Will COVID-19 finally trigger a long-overdue technological disruption of higher education? Throughout the world, sudden mid-semester lockdowns aimed at combating the pandemic forced universities to switch to distance learning almost overnight. But while this rapid transition has been tough for faculty and students alike, some good might yet come of it.

Like many businesses, universities are struggling with how to reopen and are adopting a range of strategies. For example, the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has announced that its lectures will be online-only until at least the summer of 2021. Others, including Stanford University, are offering a mix of in-person and online classes, as well as spreading out their academic year so that fewer students will be on campus at any time.

Make no mistake: COVID-19 represents a massive economic hit to higher education. Dorm rooms are unoccupied, sports stadiums remain empty, and students push back against paying full tuition fees. For many colleges and universities, the drop in revenue from foreign students, especially Chinese, is likely to be painful; numerous smaller and less-endowed schools may close.

Even top universities face challenges. The University of Michigan anticipates a pandemic-induced loss of up to $1 billion by the end of 2020, while Harvard University is projecting a $750 million revenue shortfall for next year.

But will the COVID-19 shock ultimately help to bring about better education for more people at lower cost? The answer will depend partly on whether universities push technology aside as the pandemic fades, or instead look for the best ways to harness it. This is not an easy challenge, given the importance of interactions among professors, graduate students, and undergraduates, both inside and outside of class.

When I was a graduate student 40 years ago, I was convinced that video learning (the technology of the day) would reshape university teaching. After all, I thought, why shouldn’t students around the world have access to the best lecturers and materials, particularly given that on-campus lectures to 200 students or more offer extremely limited scope for personal interaction anyway?

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To be sure, in-class teaching would still have an important role to play. Professors would still curate materials and answer questions. And I did not envisage recorded lectures substituting for smaller classes (although taped materials can of course work in that setting, too). But while it is thrilling to watch a great class in person, surely a good taped lecture is better than a mediocre in-person one.

Fast forward four decades, however, and progress has been limited. One likely reason is university governance: faculty run these institutions, and few are inclined to go down a path that would reduce demand for their services. Professors are no doubt also worried that taped classes would make it harder for their graduate students to find jobs. And graduate students, with their energy and fresh ideas, are key drivers of research.

Demographic shifts have long been putting downward pressure on college enrollments. Even if faculty in some fields (such as computer science) still see robust demand, for many others, declining student numbers surely amplifies resistance to labor-saving new technologies.

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