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

COVID-19 and higher education in mid-October: infections, deaths, plans, seasons, toggle terms, and a data disaster

To forecast the future, it’s crucial to understand the present.

I’ve followed that principle for years.  It informs my work on many levels.  That’s why today I’d like to give you all a sense of where higher education stands in the middle of October, 2020, as it grapples with COVID-19.  We need to do this in order to think more effectively about where we’re headed next.

I’ve been meaning to update you all for several weeks.  But this season I’m brain-deep in climate change work, plus engaged with teaching two seminars and immersed in several other projects.  Still, I want to catch us all up on where things stand with the pandemic, especially as it’s proving decisive for the American election, and as we grope towards what the thing could do over the next few years.

Let’s start with the virus, move on to what colleges and universities are doing, then offer some thoughts about what this all tells us about possible 2021s.

Fair warning: this is a heavy post, long, carrying lots of data, and addressing a horrific subject.  I’ve included visualizations and photos which might break up the stress.


On October 16th, 2020, COVID-19 continues to spread across the world, sickening, injuring, and killing.

Data vary depending on one’s source, but the overall picture is fairly clear.  Global infection numbers range from 38,789,204 to 39,126,112 and 39,474,896 people. Deaths are now clearly over one million: 1,095,097 to 1,106,870 to 1,100,877.

In the United States between 7,958,254 and 8,267,053 people are infected, amounting to around 2.4% of the population. American deaths are in a range of nearly a quarter million, 216,917 to 218,137 and 223,359. Those numbers are likely an undercount, as tens of thousands of “excess deaths” (deaths above recent history, yet not assigned to COVID) have been occurring for months; at least one paper sees actual deaths being up to 20% higher, or around 260-267,000. (sources: Centers for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization, Worldometers)

There are no good national or global numbers about people injured by infections, suffering damages that may last them for some time, whom some call long haulers.

Here’s the iconic Johns Hopkins dashboard for today:

coronavirus global spread 2020 Oct 16 JHUcoronavirus global spread 2020 Oct 16 JHU

To give you a sense of perspective, of how quickly human horror and wastage have swollen, here’s where things stood six months ago, on the same dashboard, but for April 14th:

coronavirus global spread 2020 April 14 JHU

The virus is unevenly distributed by nations, and that distribution has changed over the past year.  91-DIVOCs visualization shows this clearly in terms of infections:

coronavirus by nation EU_2020 Oct 16-91-DIVOC

Based on that data, the European Union, the United States, and Britain, are now experiencing massive infection rises, while the huge waves which attacked Brazil and India are now subsiding.

The unfortunately named Information is Beautiful site presents infections and deaths in absolute terms:

coronavirus by nation 2020 Oct 16_Information is Beautiful

In the United States, every region is now experiencing rising infections:

coronavirus US by regions_2020 Oct 16_91-DIVOC

The butcher’s bill presents differently, as the west and especially south are on downhill trajectories, thankfully.  But the number of deaths in the northeast and midwest are rising:

coronavirus deaths US by regions_2020 Oct 16_91-DIVOC

The COVID Tracking Project says the United States is now in a third pandemic wave.

The third surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is under way. Outbreaks have been worsening in many states for more than a month, and new COVID-19 cases jumped 18 percent this week, bringing the seven-day average to more than 51,000 cases a day. Though testing rose by 8 percent nationally, that’s not enough of an increase to explain the steep rise in cases. Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations, which had previously been creeping upward slowly, jumped more than 14 percent from a week earlier.

Looking ahead, projections uniformly indicate more infections and deaths, unsurprisingly.  The University of Washington’s IHME project forecasts three possible global death toll outcomes by February 2021, from 1.8 to nearly 3.5 million:

coronavirus_projection to 2021 Feb_2020 Oc 16_IHME

For the United States:

coronavirus US death projections to 2021 Feb_2020 Oct 15_IHME

In the short term, IHME sees around 230,000 dead by America’s election day:

coronavirus US deaths projected to 2020 Nov 3_2020 Oc 15_IHME

Many in the US anticipate a vaccine to staunch the bleeding.  Some look forward to herd immunity.

In the meantime, American public health and medicare care are very unevenly distributed.


So how is higher education grappling with this terrible pandemic?

(For reasons of time I’m going to focus on the United States.) It’s actually difficult to answer this question.  We have to take several different approaches.

We can start by checking on national data about colleges, universities, and COVID-19.  Unfortunately, shamefully, disastrously for present and future, we don’t have any data we can useThe CDC offers some guidance but is not tracking the viral spread across higher education.  The United States Department of Education publishes no such dataThe White House Coronavirus Task Force, which manages to issue recommendations to individual states while having no official website that I can discover, also fails to share anything on this score. Neither leading journal of academia publishes a national dashboard or even total stats. No nonprofit has done this, nor any business that I can find.

