Coronavirus and higher education resources

COVID-19 single virusI currently maintain several resources concerning higher education and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.  I’ll keep this post about them on the top of my page as long as it can be useful during the pandemic.

  • A list of resources for keeping track of the virus, including dashboards, official sources, experts on social media, open access content, libguides, etc.
  • A spreadsheet listing information about colleges and universities closing because of the virus.
  • A range of posts about COVID-19 and its impact on academia.
  • Live video events: Chronicle of Higher Education; EdSurge; Future Trends Forum.
Posted in coronavirus | 25 Comments

Towards teaching well online: a Forum conversation

How do we teach well online?  That was the subject of last week’s Future Trends Forum.

The format was atypical for us.  It was a community conversation, not centered on a guest, but driven by participants’ interests and stories.  We wanted to make available a welcoming space where people could raise questions and air ideas.

I wanted to share this process and these results here because the topic is so important, as higher ed shifts increasingly online, and also because the format was interesting.

First, here’s the full recording:

During our conversation people raised a series of points, practices, questions, and topics, such as a story about the University of Central Florida that had some success by committing to online education being on par with face to face, and also funding faculty professional with a student fee.


“Do students associate being in the auditorium with entertainment?”

“How best to support group work and collaboration for entirely online learning?”

“We need to act the part of digital professionals to teach our students how to be digital professionals”

“I’ve been making a point to use our synch class meetings to put students into breakout rooms every session so they have opportunities to connect and converse and be active.”

“My course has no tests and everything leads to a capstone assignment that is a Portfolio of work they’ve done through the semester. Requires a fair amount of TLC just to get them not to freak out about that.”

“Educational uses of text based discussions online touted invisibility as an asset.”

“students very willingly make videos in many social media platforms – so could the issue be control? If the camera must be on in class – teacher in control. If camera on in a TikTok – student in control.”

Forum_online education session with Steve Ehrman and one PhD student

People also shared references, including:

Overall, we covered a range of ground.  The total effect wasn’t synoptic, nor was it intended to be.  Instead, it was a kind of community gathering for organic discussion.  Put another way, it was a single slice through the problem of online learning, and we turned up good stuff through the cut.

Many thanks to the fine people who participated and contributed!

Posted in Future Trends Forum, strategies, teaching | Leave a comment

American academia goes home for the holidays: will this contribute to the pandemic’s spread?

It’s late November and American higher education is winding up fall classes.  Traditionally this is when many residential students head home for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Now we’re also seeing a growing number of colleges and universities ending in-person classes earlier than usual, as a response to COVID-19’s escalation.

Will these campuses contribute to the pandemic’s spread?

Let me explain this disturbing question.

Lilah Burke has an important Inside Higher Ed column exploring just how campuses are structuring the holiday in epidemic terms.  Listen closely to how she describes the process:

Several colleges and universities have responded by creating plans to test students for COVID-19 before they leave for the break. (In many cases, students who leave are discouraged from coming back until the next term.) But those plans vary widely, and what’s more, many colleges and universities have none at all. [emphases added]

A Davidson College student agrees with Burke’s finding:

“When you consider the thousands of U.S. institutions that exist, really we’ve only found a handful [with exit plans],” said Emily Round, a senior at Davidson College and co-chief of operations at Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative…

On the one hand, a small group of colleges and universities are mandating testing for these students aiming to travel home, like Northern Arizona University and Notre Dame.  On the other hand, a majority are not doing this. Student Emily Round again: “At the College Crisis Initiative, a random sample of 100 institutions yielded only eight exit-testing plans…”  8%.

In other words, it seems that most American campuses are sending students home without checking them for COVID-19.  They may well travel through scenes like this one from the Phoenix Airport, crammed with fliers:

As students work their ways through airports, bus stations, rental car facilities, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. on the way home, how many other people will they infect?

Burke reports that a group of northeastern state governors have already recognized the campus-driven pandemic problem.  They called for institutions to get more students tested.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Delaware Governor John Carney, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker today announced they will encourage residential colleges and universities in their respective states to provide testing for all students traveling home for Thanksgiving break to the maximum extent possible before they leave campus. Any student who tests positive will be encouraged to isolate on campus before they can travel or detail arrangements of their safe travel home with the local department of health. These efforts will help mitigate the threat of college students returning home for the holidays importing COVID-19 into their communities.

So why are these efforts not being accomplished?  My readers will recognize the reason I so often raise: financial pressures.

The American College Health Association is currently not recommending that institutions test every student before departure. That level of testing is resource-intensive, officials there have said, and the association did not want to recommend something cash-strapped colleges could not carry out.

Remember that many colleges and universities have suffered serious budget hits in 2020.

I don’t want readers to walk away with a sense that mandating testing would be easy.  Those financial barriers are steep.  I wonder how many administrators found themselves weighing a choice: laying off (more) staff and/or faculty, or doing full-scale holiday testing?  Moreover, there’s the practical challenge of getting students who live off campus to comply.  Think about folks living in apartments, Greek houses, co-ops, shared houses, friends’ couches, and so on.  Not easy to wrangle.

It’s not just governors and Inside Higher Ed seeing this happening.  Over at the Wall Street Journal Doug Belkin (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) sounds an alarm:

Hundreds of thousands of college students are poised to leave campuses next week and travel home without taking a Covid-19 test, creating a significant health risk in their hometowns.

