A Post-COVID Learning World: Where We Are Now 📆 Transcend Newsletter #43

A look back at our 4 predictions for education after the pandemic, by Megan Cho

Hey! Alberto here. Welcome to the Transcend Newsletter.

The Transcend Newsletter explores the intersection of the future of education and the future work, and the founders building it around the world.

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This week is exciting for us at Transcend Network since we are announcing the fellows who will join the Summer 2021 Transcend Fellowship! This marks an important milestone: 100 fellows! We announced them on Twitter and LinkedIn, show them some love!


This week, we are joined by Megan Cho! 👋


Megan was our very first employee and Program Manager at Transcend last year, and has been very important to our work. She has a ton of experience in the edtech world, at Minerva Schools, EdtechX, QuarterZero… She is transitioning to another full-time role after the summer, so she’s ending her time with us by writing this guest post!

Megan will review the transition towards a post-COVID learning and working world, based on the predictions we made last year! Read on to learn more about:

  • The 4 predictions we made for 2021

  • Successful and failed predictions

  • What we could expect as we slowly move back to normal times

Hope you enjoy it – and thank you for everything Megan! 🙌

A Post-COVID Learning World: Where We Are Now 📆

by Megan Cho

It is crazy to think that it has been over a year since the beginning of the pandemic. While many parts of the world continue to wrestle with the virus, some countries, including the United States, are teeming with a sense of “normalcy” as vaccine availability increases. 

Last year, we wrote two newsletters (in the first week of April and the last week of April) about our projections for a post-covid learning world. As we begin to grasp what this really looks like, we thought we’d reflect back on our projections and look forward to what’s to come.

In those past two newsletters, we covered four main areas: 1. The counter-cyclical question for higher education, 2. virtual classrooms, 3. hybrid financing models, and 4. virtual-only experience designers. Let’s revisit each of them now. 

1. The counter-cyclical question for higher education

What about it?

Universities tend to see higher enrollment rates during economic crises, as workers struggle to find professional opportunities (a counter-cyclical economic phenomenon once seen in 2008.) However, given the abrupt disruption to the in-person experience, we projected that universities would lose their value proposition as a “bundled” service, leading to lower enrollment. A “bundled” service— coined by Ryan Craig in College, Disrupted refers to the packaged offering from universities consisting of academics, student experiences, residential services, career services. With much of that lost in the pandemic, there was, understandably, outrage when universities charged the same tuition for hastily assembled virtual lectures. 

We also predicted that, with the lack of career services and a smaller labor market, students would be pushed towards more vocational learning pathways such as boot camps or apprenticeships. 

Where are we now?

In the United States, college enrollments dropped 2.5 percent overall last Fall— meaning that about 400,000 students chose not to enroll compared to previous years.

However, the enrollment rates fell the most dramatically for community colleges (which often serve the largest share of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds), while for-profit 4-year universities actually saw an increase. Many students deferred their enrollment, but research shows that this actually decreases the odds that a student will ultimately earn a degree.

Although aggregate enrollments fell, vocational learning pathways, alternative credentialing, and apprenticeship programs increased significantly, with programs like Flatiron School and MOOCs like EdX seeing surges in enrollment. Though the initial surge has died down, we think many of these alternative pathways are here to stay, especially as they become a more recognized qualification for hiring. 

2. The Virtual classroom experience

What about it?

As school closures happened abruptly across the globe starting early last year, 1.5B students were out of school, and teachers were tasked with going fully virtual in a matter of days.

Though many journalists and industry leaders seemed hopeful about this once-in-a-lifetime educational experiment, the reality didn’t really live up to the anticipation. In fact, fully virtual learning tended to hurt underprivileged learners as well as low-income countries where the digital divide created significant barriers and, on the student level, the feedback was clear— students were not enjoying their newfound learning experiences. As captured by a Niche survey last March (US): 

  • 72% of high school students did not find online classes as effective as in-person, only 11% did find them as effective

  • Only 8% of students are more interested in online education, 77% are not

  • 87% of students in their last year of high school are more concerned about being able to pay for their education

Where are we now?

It seems that after a year of Zoom lectures and online activities, students’ sentiment around online learning hasn’t improved, with a majority of students saying their learning has suffered due to the pandemic.

Schools are still trying to figure out the right balance of leveraging technology to enhance aspects of learning while drilling down on in-person experiences. The increased investment in online learning tools might give us a clue into which elements are here to stay: the largest shifts in the virtual classroom experience were the growth of video conferencing, virtual learning simulations/labs (which more than doubled during the pandemic), and assessment tools.

The pandemic really pushed all schools to either invest in or reinvent existing learning technology, which likely means these tools will remain in use as universities move towards more hybrid learning models.

