason online educational offerings are on the rise is that the cost of college has increased 25% over the past decade and student debt is over $1.6 trillion. Now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we may be at a tipping point in terms of educational reform similar to what Charles Eliot identified in the 1860s. Eliot, the first president of Harvard in 1869, designed the modern university following the first worldwide financial crisis (the Panic of 1857). As a tutor at Harvard, he criticized the tepid response to the financial crisis among educators and argued that the United States required new training to ensure its continued place as a global leader. Eliot proposed and implemented educational systems to support the emerging era of mass production and industrialization. Ever wonder why we have standardized tests, bell curves, credit hours, majors, minors, and required courses? Nearly all of these elements were designed by Charles Eliot. As Cathy Davidson writes in her 2017 book The New Education:

“The features of the modern university designed to train and to measure specialized knowledge production were desirable because they enabled people to be pigeonholed into hierarchical corporate structures. [Eliot’s system] narrowed what counts as aptitude and intelligence, as creativity and ingenuity, to that which can be tested according to standardized metrics.”

The reality for students today is that they are graduating into an uncertain world. Yet, they will also become the designers of a future that transforms the world as we know it. Still, they are being trained through an education system that was designed for a different set of outcomes: specialization in industries and sectors that are expected to last many decades. Although there is still demand for specialization, that emphasis has gone too far. Work done at Colorado School of Mines estimates that the average undergraduate enrolled in an engineering program today will solve between 2,000–7,000 problems during their tenure. As Professor Juan Lucena writes:

“They are trained to value the repeated application of a stabilized method. The only thing that [varies] from course to course and major to major is the type of problem and the appropriate mathematical tools for solving it.”[1]

Despite heavy repetition, retention of facts from lectures and courses (especially in STEM) remain low. And the majority of classes are still taught to deliver facts and content in the style of “sage on the stage” — a model that reinforces the main role for faculty is to support students’ digestion of content. The deficiency of this model has been growing since the Internet Generation came to the university and began to question all the sages, clicking to find better course material online while yawning through classes or not even physically attending them.

Students’ behavior reflects the system that we have set up for them. Think of the messages that a biology educator is sending by, for example, attributing half of a student’s grade to the final exam. We’re sending the message that to be a biologist you need to be able to spit out knowledge in a short amount of time. Students are going to want to learn exactly what is on the test and nothing more. Does that reflect the thoughtful and scientific work that a biologist does? Okay, some will say — let’s replace the test with a project so that students learn teamwork — a critical part of the profession of biologists. Within many large-enrollment courses, a grade distribution is enforced. Only so many students are able to earn As in the class. Are students going to learn how to work in teams if they are competing against each other for grades? Let’s go back to online learning and academic integrity — if we show students we don’t trust them, by monitoring if they are paying attention using Zoom’s facial recognition software, then they are going to feel like the educator is the enemy. And that part of their task is to win the battle against the educator. Is that the position we, as educators, want to take? We think not.

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis places a spotlight on the fact that we are living in a world of complexity. The digital transformation that has emerged over the last few decades has fundamentally shifted (and will continue to shift) the speed at which information is shared, events occur, and diseases spread. Our world and the systems it contains (healthcare, financial, food and others) are not dictated by linear cause and effect relationships. Instead behavior is unpredictable because elements are highly interconnected, problems are dynamic and change with time, and it’s near-impossible to track all of the variables influencing systems behavior.

We — our society, our leaders and our institutions — are struggling to act and react to the challenges we are facing. As David Rotman outlined in a recent piece in MIT Technology Review, “The pandemic has made clear this festering problem: the US is no longer very good at coming up with new ideas and technologies relevant to our most basic needs. We’re great at devising shiny, mainly software-driven bling that makes our lives more convenient in many ways. But we’re far less accomplished at reinventing health care, rethinking education, making food production and distribution more efficient, and, in general, turning our technical know-how loose on the largest sectors of the economy.” A fundamental reason is that we are still applying the reductionist approach to problem solving that we learned in school. “We have been taught to analyze, to use our rational ability, to trace direct paths from cause to effect, to look at things in small and understandable pieces, to solve problems by acting on or controlling systems.”[2] We get the attractiveness of simplifying, of seeing complicated problems as a set of relationships that ultimately can be broken down. However, that doesn’t reflect the systemic nature of most of these problems. We need a new set of approaches that appreciate and accommodate complexity. As Gen. Stanley McCrystal writes in Team of Teams, “Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different than anything we’d planned or trained for. The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built…We’re not lazier or less intelligent than our parents or grandparents, but what worked for them simply won’t do the trick for us now.”