Belkin heads to Davidson as well:

“Any institution that is not doing exit testing right now has the potential to be a time bomb,” [Chris Marsicano, an educational-studies professor at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative] said. “They are likely contributing to an incredible increase across the country.”

Part of the problem is people hosting the virus but not showing any effects of its presence:

People in their teens and 20s are among the most likely to carry the virus and not know it unless they are tested, because many young people who are infected are asymptomatic. “This is a big issue,” said Sen Pei, an infectious-disease modeler and associate research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Young people have been the drivers of transmission in the U.S.”

If Belkin, Burke, and their sources are correct, one tough question arises.  Just how much worse will academia make the pandemic, due to these widespread policies?  At its worse, will college and university residential student policies causes a superspreader event this winter?

Once more, these questions are predicated on several contingencies: the actual virus presence among residential students, student travel behavior, what students do when they get home, and more.  But we must consider the possibility that one outcome involves speeding COVID-19’s spread through the population.  And then the timeline starts to become clear:

some of the people who are infected on Thanksgiving will enter the hospital in the middle of December, and the morgue around Christmas.

Obviously this can yield terrible results.  Some people may die as a result, especially older people with comorbidities. Those who survive getting the virus may endure tissue damage of various sorts, which could last for a while.

On a different level, how would such a residential student spread impact higher education’s reputation?  In October I asked readers to consider this in light of various stories, events, and actions in and around academia.  What will Americans and people in other nations think of institutions that failed to take obvious steps to reduce COVID’s spread?  What will be the impact of deaths that result in December?

Let’s look ahead to 2021, starting at the micro level.  Assume some number of families members suffer and/or die as a result of the virus appearing in-house, thanks to campuses not restricting its spread.  Will surviving family member feel pleased to pay tuition and other university bills coming due?  How will the students process their guilt?

At a broader level, recall the earlier point about students interacting with other travelers on their way home.  To the extent that local authorities conduct contract tracing, they will likely identify students as spreaders.  Beyond contact tracing, popular opinion might start assigning blame on those traveling students anyway.

How will this viral spread impact several public policy debates, such as forgiving student debt, funding public universities, or reauthorizing the Higher Education Act?

Listen to Lilah Burke’s concluding lines:

[S]ome of the risk associated with students going home to families is out of the hands of colleges and universities. Administrations cannot control how students travel, what precautions they take on the journey or whether they quarantine once they arrive at home.

But for the little that is in their control, it’s evident some colleges are unwilling or unable exercise their power.

I hope that doesn’t turn out to be true.

(thanks to my dear wife for links and conversation)



Posted in coronavirus | 4 Comments

A splendid award from the Council of Independent Colleges

November is turning out to be quite a month.

Here I don’t mean for the world.  The world is definitely having a major November, especially in the US.  We’ve seen a major national election in the United States, a booming pandemic in America and Europe, and more.  No, today I mean November for me, personally.

Earlier this month I was honored by an Association of Professional Futurists award for Academia Next.  The APF deemed my most recent book to be one of 2020’s Most Significant Futures Works.  It was a great honor.

Now it’s not even December yet and another award has come my way.

I’ve written about the Council of Independent Colleges previously.  CIC is a 64-year-old association of nearly 700 private American campuses.  For example, in 2015 and 2016 I described their innovative inter-campus humanities seminar collaborations.  In 2016 I noted their hosting a fine, radical discussion for college presidents.  CIC brings together folks to think hard, network well, and get things done.  They do important, good work.

So I was truly delighted to receive the 2020 Council of Independent Colleges Academic Leadership Award last week.

They announced it thusly:

Bryan N. Alexander is the recipient of the 2020 Academic Leadership Award for his visionary scholarship and creative contributions to digital learning and pedagogical innovation.

Since the event was virtual, I recorded a video acceptance:

I am indeed honored and humbled by this award.  The recognition from academic leaders tells me my unusual work is of value to those thoughtfully guiding campuses through hard times.

I also love that the award text draws attention to networking and communities.  These people are why I do this work, and the reason the work can succeed.  That includes you, dear reader, reading and sometimes writing back to this blog.

Thank you, CIC.  I wish you and your affiliated institutions the very best 21st century.  I hope I can help you to the best of my abilities.

Posted in cheer, personal | 3 Comments

Fall 2020 higher ed’s enrollment decline, an update

American college and university enrollment declined this semester. In this post I’d like to update you with the latest developments on the trend.

To start with, let me explain why this matters.

The vast majority of American colleges and universities strongly depend on students for their income.  Fees, room and board, and especially tuition flows from students who take classes and/or their families and/or their external scholarship sources.  State governments fund only about two thirds of United States campuses, and generally at historically low levels, as in a minority of revenue.  Only a vanishingly small handful of campuses have endowments large enough to matter.

So enrollment is crucial for the typical college or university’s survival.  If the number of students drops, a school can try to make up for the loss by recruiting wealthier learners, since college pricing is actually variable.  But competition for the children of the 1-5% is incredibly fierce.

Now, total enrollment – not how many students are enrolled at one campus, but the number of students taking classes at all American campuses – grew from the 1980s through a historical peak at 2012, and has declined every year since.

Got it?  Please leave questions in comments.  Now for the latest data.

First, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has updated their fall 2020 findings (see here and here for earlier versions).  Overall, total enrollment dropped 3.3% from fall 2019 to 2020.  Undergraduate numbers show a steeper decline, 4.4%:

enrollment US undergrad 2020 Nov 18 Clearinghouse

That’s across all sectors, including 2- and 4-year institutions.  For-profits are nearly stable, while community college losses mounted to nearly 10%.

