Scott’s Lessons

How career colleges are learning from COVID-19

Bob Martin & Lee Doubleday

When we look at major trends in education, crises play a big role in shaping how the industry responds to students and employers alike. But no global event has had such a dramatic effect on schools as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had for higher education. We saw campuses shutter across the country in a matter of weeks in an effort to slow the spread of disease and in direct response to states’ and local municipalities’ stay-at-home orders. Schools have had to pivot rapidly—and often—to continue serving their students in the face of a mysterious and quickly changing disease.

As we begin to see some stabilization this summer and local economies start to reopen, many schools are realizing that some of the adaptations they’ve made as a means to get through COVID-19 may end up sticking around for the long haul. When we talked to Scott Shaw, president and CEO of Lincoln Tech, at the beginning of the summer term, we found that there are actually a few silver linings to be found for schools who are ready to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Empowering operations

For a school system with 22 campuses nationwide, there was no way that Lincoln Tech’s central operations team would be able to create effective plans in real time for each location. With each state’s governor (14 in total!) enacting their own set of regulations and timelines—not to mention additional closures, limitations, and guidelines at the county or city level—Shaw says it was a no-brainer to put that decision making responsibility and authority in the hands of the local folks at each location.

“The people on the ground have really come up with very clever ways to do what they need to do to figure out how to make engaging curriculum, how to approach delivering that curriculum, and how to keep people engaged,” Shaw said. “And so that was one really great lesson that we learned from an operational standpoint.”

While Lincoln’s corporate team offered plenty of guidance and best practices, of course, they were grateful to have such great teams at each of their campuses. These teams were empowered and ready to figure out what needed to be done to keep serving students, to stay in compliance with local requirements, and to keep everyone—both students and staff—safe during the pandemic.

Staying responsive to change

It’s been more than a few years since schools started envisioning putting whole degree programs online. But there are always plenty of obstacles (not to mention the organizational red tape) to making such changes on a larger scale. Plus, as we know, change is hard.

With so much fear and uncertainty around the COVID-19 situation, it would be very easy for both staff and students to begin to panic or shut down at the thought of continuing with their education. But Shaw says that’s just not what happened at Lincoln. It’s been an awful thing to go through, but he says that change can be a very good thing too. Shaw wonders how far Lincoln would have gotten if they, as an organization, had tried to plan out how to move in this distance education direction.

“We probably still would have been arguing over how to get there or even if could we get there,” he says.

Instead, within just one week, people were already embracing it and moving forward to figure out how to make continuing education work without the campus aspect (at least temporarily).

But that’s not true of just the schools. Many students who may have previously been reluctant to jump into online learning are also finding ways to embrace online classes. Those who are experiencing online education for the first time are realizing the benefits of distance learning, whether it’s the flexible scheduling that helps them better juggle work and family responsibilities or the extra time that’s freed up from no longer having a commute to and from campus. They’re now seeing that they can do this and make it work . . . and even enjoy those added benefits from attending school remotely.

Befriending technology

Students and teachers are also enjoying the surge in innovative technology use resulting from so many more people forced to online environments in the age of physical distancing.

“The fact is that you can have multiple forms of teaching: visual, auditory, combination. You can really create very immersive interactive environments, which is a great way for a lot of hands-on learners to get acquainted with material,” Shaw says. “As we’ve been forced to move to this modality, every day we are learning ways to improve the delivery of education. Our final goal is really, ‘How do we make it more exciting, more interesting, more informative, and more effective for students to learn?’”

That’s also true for programs that have previously been taught almost exclusively in person. Even programs that are heavily hands-on oriented, Shaw sees an opportunity for technology integration to create a hybrid model. They’re also wondering what else can be done to improve their programming: How can VR (virtual reality) be used? What other technologies can be leveraged to make it more engaging for the students?

Shaw sees those types of changes continuing well beyond the COVID-19 health crisis.

“We will end up taking the best of both worlds of the on-ground and online models going forward,” Shaw said. “It’s horrific that we’ve all had to go through this, but I believe from a student experience standpoint it’s only going to get better.”


This article was adapted from a June 2020 interview that Scott Shaw gave to Imagine America Radio – Listen Here: