A new degree program at the University of Minnesota’s Rochester campus is taking hard-won lessons learned from teaching during a pandemic and turning them into an approach to higher education designed to speak to the needs and desires of a diverse student body.
Known by its creators as NXT GEN MED, the bachelor of science in health sciences degree will be an accelerated four-year equivalent degree that’s earned in just over two years by attending class year-round.
While NXT GEN MED students will have significant opportunities for face-to-face interactions with classmates, professors and internship immersion supervisors, most classes in the program will be taught virtually, using a gamification-based technology platform designed exclusively for the university by Google Cloud.
Lori Carrell, University of Minnesota Rochester chancellor, said that she and her colleagues like to say that the program is “COVID-inspired,” because after being forced to rethink everything they knew about higher ed, they actually began to see some advantages to this new style of learning that they wanted to use even after the pandemic finally fades away.
“It’s a program that is absolutely new in format,” Carrell said. “We took the best of what we learned during COIVID and applied it.”
COVID, Carrell said, showed the world that in times of crisis, technology can be a godsend that connects otherwise isolated people for education, business and community. While platforms like Zoom have their limitations in educational settings, they still made it possible for students of all ages to continue to learn in the middle of a global crisis.
Carrell said that this new degree program, which will launch in summer 2022, will take online education to the next level by creating learning experiences that mimic high-tech video games — while still creating opportunities for building personal connection and one-on-one support.
“We’re looking to create a program that is absolutely new in format,” she said, “that takes all the human-based pieces and combines them with the best of higher tech for a more vibrant and highly designed college degree while at the same time sustaining equity and getting students in the workforce or on to advanced study much more quickly.”
Planners believe that most students enrolled in the degree program will already feel comfortable with this kind of technology.
“Think about those current high school and early college students who are already gaming,” Carrell said. “They’re comfortable in a virtual world. It’s three-dimensional. It’s fast-paced. It’s beautiful. They are used to playing a game with lots of other folks who could be located anywhere on the planet.”
When it is time for these tech-savvy students to shut off their games and log in for class, Carrell said, it’s a completely different experience. “They have to engage with someone who is well meaning, but is struggling to remember to unmute themselves and says things like, ‘How do I share the screen?’ With this program, that won’t be happening.”
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said that NXT GEN MED, “represents the silver lining of the pandemic coming to life.”
While the pandemic caused serious upset at the U of M, Gabel said that once administrators and educators got their sea legs, it didn’t take long for some to begin to dream about how they could take the best parts of this time and use them to improve the university experience going into the future.
“When you go into something as intense as what we’ve been through over the past year, you spend a tremendous amount of energy reacting to events with a tremendous amount of crisis planning,” Gabel said. “It did not take as long as one might think before we decided it was time to start thinking about the next chapter for higher education in Minnesota. What would it look like? What was the pandemic teaching us?”
One thing that the pandemic taught university leaders, Carrell said, was that there has to be a better way to use technology.
“Zoom saved us in this period, but the difference between that and the educational experience we are talking about here about is profound. We see that technology can save us, but we can also make it better. We decided that we have to create an advanced educational system that uses technology in a more appropriate way — and builds a sense of belonging and community.”
The ‘Fauci effect’
Even before COVID-19 hit Minnesota, the demand for workers trained for health care professions was growing. The looming mass aging of baby boomers will require thousands of care providers, and the threat of new diseases and the promise of technology mean that graduates of programs like NXT GEN MED should have no problem finding work, Carrell said.
“I heard a person describe what is happening in the health sector as an employment gap. The DEED data from 2016 showed that in this state alone, there is a need to fill over 92,000 new health care positions. We will be training many of those workers.”
The increase in health care jobs is matched by student interest in health care degrees, Gabel said. “We’ve always had a high demand from students for degrees in health care professions. We have more demand than ever. The complementary demands by employers for new talent looks like this degree program is perfectly positioned for success.”
Young people emerging from this pandemic year may feel inspired to seek jobs that help others navigate crisis. The vast inequities in the health care system revealed by the nation’s early response to COVID may also have inspired some students to find careers that advance equity through technology.
“The pandemic showed us how important is it that a student body be diverse in a way that better represents the whole community,” Gabel said. “A lot of this new generation of students are expressing interest in one day working in health-care positions, of righting wrongs through care. This is what a lot of people have called the ‘Fauci Effect.’”
The student body on the Rochester campus already represents a more diverse cross-section of the state’s population, Carrell said. “More than 65 percent of our undergraduate students are from at least one of the major underrepresented groups — Pell grant recipients, first-generation college students or students of color.”
While many University of Minnesota students want a traditional college experience, with football games, Greek life and social life on the quad, there is another segment of students who seek a more focused, even abbreviated college experience, Gabel said. Some of that desire may be born out of fiscal practicality, or out of a desire to get into the working world as quickly as possible.
Because it happens in a condensed period of time, the accelerated B.S. in Health Sciences degree costs less than a typical four-year degree at the U. “It’s less expensive and it is a way for students to have the best educational opportunity at the lowest cost,” Gabel said.
For some families, this may be a welcome option. “There has been so much debate around how expensive higher ed has become,” Gabel said. “No one would like to see the cost lowered more than us. We don’t want to cut the quality of the educational experience in order to lower the costs, so we decided to think creatively about ways we can do that. The one way is to be really efficient in how the content is delivered.”
A NXT GEN MED degree may not be a good match for every young person, but for those who enter college knowing where they want their career to take them, this may be a good option, Gabel said.
“There is a cadre of students, some fresh out of high school or more nontraditional backgrounds, who are looking for a different type of educational experience, one that gets them into the professional world as quickly as possible. We’re happy to serve them.”
Squeezing four years into two
Condensing a four-year education into two years took extra planning and flexibility, Gabel said.
“Normally, a four-year degree is eight semesters, with two semesters per year,” she explained. “Each semester is 15 weeks long. In a normal undergraduate experience, there would be 30 weeks per year for four years.”
The designers of NXT GEN MED took a close look at that traditional schedule and thought carefully about how they could fit the key elements of a four-year degree into a tighter time frame. After taking a close look at the general curriculum, they decided to reduce the number of terms required for completion to seven from the traditional eight.
“It is a tight curriculum,” Carrell said. “It is creative.”
Students perusing a traditional four-year degree usually have their summers off. That won’t be the case for those enrolled in NXT GEN MED’s B.S. in health sciences program, Gabel said: “In this experience you’re able to go continuously because you are working at the Mayo Clinic concurrently during your applied learning.” Students go to school all year long, with shorter holiday breaks, she explained, unlike traditional four-year students, whose holiday and summer break schedule, she said, “leaves them with 22 weeks of the year left on the table.”
Even though the degree is completed in two years, Carrell made a point of emphasizing that it is not an associate’s degree. Many of the program’s graduates will go directly into health care careers, while others may go on for advanced degrees in medicine. The Rochester campus is still relatively small — with some 954 students in 2020, but enrollment growth was an impressive 11.5 percent from the previous year.
“We expect to see continuous growth going forward,” she said.
Gabel is proud of what she and her colleagues have been able to achieve with NXT GEN MED. It is, she said, a good, hopeful example of innovation even during the most difficult of times.
“I think we’re first out of the gate anywhere with this kind of degree program,” she said. “We’re pulling the silver lining out of this pandemic and creating an entirely new degree methodology. It’s incredibly exciting: People launch new degrees all the time — but this is different.”