Grad programs are a study in contrast, now hosting 2.9% more students than last year:

enrollment US grad 2020 Nov 18 Clearinghouse

The undergrad decline struck across all ages and both genders:

enrollment undergrad by age and gender 2020 Nov 18_Clearinghouse

Although male numbers dropped more than women’s, which should strengthen the established female majority in America’s cumulative study body.

Declines and rises similarly played out across race:

enrollment US degrees by race_2020 Novv 18_Clearinghouse

Note the serious drop in international students (“Non-Resident Alien”).  More below.

A crucial dimension in the Clearinghouse data is the sharp decline in first-year* undergraduates.  That population dropped 13% or more than 1/8th.  Again, that was across all races:

enrollment changes by ethnicities

Three more things to note.  There are still more undergrads than grad students, so the former’s decline overpowers the latter’s in terms of total effect.  Then there are wild differences between types of degree:

enrollment US credential types 2020 Nov 18 Clearinghouseenrollment US credential types 2020 Nov 18 Clearinghouse

BA/BS degrees are only down a little, while associate’s and undergrad certificates plunged 9% apiece.  Graduate and post-bac certificates are growing more than master’s or PhDs.

And results play out interestingly in terms of space.  The decline pattern holds out across national regions.  The midwest is suffering the largest total undergrad enrollment drop, 5.7%, while the south is dropping the least, at just 3.8%.  Meanwhile, urban campuses declined less than those located in rural areas or small towns:

enrollment by space 2020 Nov 18_Clearinghouse

Second, a new survey from the Institute of International Education (IEE) reveals that international student numbers fell dramatically this term.  Julie Baer and Mirka Martel found that “[t]otal international students at higher education institutions in the United States and studying online outside the United States decreased by 16 percent in Fall 2020.”  A large number of international students were accepted to study, but deferred actual enrollment:

90 percent of institutions report international student deferrals. These institutions indicate that more than 40,000 international students have deferred their enrollment to a future term.

One key detail: “New international student enrollment in the United States and online outside the United States has decreased by 43 percent in Fall 2020.”

Another crucial point: 20% of international students study online.  Put another way, “80 percent of international students are studying in the United States while 20 percent of international students are enrolled online outside the United States.”

Where do international students come from?  Inside Higher Ed presents this useful map:

Top 10 Places of Origin for International Students

What can we take away from these two studies?

Very briefly, and in effort not to repeat myself too much:

Declining enrollments in general are bad for campus business models, unless the school can boost income from some other source.  This happens right after a spring semester which hit campuses hard to the extent they depended on residential students. And it occurs when state governments are tending to cut support to public higher education.

An enrollment drop means increased competition between institutions.  The obverse of that is increasing difficulty in mounting collaborations among them.

While all races have stepped back from higher ed, black, native American, and Latinx people seem to have done so in higher numbers than whites and Asians.  This is bad news for the goal of supporting more underrepresented minorities in post-secondary education.

Declining international enrollment is especially salient for two reasons.  Non-US students are much more likely to be “full pay”: paying an institution’s published tuition.  And many fulfill popular plans for increasing campus diversity, as most are not white.

The relative success of graduate programs suggests colleges and universities might be tempted to shift resources in that direction, away from undergrad degrees.

The sharp cut in first-year students in general suggests we’ll see 1-3 years of echoes, as each succeeding year’s class is that much smaller.  For international students, we might experience a version of that.

Note that China remains the largest source of international students.  We need to watch carefully to see how geopolitics shapes that.

This is one set of data for a very hard semester.  Be safe and take care, everyone.

*I abhor the word “freshmen.”  It’s clearly sexist and at best antiquated.  “First-year student” might add syllables but is worth the amendement.

Posted in enrollment | 5 Comments

Introducing a little parlor game: 3+ Brilliants

Amidst the many stresses and demands of November 2020, let me take a quick break to present a small parlor game for anyone’s use and amusement.

I call it 3+ Brilliants, and it’s pretty simple.

3Each player has to come up with three or more excellent works created by a single artist, inventor, or group.  The catch is that those 3+ must be all in a row.  No non-superb works by the same creator can interrupt that run.

Each work must be long form for its field.  That is, novels are good, but not short stories.  Short poems shouldn’t be played, but epics or book-length collections are fair game.  Songs, no, but albums, yes.

Any creative field can be used.  The arts are obvious – think novels, movies, plays, music – but other forms of creative invention are fine: engineering, for example.

In fact, let me offer some examples.

Stanley Kubrick directed three classic films in a row: Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), then A Clockwork Orange (1971).  (Wikipedia calls this period ground-breaking cinema.) We might try to add Lolita (1962) to the head of the list, or Barry Lyndon (1975), which should lead to some discussion.  Personally, I’d vote for both, but I know not everyone agrees.

Shifting to the novel, one could volunteer four (!) from Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), then Emma (1815).  Four classics of literature in a row, straight up. Preceding all of those is Northanger Abbey, which I enjoy for the Gothic aspect, but recognize it as something much less impressive than her other works.

Back to movies, we can cite Francis Ford Coppola, who issued a string of great and very different movies in a row: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (also 1974!), then Apocalypse Now (1979).

And so on.

We can play 3+ Brilliants in several ways.  The simplest is for individual players to think, perhaps research, then volunteer their lists for others to consider.  Players can argue against items on a list, either finding them less than amazing, or discovering sub-excellent pieces in the same time frame.  This can occur in person or online.