This is the challenge for higher education today — how do we prepare students to live, work, and lead in the world that exists today? At present, every industry is radically rethinking the systems it operates within, the experiences it creates for people, how it is structured, and the role it plays not only in the marketplace, but in society more broadly. As David Epstein points out in Range, “Do we really need to go through courses with very specialized knowledge that often provides a huge amount of stuff that is very detailed, very specialized, very arcane, and will be totally forgotten in a couple of weeks? Especially now, when all the information is on your phone. You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.” Certainly, there are places on campus that train students in reasoning — but as from our viewpoint, STEM and business education, which are frequently (for better or for worse) leading the shape of companies, government, and society, need better educational offerings in considering what is the problem to be solved, instead of only training in solving techniques.

To navigate the ambiguous and uncertain world of today, students require a collection of mindsets, skillsets, and values: mindsets to help make sense of the challenges that are presented with, skillsets to help them take action or engage with problems they care about, and values to ground their decisions and give meaning to their lives. Helping students cultivate mindsets, skillsets, and values requires a different type of education. It requires that from the start they are connected to and challenged with real-life problems and conversations, and not merely tested on their ability to memorize. The good news is this is already happening around the United States, the bad news is that this transformative education remains the exception, not the rule.

How do we engage in education redesign on a broader scale? Just like how Charles Eliot went about redesigning the modern university there is an opportunity to rethink many of the assumptions governing our operations today. A starting place is to consider how to blend the strengths that typically reside within different parts of campus (the liberal arts, business, and engineering) towards a new type of education that focuses on guiding students to frame and solve problems that matter.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment. In the last chapter of his book One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan, founder of the online educational nonprofit Khan Academy, suggests that university be a place into which organizations throw real world problems and students spend four years solving them. In his example, the problems come from Silicon Valley companies seeking, for example, improved search algorithms, human speech recognition or well-designed mobile apps. Through such a program, students more deeply learn subjects such as software engineering or biology while building a portfolio of work to share when seeking full-time work and earning money to defray the costs of their education.

We take Khan’s ideas one step further. This new university certainly doesn’t have to sit in Silicon Valley or focus on projects from tech companies. It could sit anywhere — or be a network of such institutions — and could draw from a wide range of organizations including non-profits, governmental agencies and university research programs as well as for-profit corporations.

Students would come to the university to work on real world problems, to immerse themselves in a problem space separate from any one company or industry, and the opportunity to work on and within the problem space for variable lengths of time. The problem spaces could include the big societal challenges that need work: climate change, income inequality, data privacy, for example. These projects could allow students and others to drop in and out of them for various lengths of time. High school students might join for a gap year and employees from organizations might take sabbaticals there.

This would enable individuals to explore their interests, digging in deeply when passionate about a space, or moving on when less interested. Because the projects are ongoing, real results are dropping out of the work regularly. Consider the UC Berkeley students, for example, who spent a year working with an epidemiologist in the School of Public Health to design a low cost stethoscope to diagnose Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD) in the Brazilian favelas. It would have been impossible for them to come up to speed on the challenge on their own, but by attaching themselves to a deep expert already working in the space they were able to make a short-term contribution. The team was guided by process experts who led them through the problem framing and solving cycle, coached them on team dynamics and communication, and connected with a diverse network of policy experts, health care workers, and engineers to fill in knowledge gaps. Cross-disciplinary efforts like theirs are difficult to facilitate in current university environments, where disciplinary silos dominate. A different structure is required.

