Lest 2020 be forgot and never brought to mind—a hope more than a few of us hold—existing trends that accelerated during the pandemic will continue in 2021.

That’s what lies ahead, at least in the realms of education and employment, according to three college presidents and executives at large companies.

Their predictions revolve around the continued acceleration of the use of technology in education and work, an increased reliance on educational offerings that are lower cost and more convenient, and a further crumbling of the false dichotomy between short-term credentials and full degrees. Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Prepare for more people to work and learn remotely with technology.

In response to layoffs and demand spikes, companies across every industry made updates to their technology and processes. That meant an acceleration of digitization and automation—efforts that longtime education industry watchers knew would happen, but which occurred faster than many anticipated.

“Many Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic can’t afford to go back to college, but they’ll still need to upskill and become marketable in the workforce,” Wilmington University President LaVerne Harmon said. “Students were forced to study remotely during the pandemic, and there’s a good chance that many will choose to remain online. Institutions will need to build the infrastructure to offer most of their programs virtually.”

But remote work won’t just apply to students or individuals in white-collar professions. The 75 percent of individuals who report expecting their employers to offer more flexibility in where they work after the pandemic also apply to service industries.

“In 2021, leadership teams will need to invest more time and energy to drive engagement and culture in a remote or virtual environment,” said Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion and people officer at fast casual restaurant chain Chipotle. “Maintaining connection and communication is critically important during these times and we need to challenge ourselves to source creative solutions to support cultural growth and connectivity.”

Chipotle and others, Andrada added, will “focus more on enabling employees through technology. This movement includes leveraging virtual training, analytics, tools and platforms to support our employees and maximize output. [By] combining world-class talent and integrating relevant technology into workstreams, we’re able to streamline efforts, increase consistency and drive business results.”

Jennifer Burns, head of candidate brand and marketing for Discover Financial Services, agrees. “I see a continued emphasis on virtual learning and additional breakthroughs in creative ways to engage learners outside of the traditional web-based platforms,” she said.

2. Disruptive educational offerings will reign supreme.

Disruptive innovation is a buzz phrase, but, used correctly, refers to technology-enabled offerings that are more affordable, accessible, convenient, and simple. This is so that they can serve people who can’t access the dominant offerings in a sector.

Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Campus and Western Governors University are classic examples of disruption in higher education—more affordable, flexible offerings that allow adult learners who struggled previously to access higher education to enroll.

Paul Quinn College’s President, Michael Sorrell, said offerings that have affordability, efficiency and flexibility at their heart will reign in 2021.

“Those three characteristics will rule the day in 2021 and beyond,” he said.

Harmon concurred. “[Students’] primary needs are affordability, accessibility, convenience, flexibility, accelerated programs, and liberal transfer credit options,” she said.

3. Breaking the false dichotomy between short-term credentials and full degrees.

Are credentials from short-term vocational programs more or less valuable than a degree from a full-time, four-year college? It’s a debate that has taken center stage in conversations about the future of higher education, especially in the context of helping people find work.

But the dichotomy is increasingly a false one, as a more flexible and convenient approach gains steam.

“Even before the pandemic, new approaches to skills-based hiring and digital badges—augmented by new forms of labor market data that can better connect job-seekers to in-demand careers—were challenging the ‘degree-or-not’ dichotomy that so often characterizes the American workforce system,” said Frank Britt, CEO of Penn Foster, an accredited college and high school. “As we prepare for a long economic recovery, it will only become more important to embrace shorter-form training programs and new approaches to credentialing that recognize skill attainment not as binary, but as a spectrum—one that can help to unlock opportunities on both the supply and demand sides of the labor market.”

Britt’s right. Traditional colleges and universities are increasingly building new programs in response to the needs of both students and the workforce. BYU-Pathway Worldwide, for example, pioneered a certificate-first approach in which students start with coursework that is tied to labor demand and the certificate credits match seamlessly with bachelor’s degree requirements. The college has found that this approach increased retention by more than 20 percentage points.

Similarly, Pathstream, a venture-funded edtech company, partners with leading technology companies, including Facebook and Unity, to build branded digital skills programs that they then deliver in partnership with college and university partners. The programs’ credits count toward degrees at those institutions as well.

If these three positive trends do indeed grow in 2021, then perhaps we will take a cup of kindness yet with us from 2020.

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