Another mode is for one player to declare a context for everyone else to work within.  They could set a time period, a region, a medium, or even something more playful and challenging, like creators whose name begins with a vowel.

A quiz version could offer the creator’s name, and people have to guess or collective determine the 3+.  Maybe give the name plus one of the titles.

And so on.  Folks can probably come up with more variations.

How 3+ Brilliants came about: actually, this game appeared to me as an idea in a dream, possibly because I went to bed thinking of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game (1943).  I can’t remember anything else from the dream, but the rules had gelled as I woke up, and then… I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  It sounded like fun, so I tried it out on Facebook and Twitter.  Twitter responses often touched on music:

On Facebook, more than 100 responses came in, from music to physics to theater:

Björk: Debut, Post, Homogenic, Vespertine (Sara Grosky)

Antonin Dvorak: New World Symphony Op. 95, American quartet Op. 96, Eb major quintet, Op. 97. (Caroline Coward)

Albert Einstein – Paper on Photoelectric Light/Paper on Brownian Motion/Paper on Theory of Special Relativity/Paper on Mass-Energy Equivalence (collectively known as the “Annus Mirabillis” papers). (Peter G. Shea)

In four consecutive years, August Wilson wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson. Three Critics Circle awards, two drama desks, two Pulitzers, and a Tony. (Eric Behrens)

And there you have it.  I hope people have fun with it.  Please feel free to play in the comments, or to offer other ideas for how it could work.

(3 photo by Michael Coghlan)


Posted in gaming | 7 Comments

Toggle terms rise as COVID-19 surges across the United States, suggesting a more online spring semester

toggle switch by Alan LevineI last posted about American campuses enacting toggle terms three days ago.  Since then the number of examples has ballooned.

Let me offer two background notes.  First, I came up with the “toggle term” model waaaaaaay back in April.  It refers to a college or university that switches between online and in-person education during a semester or other academic period.  I offered this as a separate scenario from cases where a campus chooses either online or in person for an entire semester.  During spring and summer of 2020 few campuses gave any hints they were considering planning for toggles, but since fall started dozens of examples have appeared.

Second, why are toggles rising?  Because the coronavirus pandemic is booming, it seems.  Globally, WHO now counts “52,487,476 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1,290,653 deaths.”  Within the United States, the CDC thinks there have been 10,508,864 infections and 242,216 deaths.  And those American numbers are trending up, and steeply.

Consider this 91-DIVOC visualization, where the US is surging up, second only to the European disaster:

coronavirus_cases by nation_US_2020 Nov 13_91-DIVOCcoronavirus_cases by nation_US_2020 Nov 13_91-DIVOC

This is occurring across the nation, within each region:

coronavirus_cases by US region_2020 Nov 13_91-DIVOCcoronavirus_cases by US region_2020 Nov 13_91-DIVOC

The causes are multiple, in my reading of reports and commentary: more people spending more time inside as temperatures fall; pandemic fatigue; politically inspired acting out; Halloween; some campuses being open; ditto K-12.  As winter sets in we might expect even higher infection numbers.

In this environment, you might expect some campuses to toggle away from face-to-face activities, flipping a strategic switch to online education.  And you’d be right.


St. Lawrence University ended in-person classes, suspended cocurricular activities, and quarantined several residence halls.  The cause: the campus “wastewater monitoring system has detected positive traces of the virus in wastewater samples” from those dorms.

Niagara University ended in-person classes yesterday due to COVID-19 “news in the [upstate New York] region and the uptick of cases on campus.”

Hilbert College ceased offering face to face classes today.   They were originally planning on doing so November 23rd.  Meanwhile, the physical campus will “remain open until November 24.”

Syracuse University “went into pause mode” yesterday.

Given the resurgence of the virus, we have made the decision to conclude in-person instruction, effective Thursday, Nov. 12, and transition fully to online instruction for the remainder of the semester.

The University of Missouri is sending students home now, to partake of online education for the rest of the term.  “At the start of the school year, officials had thought they might go online only after Thanksgiving.”

King’s College (Pennsylvania) ended in-person classes and in-person cocurricular activities today.

So did, in various forms, Adams University, Central Wyoming College, Cleary University, Drake University, Luther College, Missouri Southern State University, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Seton Hall University, the University of Akronthe University of Illinois, the University of Wyoming, and Valparaiso University.  There are, no doubt, others.

In addition, three University of Wisconsin campuses – Stout, Eau Claire and River Falls – will switch online after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Some observations:

These toggles to online education have some resonance with campuses that planned on switching from in-person to online for Thanksgiving, way back in August.  They’re just doing it now, in mid-stream and mid-semester.

Some campuses are trying out alternative language to describe their toggling.  Luther College calls theirs “a circuit breaker.”  Syracuse uses “pause.”  Meanwhile, nearly everyone trots out the legalistic spell of “abundance of caution.”

These toggles and the pandemic that drives them may point to more campuses being online in spring 2021 than this fall.   Ohio’s governor explicitly called for such a strategy:

Along related lines, the Ivy (college sports) League called off winter season sports, into 2021.  Should we prepare another spreadsheet for campuses migrating online over winter?

Lastly. I’m geekishly charmed that the King’s College announcement prominently displays a Moodle logo.

(thanks to Doug Lederman and Benjy Renton)

Posted in coronavirus | Leave a comment

Looking ahead to the next eight years of climate change action: possibilities and a poll

Now that Biden has defeated Trump, what are the options for climate change activism?