Engagement in solving problems that matter in turn creates demand for the content typically associated with a degree program in a university (and what currently is primarily taught through lectures). Solving problems that matter will also develop in students the value of learning to learn, a capability they will need in the real world post university. Teaching in this new university might be re-framed as coaching. The role of the educator is less about sharing expertise but instead is focused on the student’s discovery process.

If we stick with assumptions such as a four-year college program and a need to earn a specified degree, say a Mechanical Engineering degree, we could imagine a student going through a four-year series of curated project experiences that in turn cause them to learn basics such as 3D modeling, fluid dynamics and mechatronics design. Or, imagine that to get a business degree, students had to start a company creating demand pull for them to learn marketing (to find product/market fit), finance and accounting (to estimate funding requirements) and operations (to execute).

Alternatively, one could imagine a student focusing on a general topic such as climate change, creating over time demand pull for learning about toxicology, epidemiology and chemistry all from different disciplines in the current university structure. The increasing number of students who are designing their own interdisciplinary degree programs (the number of students seeking interdisciplinary studies degrees grew 11% between 2017–2018 and 2018–2019) shows their understanding that the challenges they wish to take on in the world require learning across disciplines.

To take on the challenges that comprise the heart of learning in this new university, students will need to develop three underlying capabilities that become the explicit focus of a bricks and mortar university: they will need to learn multiple approaches to framing and solving problems, they will need to learn to do so in teams, and they will need to learn about themselves.

Students in this university would be taught approaches to framing and solving problems and how to select from among them in tackling their chosen challenges. They would learn how to observe and notice, reflectively taking in information from the concrete world. They would learn how to use that information to frame and reframe the challenges they are tackling, finding new and fresh ways to see them. They would learn to imagine and design alternative futures in which the challenges were resolved in a variety of ways. And, they would learn to make and experiment as a means of testing their ideas.

This learning would draw upon critical thinking, systems thinking, creative problem solving, scientific method and a range of practitioner methods such as quality management, lean start-up and design thinking. Students would develop awareness and understanding of their own thought processes — metacognition — that would prepare them to more readily select appropriate or useful approaches to the challenges they encounter. Universities today overly focus on the delivery of content, asking students to memorize and regurgitate and miss the opportunity to develop student skills in framing and solving problems.

Framing and solving problems that matter is not done by individuals; it requires teams of people who bring a diversity of perspectives and heuristics to the table. While more and more classes in universities are engaging students in group projects, those classes rarely explicitly teach teaming. Students are left to struggle through teaming issues on their own, in many cases learning to dislike working on teams. In this new university, teaming skills — to help individuals become better team members and team leaders and to help teams have more effective and efficient experiences — must be taught. Imagine students getting team feedback from every team experience they have during their college education, and graduating amply prepared to engage with others in taking on interdisciplinary challenges.

Finally, and at the core, students would come to university to have time and space to learn about themselves. There’s a reason so many are clamoring to take classes about happiness at Yale or Designing Your Life at Stanford. As David Esptein described in Range:

“Learning stuff [is] less important than learning about oneself. Exploration is not just a whimsical luxury of education; it is a central benefit.”

College is about more than just the classes. The socialization that happens in student clubs and at even parties is important to self-development. Universities are meant to be a place of discovery. Often, that discovery is kept separate from the learning. We contend that it needs to be a central focus.

Some will argue that we still need specialists and a world of generalists would produce a different set of issues. Certainly — specialized knowledge will continue to play an important role in moving forward. Additionally, we’re also not under the illusion that every institution will adopt the vision that is laid out here. Plenty of universities will continue to exist producing students, researchers, and faculty with deep expertise in a given subject area. At the same time, just over 33% of Americans have a four-year college degree, leading us to believe there is plenty of opportunity to create new educational offerings.

Yes, universities at present are facing crises on multiple fronts — and that crisis creates an opportunity for change. Let’s use this moment to think about where to go next. We don’t need the next Charles Eliot to redesign one vision for all to adopt. We need new models that help cultivate the skills necessary for our future.

[1] Lucena, J. Engineering Cultures: Better Problem Solving through Human and Global Perspectives?

[2] Meadows, D. Thinking in Systems. p. 3



Rachel Dzombak

Engineer focused on social enterprise and technological innovation.