3. Hybrid financing models and ISAs

What about them?

Last year, we explored the concept of hybrid models that can distribute risk between the student, the university, and a third stakeholder—  the employer. Given that students have less incentive to pay for a four-year university degree, we projected that there might be a space for these hybrid models in which universities offer short-term courses for in-demand skills with employers paying part of the tuition post-hiring/placement. 

Where are we now?

ISAs (income-share agreements) have been picking up in the higher education space as a way to share the investment risk with the training provider, not just the student. Currently with over 60 US colleges and multiple training programs offering such agreements.

However, the buy-in from students has been slower than expected. And, amidst the economic backdrop of the pandemic, ISAs actually lost a lot of their competitive edge; Specifically, a volatile labor market meant that ISA providers had less certainty of financial return and, for students, decreasing interest rates made them less appealing (and in many cases more expensive) as compared to traditional loans.

CareerKarma’s latest report on bootcamp student preferences shows that ISAs are only used by 9% of bootcamp students — 17% of students used loans and 36% paid upfront.

Overall, we still see value in the outcome-based financing model, but ISAs in their current form are a hard business model to operate and not always appealing to students amidst the pandemic. For these financing models to really stick, they will likely require more specificity around what type of student, industry, and job function they are best suited for and simply more informing of students on how they work.

4. Virtual experience and curriculum designers

What about them?

Thinking back to the early days of the pandemic, many of us can probably recall a Zoom happy hour or online event that was meant to be fun and engaging, but just... wasn’t. For thousands of college students, some entire semester’s worth of classes were held online in a similar fashion. Amidst this virtual-mixed-bag of last year, we projected that this increasingly online world would create a new need for virtual experience and curriculum designers that specialize in these environments. 

Where are we now?

We’d say the results are somewhat split; In the world of work, we have seen organizations hire full teams to manage virtual learning like remote employee experiences and education programs. With remote work now mainstream— and, for many companies, permanent— the virtual employee experience warranted significant investment.

However, from the higher education and K-12 side, fully virtual learning was mostly viewed as temporary. So, while schools have invested in virtual learning tools, there hasn’t been a notable increase in roles to specifically redesign the core of virtual learning/curriculum.

As I wrote about last year, schools should still focus on improving their virtual learning infrastructure, especially given that many universities will implement hybrid learning models this Fall. Though, with improved virtual experiences in the world of work, we think this can set a foundation for a better understanding of what activities belong online, and which don’t translate well to a screen. 

How well did we do?

One year later, here’s the bullet-point breakdown of our predictions:

What we got right

  • College enrollments dropped during the pandemic (contrary to the countercyclical phenomenon seen during the 2008 recession) and alternative learning pathways/credentialing increased. 

  • Schools have invested significantly in virtual learning tools, but student sentiment around online learning is still largely negative.

  • Universities need more time to figure out what aspects of the college experience belong online and which are necessary in person.

Where we were off

  • ISAs and hybrid financing models did not gain as much traction as we predicted and the economic effects from the pandemic made them less financially competitive than traditional loans.

  • Virtual experience designers became more common for organizations to improve the employee experience but not for schools/online curriculum.

What’s Next

Ultimately, we’d say that the pandemic has accelerated what we call Tectonic Shifts within learning and work— named after the tectonic plates which slowly influence the changes at the surface level. So while it may seem like we’re seeing the immediate effects, many of these trends will proceed to slowly reform the world of learning and work as they lead to much larger, fundamental changes within our systems down the line.

From more alternative credentialing and better online learning to ISAs and virtual designers, we’re looking forward to sharing more about how these projections continue to evolve going forward. 

One last note: we know this year has been incredibly difficult for many of us. Whether you’re a long-time subscriber or just recently joined, thanks for growing with us throughout the last year! We’re wishing you all a smooth transition into whatever your personal post-COVID life may look like.

We want to work with individuals building this future of learning and work. If you found this piece interesting, reply to this email and let’s chat!


news roundup around the future of learning and work

📮 Phil on Edtech analyzes the flight to fully-online universities during the pandemic, away from other programs like community colleges.

🚀 Our friends at Reach Capital published an awesome report on the state and future of apprenticeships

🙌 We highly recommend European founders in the space check out Emerge Education's newsletter and weekly events to get industry insights and leading voices in the space.


exciting job opportunities we want to share with you!
  1. Computer Science Instructor – Kibo School

  2. Lead Talent Management – Stoa School

  3. Marketing Lead - Ascend

  4. Research Lead, Product Development – Section4

For more job opportunities,  check out our full Job Board!.

Many thanks to Megan for writing this piece, and best of luck on your future endeavors. Go team! 🙌

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