NYT Biden Beats TrumpWith those post I’d like to poll you all, dear readers, getting a sense of your thinking while crowdsourcing some futures awareness.

To explain:

President-elect Biden appears to be a climate ally, at least based on his statements and his campaign’s publications since winning the Democratic party nomination.  If he actually seeks to govern along those lines, he does have some capacity for change.  A Biden administration can replace Trump appointees in federal offices, and fill vacancies.  Biden can also issue executive actions, starting with returning the United States to the Paris accord and including blocking oil drilling on federal lands.  Those might be especially needed if Trump does more damage over the next two months.

However, things that will cost a lot of money – say, massive support for an alternative energy build-out, renovating vast numbers of buildings, or launching a Manhattan Project to built CO2 sequestering devices at scale – will likely run into a GOP Senate and get seriously cut back or stopped cold.  McConnell has clearly shown a willingness to do everything he can to stop Democratic administrations’ projects.  Now, this is somewhat uncertain, since several Senate races are still being fought. It’s possible that the Senate will be tied 50-50, which can be broken by vice president Harris, or even that the Democrats will eke out a 51-49 majority. If either of those occurs, and if the Democrats can maintain serious party discipline, then there is much more scope for climate change action over the next two years.  If not, then Biden will be seriously hampered.

Additionally, a hostile Senate can block some foreign policy initiatives for climate change, based on their treaty role. I’m not sure if anything Biden will attempt will actually involve treaty negotiation, but it is one tool in the toolbox.

Beyond the legislative and executive branches, new climate change plans could run into opposition from the judicial, which is now stuffed with four years of Trump appointees.  Legal challenges could stall any number of efforts.

At a different level, it’s unclear what the election reveals about America’s appetite for national climate change action. Exit polls, not the most reliable measure, especially in a season where polls seem to have performed badly, are all over the map.  Some see Biden taking office with a popular mandate to act on climate change. If that’s true, and a Biden administration agrees, this could lead to more ambitious actions.  On the other hand, Republicans had a very strong electoral showing, gaining in the House of Representatives, holding statehouses, and turning out in immense numbers for Trump. Voters have other issues in mind in addition to climate change.  Biden could decide to proceed cautiously, testing the waters.

Younger voters tend to be more exercised about climate change than their seniors.  To some extent they powered Biden’s win.  Are they a constituency that the incoming administration will want to court or work with?  Or will politicians set them aside, based on the conventional wisdom that young folks rarely vote and donate little?

There are other reasons for Biden to not go full green on climate change.  Throughout 2019 and 2020 he stolidly refused the Green New Deal, even while gradually picking up parts of it. He has a series of other priorities (COVID-19, police reform, rebuilding American foreign policy, a terrible economy) that can soak up precious time and political capital.  Biden also drew on many wealthy people for support, including lavish donations, and a good number of them might pump the breaks on major climate action.

Beyond the Biden team, what possibilities are out there for people who want serious climate change action over the next 4-8 years? The history of climate change activism shows a wide range of domains for activism, from international organizing to lobbying companies, trying to change culture and targeting localities.

I’m curious about your thoughts as to what’s most likely to be followed, so am offering this poll.  The choices will appear first, followed by explications of each point.

About each choice:

A) Organize to win climate majorities in Congress and statehouses in 2022 and 2024, starting now.  Call it the vision of a blue-green sweep.

B) Call for a new federal governmental entity to focus on the problem, such as a cabinet-level Department of Climate Change (credit to Allison Crimmins).

C) Go for the grass roots.  This could take the form of a national campaign at the county/city level, getting those administrative units and populations to take steps from behavior change to implementing policies and laws.  This could then build up to the state government level.  One American model to draw on for massive change is the years-long rise of Prohibition (not for its content or outcome, but the process of sustained, multilevel policy transformation).

D) Go global. Work with other nations to build a planetary coalition which can inspire, outflank, or drag the US along.

E) Get corporations on the climate change mitigation side. Convince capital that climate disaster will damage them badly, starting now, so they need to take serious steps: resourcing their electrical power, transforming their buildings, ending oil extraction, etc.

F) Force corporations to become climate change allies. Build some kind of combined political pressure/grassroots group to compel businesses to change.

G) Get creative culturally. Create trendy ways to participate in climate change mitigation.  Make green cool. This could even take the form of a climate change spirituality or religion, 21st century style, some mix of New Age, Goop, Eat/Prey/Love, and Instagram.  It might also or instead involve current religions – the pope might be an ally.

H) Direct action. If one sees climate change as about to bring about immense death and destruction, a war footing is not unreasonable.  We could see direction action attacks on property, such as sabotaging coal plants or oil pipelines.  It could involve threatening, kidnapping, or assassinating key figures, such as oil company executives or anti-climate politicians. This could draw on decades of environmental activism, from monkeywrenching to Earth First!

I) Campaign for public geoengineering projects to mitigate climate change, such as lofting aerosol particles to increase Earth’s reflectivity.  This could be attempted by one nation or a group of them.

J) Like I, but with non-governmental support.  Campaign for private geoengineering efforts.  Imagine a company or visionary plutocrat investing in such a massive project.

K) Other.  The comment box stands ready for you.

The poll should allow for multiple answers, if you see two or more simultaneous paths forward.

Thank you for your participation!

Posted in climatechange | Leave a comment

Higher education grapples with COVID in early November 2020: pandemic, death, bad data, toggles, and a look to 2021

Greetings from November 2020.

