Sep 09 2020

Using Tech to Boost the Value of Higher Education During COVID-19

Boston College researchers collaborate with the university's CDIL and IT department to find innovative solutions.

As students question the value of higher education during a pandemic, many colleges and universities need to rethink their long-term strategies to survive. Institutions across the country are grappling with the same question: How will education look in the new academic year? Currently, the debate is focused on logistical solutions: returning to the classroom, new and improved remote learning, or a hybrid of the two.

There is an economic, utilitarian and moral component to each scenario. Students want to come back to campus — or pay a dramatically reduced price for online courses. One student from Northwestern University summed up the argument this way: “Would you pay $75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead?”

With that said, not everyone is so eager to return to the classroom. Many faculty members are hesitant to do so for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s concerns are valid. With no clear answers, higher education institutions are left with countless questions: Is college worth the price of admission for online classes? Is returning to the classroom worth the health risks?

To find answers, let’s examine the purpose of college during a pandemic and a looming economic crisis.

How to Convey the Value of Higher Education to Students Today

Even before COVID-19, a combination of rising costs, decreased acceptance rates and stagnant wages contributed to buyers’ ambivalence and remorse. A recent survey found that more than 50 percent of American parents and students valued a Google internship over a Harvard degree. The percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 who view college as “very important” dropped over 27 percent in the past six years. The global pandemic has only magnified these sentiments. This spring, student polls found that two-thirds of high school seniors doubted they would still attend their top-choice universities. And 1 in 6 were near the point of giving up on attending any four-year college in the fall.

However, there is evidence that suggests college degrees are more important during economic downturns. During the 2008 recession, the U.S. lost 7.2 million jobs. Eighty percent of the jobs lost did not require a college degree. And when the economy rebounded, an astonishing 95 percent required education beyond high school. Similar trends are already emerging as the COVID-19 crisis continues. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, American workers with high school diplomas are twice as likely to be unemployed than those with bachelor’s degrees.


The percentage of American parents and students who valued a Google internship over a Harvard degree.

Source: QuestResearch Group

But merely arguing that a college degree will lower the chances of unemployment is an oversimplified message to send to students and parents. It’s important for higher education institutions to show how the college experience can set students up for personal success. At Boston College, researchers collaborated with the university’s Center for Digital Innovation in Learning (CDIL) and Information Technology Services (ITS) to create an app to do just that.

Using Tech to Find Innovative Solutions

To increase the value of higher education during COVID-19, higher education institutions need to answer big questions: How can colleges and universities help students build meaningful relationships with peers and faculty? How can schools help them access formative experiences to find their purpose? How can colleges design a transformational experience? And how can schools do this while protecting personal health and safety?

These questions guide BC’s True North program. In collaboration with the CDIL and ITS, BC researchers are using state-of-the-art technology to help students navigate their college journeys, build transformative relationships and take advantage of the university’s resources.

Tim Lindgren, a senior learning experience designer at CDIL, has supported the team in connecting the experience of the app with the experience students will have with people and programs around campus. Together, BC faculty, staff, students and alumni have collaborated with Convertiv developers to build a web framework that will help foster a collaborative learning community in a fractured and remote world.

MORE ON EDTECH: Read more about how IT innovation is helping campuses open safely.

How the True North App Works

The app has two main components: The first component is persona definition, which is a set of modules designed to help students navigate their college experiences. A student can do any module in any order. Each module is designed to help students reflect on an aspect of their lives. Each module uses a common data structure, flexible enough to accommodate complex data objects but designed to allow portability and interconnection between modules.

True North app

The second major component is the experience module. Once students have finished building the initial persona module, they can invite guides such as academic advisers, faculty mentors and even wise peers to view their profiles and join them on their purpose journeys.

The experience module then becomes the main interface for collaboration. Students can create shared experiences with their guides and plot potential paths for academic careers. This aspect of the app encourages users to find and reflect on meaningful, purpose-defining events. More experienced guides can help curate and orchestrate those events. Students can use True North to build an extensive portfolio, filled with contemporaneous notes that they can share with guides throughout their college and career journeys.

LEARN MORE: See how technology incubators are fueling startup success on university campuses.

 How Boston College Uses Tech to Strengthen Its Value

Together, Liang’s research team, Klein, Convertiv web developers, and the university’s CDIL and ITS collaborated closely to create the technology infrastructure that keeps the app running smoothly and securely behind the scenes.

 The application is built with cutting-edge technology as a progressive web application rather than a traditional web application or native mobile app in order to balance performance and rapid iteration. As a PWA, the app can be distributed widely across numerous platforms — such as browsers, tablets and mobile devices. It can be rapidly iterated throughout its development.

The primary interface was built by using a JavaScript library called React. Using the power of modern browsers and leveraging build time and server-side rendering, the development team distributed True North as a tiny, lightning-fast browser app, while creating a near-native look and feel. This lets BC create the kind of user experience it needs while maximizing distribution across platforms.

Finally, True North runs as a container application. It uses Docker to drive the main stack. By using Docker, stakeholders can create and manage their own installations of the application, either on-premises or on one of the container cloud providers. This lets stakeholders deploy what they need by scaling adequate capacity and managing privacy.

READ MORE: Learn how to create better student support structures for remote learning. 

The Key to the Future of Higher Education

True North is a powerful example of how higher education can powerfully leverage technology to engage students with supportive networks that help them pursue purposeful directions — even during a pandemic.

Colleges and universities will get past COVID-19, but remote learning is here to stay. The universities that get remote learning right will survive and thrive. But the universities that double down on cultivating rich, formative relationships and experiences will retain the true value of higher education. As educators, our goal is to create this new reality — both inside and outside of the classroom.

monstArrr_/ Getty Images

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