COVID has changed education forever. Let’s embrace the new direction.

This op-ed was published this week in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Just one year ago, the reality of a new pandemic was beginning to settle in. Today, its impact (and that of the government’s response) is hard to miss. COVID-19 has opened the door to many changes and even innovations, some of which we should embrace going into the future.

Education is a prime example. Schools failed students across the country and within Utah, on multiple levels. One survey found that out of 900 Southern Utah University students who responded, nearly half believed the quality of their education declined. This is no shock; we hear it from the lips of countless students complaining about the substandard quality of “Zoom school.”

“Higher education” is a top-heavy, legacy industry still relying heavily on brick-and-mortar models. Colleges and universities have often been the gatekeepers of signaling to a potential employer the competence of a job applicant, presenting their costly and hard-earned degree. But this signal is fading fast, as many companies are abandoning the requirement to have a college degree in recognition of the reality that this piece of paper no longer guarantees competence.

Especially with rising tuition rates, universities may find themselves at an inflection point where students don’t enroll and instead explore alternatives. This is not to say colleges will disappear outright, but they will be forced to reform and specialize as affordable alternatives gain momentum and eat away at their ability to recruit students into their institutions.

Utahns should embrace these alternative methods of education as they gain momentum, as they provide a great opportunity to reshape the way credentialing and licensing is done in the state. Code camps, Praxis, trade schools, and even Google University are some of many examples where young professionals can learn skills they need to be successful in their desired field at a fraction of the cost and time required by a university.

There are a few solutions schools should pursue in aiming to be more flexible.

First, higher education institutions should seek to invest in improving online learning experiences for students; simply trying to recreate classroom presentations leads to “Zoom school” fatigue, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Khan Academy is an example of an online alternative that is an engaging, helpful resource for students. Expanding the concept to cover a wide range of courses can allow us to leverage technology’s benefits and simultaneously not erode the quality of education for the student.

Additionally, K-12 schools should better prepare students to leverage virtual learning where appropriate. Due to the nature of the pandemic, many schools were forced to quickly convert to virtual learning models and struggled, having not been prepared themselves. But with preparation comes improvement, and these tools have their place in education — also offering families increased flexibility in scheduling since learning doesn’t need to happen at a set time each day, or while sitting behind a school desk.

COVID-19 caused many companies to pivot to a remote environment. And while working from home presents several challenges, schools ought to be preparing students for the reality of remote work, flexible schedules and decentralized decision-making by crafting an education environment that reflects the changing economy — as opposed to preparing students for the way the world operated decades ago. Forward-thinking education models are needed to prepare children for new ways of doing things.

The government’s response to the pandemic has had devastating effects on the economy and the mental health of many, but the worst cost has probably been the degraded quality of youth education. COVID-19′s challenges exposed the deep flaws of an inflexible, industrial-era system that struggles to cater to each student’s needs and abilities. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future — starting with the school system.