This isn’t a post about politics – it’s about higher ed and COVID – but given recent events, let’s do first things first:

NYT Biden Beats TrumpI hope to carve out time to say more about the election later.

For now, I want to continue scanning higher education’s response to the pandemic.

To begin, COVID-19 keeps expanding the number of people it infects and kills. WHO now counts 50,266,033 confirmed cases and 1,254,567 deaths worldwide.  In the United States, the CDC published these numbers: infections, 9,913,553; deaths, 237,037.

The US and the European Union continue to see infection numbers ascend at a horribly steep angle, according to 91-DIVOC graphs:

coronavirus infections worldwide US 2020 Nov 9_91-DIVOC

Worse, the EU is seeing COVID deaths rising as steeply, while American pandemic deaths are growing more slowly:

coronavirus worldwide deaths 2020 Nov 9_91-DIVOC

Infections rise across the United States, especially in the midwest and south:

coronavirus cases US regions_2020 Nov 9_91-DIVOC

Those two regions also lead the rest in viral deaths – but notice that deaths are rising in all regions:

coronavirus deaths US regions_2020 Nov 9_DIVOC

I would not be surprised to see these curves continue to rise in the United States.  We’re entering winter, which means more people will spend more time indoors with other people amidst recirculating air.  Seasonal flu may also interact with COVID-19.  Hopefully Denmark will put down its new spread – “new” because they apparently have a mutant strain, one which infects another species (the mink) and might travel by bird.

One bright spot: two companies, Pfizer and BioNTech, announced a successful trial of a COVID-19 vaccine.  It still needs more testing, authorization, production, and distribution – and then enough people need to take it (twice, apparently) to have an impact.  I fervently wish them good luck.  And also that they produce a generic version, or open up the vaccine.

In higher education: I have to begin by saying that there is still no good data about infections across colleges and universities.  The best estimate comes from the New York Times, and that still has the problems I pointed out earlier: missing the majority of campus, not distinguishing fall term cases from the rest of the year.  They claim “252,000+ Cases” since COVID first appeared.  Some undisclosed proportion of that occurred during this term.  Since their dataset is less than one half of American higher ed, we can only estimate that colleges and universities have suffered around… n00,000 infections in fall 2020.

We are in many ways still flying blind.

How many members of the academic community has the virus killed this semester?  Again, there is no good data or tracker that I can find.  When I last posted, I numbered five people: three students, one staff member, and one university president.  Since then at least one other student has died: Bethany Nesbitt, 20, at Grace College.

After being released from a local hospital, she died in her dorm room.  As far as I can tell, she died alone.

In response to this terrible pandemic, American colleges and universities continue to present a range of operating schemes, from fully in-person to wholly online.  According to Davidson College’s tracker, no one strategy predominates:

coronavirus college operating plans fall 2020_2020 Nov 9_Davidson

Meanwhile, while much attention is paid to those semester-long strategies, there is less discussion of campuses interrupting these terms. In fact, toggle terms continue to occur across the country.  (That’s when a campus switches from online to in-person, or vice versa, during a semester.) When I last wrote about this trend I counted at least 23 toggles.  More keep coming:

Because of spikes in COVID-19, the faculty will be pivoting to an on-line modality, utilizing Canvas and integrating Zoom and other platforms, for the remaining three weeks of the semester. The face to-face component of our blended courses will be eliminated effective Wednesday, October 28th…

For students who will remain on campus, the University has implemented an 11PM – 7AM (MondaySunday) curfew and a shelter in place order through the remainder of the semester…

At the same time other campuses undertook other anti-pandemic measures.  Frostburg State University announced it was shutting down some key in-person social opportunities, but “[c]lasses will continue in their current blended or online formats.” Syracuse University announced something similar.  Skidmore College suspended nearly 50 students for violating protocols.  Duquesne University suspended all fraternity and sorority activity “because of ‘repeated and egregious’ violation of coronavirus procedures.”

A letter sent to members of Greek organizations signed by the vice president of student life says several members and organizations violated the university’s student code of conduct’s COVID-19 standards, so all activity will be suspended immediately.

The letter goes on to say member associations held gatherings over the 25-person indoor limit and threw parties that violated both coronavirus policies and “more typical conduct standards.” It also says members of sororities and fraternities were deliberately misleading in an attempt to limit contact tracing.

“At a time when the University and, indeed, our region needed you most to live the values you espouse, as a system you failed to do so. Furthermore, you deliberately persisted in behaviors known to endanger people…”

Inside Higher Ed has a nice visualization of these toggle terms:

coronavirus toggle viz 2020 June 1-Nov-5ish_IHEcoronavirus toggle viz 2020 June 1-Nov-5ish_IHE

Undergraduate student Benjy Renton built a good database on “Reversals in Colleges’ Fall 2020 Reopening Plans for IHE.

Other campus responses: the State University of New York (SUNY) system announced it would test all students before sending them home for Thanksgiving break.  Notre Dame’s president complained about students who stormed a football field in joyous and COVID-friendly crowds.

coronavirus Notre Dame crowd

At about the same time a majority of Notre Dame’s Faculty Senate voted to “express… its disappointment in” their university’s president for participating in, and contracting COVID-19 from, a White House superspreader event.

In a very different vein, Clemson University is offering to share its testing services with other, nearby academic institutions.  Good for them.

Sports: at least 49 football games were canceled due to COVID as of mid-October.

That’s where fall term 2020 stands now.  But the semester is moving towards its conclusion, and spring 2021 is approaching.  How are campuses planning for next year?

I’m hearing many campuses want to keep doing what they’re doing, in part because they’ve learned how to do better with whichever plan they chose.  On the other hand, rising cases might drive more online teaching.  Additionally, Ray Schroeder suggests changes in the business world might drive more digital learning:

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), it is clear that business and industry have moved to more deeply integrate virtual and remote work into their operations.

There is some resistance to administrations urging or requiring in-person teaching. The University of Florida plans to teach in person, but some students and faculty protest this decision.

University of Florida reaper protest 2020

I want to end with that stark image of the Reaper confronting higher ed.  It recognizes the real deaths we’ve suffered.  It reminds us that the pandemic can get much worst over the next months.  It’s also a mythic figure, rather than a data construct, illustrating starkly just how bad our data situation is.

Still, we move forward.

(thanks to Lisa Durff for linkage; thanks to Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle for their ongoing coverage)

Posted in coronavirus | 6 Comments

My Academia Next book wins 2020 Most Significant Futures Work award

I’d like to share some good news.  Even to kvell a little.

Academia Next coverMy most recent book, Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, appeared from Johns Hopkins University Press over the 2019-2020 winter.  It got some good notices until March, whereupon people freaked out about how it forecast a pandemic before COVID appeared.

Now I’m delighted to announce Academia Next has won its first award!

The Association of Professional Futurists (APF) gives annual awards for Most Significant Futures Works.  The intent: “identifying and rewarding the work of professional futurists and others whose work illuminates aspects of the future.”  Historically prizes have gone to research into forecasting methods and content, as well as to literary and artistic project.

This year Academia Next won under the category of Analyze a significant future issue.”  Nominating member Marius Oosthuizen described it as such:

Bryan’s book is an example of foresight practice at the intersection of academia and action. As such, it models the way by leveraging the tools and methods of foresight, to contribute to the exploration of deep transformation of societal systems – in this case, higher education.

In a time of unprecedented social shock, while educators and learners the world over are grappling with the new realities of social distancing and digital transformation, alongside the broader social ramifications of economic disruption and political uncertainty, Bryan’s work illustrates how foresight professionals work the future.

His book is a sensible primer to a fundamental shift required in the discourse about the institutions, cultures and modes of education and learning. Bryan’s far-sightedness and relevance is borne out by his depiction of the social dynamics he sees shaping education, in for instance his chapter entitled, “Health Care Nation”.

I am utterly delighted to receive the award.  As a futurist, this is a terrific recognition from my professional peers.  It’s especially satisfying since those peers are not all academics – i.e., the book successfully described its topics to nonspecialists.  I’m glad to bring more awareness of academic realities to the futures community, while bringing more foresight thought to higher education.

Now, alert readers may raise skeptical eyebrows about this, since I’m a board member of the APF.  They’d be correct to do so.  After all, I’ve nominated projects for this award.  And the futures profession is a small world.

APF has been most scrupulous about the process.  Once Academia Next was nominated, I was firewalled away completely, before I even made noises about recusing myself.  From that point on I heard absolutely nothing from the awards group.  Heck, I didn’t know I won until a friend tweeted about it. I lobbied nobody.  Overall, it looks like the process was fair.  I’m thankful to APF for being ethical in the process.

I’m grateful to APF in general.  The organization draws together a global network of professionals, many of whom are very generous in sharing their expertise and thinking.  It’s a great resource for my own work.  I hope I can give back, moving forward.

Posted in cheer, writing | 25 Comments

Election 2020: this frozen moment, this confrontation of the ghosts

It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts.

-Paulo Freire

I’m writing this on November 4, the day after America’s national elections.  While some state races have been settled, others are still open, and the presidency remains on a knife edge.  Counting, recounting, lawsuits, claims, counterclaims, incursions, probabilities are in the air.

The thing might be settled tonight, or in a few days, or in weeks, depending on actions in a handful of American states.  I’ll have more to say once that’s done.  For tonight I wanted to focus on this suspended moment.  What is held in place during this terrific pause?

library_Helsinki U

The Helsinki University library, just across town from Arcada.

Four years ago I was in Helsinki, generously hosted in a short residency by Arcada University of Applied Sciences.

This was right after the 2016 American election, and the locals were most keen on my thoughts about how Trump defeated Clinton.  Many questions and many of my answers turned on details – turnout, the Democratic neglect of the Midwest, how the Electoral College works, gender attitudes at the time, etc. – but I kept thinking about larger trends, bigger currents, trying to understand it in terms of the macro picture of the unfolding future.

Tonight I’d like to return to that latter way of thinking.  It seems almost perverse to do so on the day after Election Day, when so much attention is devoted to the micro, practical details of voting, counting, announcements, and legal options, followed by the shambolic uncertainty of key results.  The nation is trembling at the cusp of decision, caught in a liminal moment.

Let’s take a couple of steps back.

During that Helsinki November – which was definitely, seriously cold and snowy – it seemed to me that the United States was teetering on a historical edge.  Trump felt like an openly retro candidate, a one-man attempt to reclaim some vision of mid-20th-century America, while Clinton’s supporters sometimes urged a very different path forward for the nation, grounded on technocratic prowess and the empowerment of both women and ethnic minorities.  The contest reminded me of a famous quote from Antonio Gramsci, written nearly a century ago:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Thinking of that quote in seminar rooms or walking along dark streets, gaping at Finnish language signs, the passage felt like a perfect descriptor.  Trump was the old, of course, trying to roll back civil rights, blocking climate change study and mitigation, proclaiming his masculinity and sexism, standing athwart a generation of increasing globalization.  He personified age, biologically. Clinton, in contrast, positioned herself to an extent as the new, an avatar of women’s progress.  Her campaign anchored itself on a post-industrial vision of the creative class in growing, ethnically diverse cities and suburbs. Climate change activists supported Clinton.

And so on.  Obviously both candidates articulated different visions, which is precisely their job in a campaign. Yet they seemed broken up by time to an unusual extent, with Trump fixated on (a certain model of) the past, and the Clinton campaign banking on demographic, cultural, and political trends that they saw building up into the future.  Voters mapped themselves onto this by age, with a majority of senior citizens voting Republican and a majority of younger folks Democratic.

(Note: this isn’t to say I find any affiliations between Hillary Clinton and Italian Marxism! I’m speaking here of cultural currents broader than the nature of individual candidates.)

While in Finland I came across two other passages in my reading that resonated with this theme, although from very different sources.  In a great book about pedagogy, We Make the Road by Walking, Paolo Freire describes massive changes in Brazilian society during the 1960s in terms similar to Gramsci’s:

It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts. (218)

“confrontation of the ghosts” – what a great phrase!  What a fine metaphor for a struggle between two epochs, or visions thereof.  It’s not about armies clashing in person but dueling plans, nostalgia battling futurism, a pair of imaginaries locked in struggle.  Neither can be fully realized, as the old is already compromised and shaken, while the new cannot fully manifest.

Another passage leaped out at me then, this one from Margaret MacMillan‘s excellent First World War book The War That Ended Peace.  It was a quote from Harry Kessler, a border-crossing (English and German) aristocrat, bon vivant, and prolific diarist.  In it he characterized the WWI European era as a grand succession struggle, a sequence of generations caught in mid-stream:

Something… was growing old and weak, dying out; and something new, young, energetic, and still unimaginable was in the offing.  We felt it like a frost, like a spring in our limbs, the one with muffled pain, the other with a keen joy. (Kindle location 7428)

Muffled pain called to mind the white Trump voters in 2016, while the keen joy suggested black and Latinx people fighting for equality and visibility. The new was “still unimaginable” in the moment, or at least it was for Kessler at the time of writing those words.  In contrast the presence of something new and different was clear, just not fully in operation.  Meanwhile the older order was still in charge, yet struggling with decline.

I wrote about these passages and thoughts after I returned to the States.  In that post I went on at great length about the differences and possibilities.  Readers are welcome to examine it; I won’t recap the points here.

As the Trump presidency shambled on, this “confrontation of the ghosts” seemed like a good description of events.  Trump celebrated his image of the past and did his best to bring about its resurrection, but repeatedly fumbled in getting things done, because of a mix of opposition, arrogance, incompetence, and staff turmoil.  His opponents saw Trump’s ghost summoning clearly, and went further, deeming his administration to be focused on summoning the worst parts of the 20th century, from climate denial to racism and even fascism.  Following the Gramsci/Freire/Kessler pattern, some Democrats – but definitely not all – championed a rising younger generation, from star New York Representative AOC and her squad to the youthful climate change movement, whose avatars included the teenaged Greta Thunberg.

Today, November 4th, as the election flogs itself on into uncertainty and complexity, it seems to me that that dueling temporal vision, that struggle of the ghosts, is still very much in play. And the election’s spectacular failure of decision shows we’re still locked in that intermediate stage, with something new struggling to be born and something old clinging desperately to power, fighting to re-seed the present with the past.

It’s not a simple divide.  The ghosts overlap in their struggles.  For example, as Florida and other states show, Republicans seem to have won significant black and especially Latinx votes, despite racist and antiracist campaigning.  Meanwhile, both Biden and Trump see China as a major adversary in their respective foreign policies.  Trump blames Beijing for unleashing “the China virus” on the world, while Biden wants to resurrect the multi-party, anti-China coalition of the Obama administration.  Trump accuses Biden of being weak on China, which sounds, appropriately, like a slur from the 1950s, and also seems to just be wrong.

Yet in general the vision split persists.  It’s how each candidate campaigned.  And now, in this moment, neither has won.

And neither will be able to govern with their ghosts.  Neither party looks likely to have control over Congress, as the GOP gained ground on Democrats in the House but remain a minority, while retaining (it seems) a thin lead in the Senate.  Historically high turnout levels proclaim vast numbers supporting each vision.

Tonight’s uneasy balance may well be what we experience for the next two years, until Congressional elections.  Yes, a president will continue or be installed, but they – and we – will maintain in this paused position, caught between ascending and declining visions, neither having won out.

George Packer observes:

This is the election’s meaning. We are stuck with one another, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing.

It might be that living in this liminal state is too much for some of us to bear.  It’ll probably drive some to disengage from politics.  Others might shift towards various forms of direct action to drive out the opposing ghost, from monkeywrenching to assassination.  We could see more small-level secessions, people forming intentional communities, or just living with like-minded folks.  Packer goes on to forecast that “[t]he possible exits—gradual de-escalation, majority breakthrough, clean separation, civil war—are either unlikely or unthinkable,” but American history teaches otherwise.  This is where Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms” come in.

Caught in this electoral pause, embedded in a battle of ghosts, wracked by keen joy or muffled pain – perhaps we’ll have to get used to it.

Posted in politics | 25 Comments