The best we have right now, as best I can determine, is a single New York Times web page. Back in August the Times tried to aggregate as much collegiate information as they could.  As I wrote then, the results were poor: only a fraction of the higher education ecosystem was touched, the data incompatible, and all of it spread across uneven timelines.  And this took dozens of reports some undisclosed amount of time to eke out.

Since then that tracker has improved somewhat.  It now claims 1,700 campuses, or nearly 40% of the whole: better, if not sufficient.  The problems I identified are otherwise still there.  At least the page is quite honest about its limitations, once you scroll down a bit:

With no national tracking system, and statewide data available only sporadically, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections. While The Times’s survey is believed to be the most comprehensive account available, it is also a near-certain undercount… [A]t least 140 other [campuses] ignored inquiries or refused to answer questions…


Because colleges report data differently, and because cases continued to emerge even in the months when most campuses were closed, The Times is counting all reported cases since the start of the pandemic.

It’s been eight days since the last update to the page.  Sigh.

Given those caveats, what does the Times tracker tell us?  Their headline claim is “more than 178,000 cases and at least 70 deaths” infections… since the virus hit American shores.  What about fall semester?

The Times has counted more than 171,000 additional cases at colleges since late July; of those, more than 48,000 cases came since late September.

So… it’s hard to say what this tells us, since “since late July” includes both summer and fall terms, and “since late September” leaves out the first weeks of the semester, depending on campus schedules.  We can reasonably guess some tens of thousands of academics, probably? over one hundred thousand, have been infected this term.  But the number should be much higher, given the Times’ admitted undercount.  For example, if the tracker only catches 40% of colleges and universities, and we estimate 100,000 infections in that sample, we could project a reality closer to 240,000.

What about deaths?  How many members of the academic world have perished due to COVID-19?  Again, there is no national record of this.  I have tracked four so far, each of which I’ve shared via Twitter:

  1. Chad Dorrill, a student at Appalachian State University
  2. Jamain Stephens Jr., a student at California University of Pennsylvania
  3. James Hamilton, a police officer at the University of North Carolina- Asheville
  4. Irving Pressley McPhail, president of St. Augustine’s University


Prior to fall term, Osanette Hernandez died in August.  She was a nursing student; I can’t determine where she was studying.

How many others have died?  What are their stories, their very names?  Is anyone even bothering to record them?

If we can’t get good data for how COVID hits academic populations, we could instead examine the macro picture by looking to campus operational strategies for fall 2020.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s tracker (last updated more than two weeks ago), itself based on Davidson College’s College Crisis Dashboard, American colleges and universities have adopted a wide variety of educational configurations:

coronavirus college fall 2020 plans_2020 Oct 1_Chronicle

Entirely online, mostly online, mostly face-to-face, some hybrid – it’s clear that no one approach has won a majority of adherents.  We really shouldn’t speak of campuses opening up, heading online, etc. without qualifying such statements with “the fraction of colleges and universities doing so.”

One such operational strategy requires testing students and at times others on campus for infections.  It seems that this is another approach taken only by a fraction of institutions.  Again, the data is bad, but “more than 2 out of 3 colleges with in-person classes either have no clear testing plan or are testing only students who are at risk,” according to NPR.

Of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are conducting mass screening or random “surveillance” testing of students. Only 6% are routinely testing all of their students. Most, instead, are relying on only diagnostic testing of symptomatic students, which many experts say comes too late to control outbreaks and understates the true number of cases.

Another such operational strategy is what I called “the toggle term,” when a college or university switches between online (all or mostly) and in-person (all or mostly) education in mid-semester.  I forecast the strategy back in April. When I last blogged about it I had found seventeen Toggle Term cases this fall.

New examples include:

Meanwhile, 1,000 Kutztown University students toggled themselves, as it were, leaving campus to study remotely on their own volition.

We could also approach the question by looking at individual stories.  For example, SUNY Oneonta has suffered a serious COVID-19 surge.  Their president has stepped down as a result.  Hazmat-equipped authorities (local? state?) have removed students and student property from campus.


There are many, many stories.

But overall, we run smack into one key problem: we are experiencing a serious data void as we try to see what COVID is doing to higher education.


What does the preceding suggest about the next year?  What does fall 2020 tell us about spring, summer, and fall 2021?

We should expect infections and deaths to continue growing.  There is no sign of the virus suddenly and massively mutating into a benign form.  I’m not seeing any evidence that a working vaccine exists, much less working through the long, arduous route of testing->production->distribution->enough people actually taking the thing to matter over the next few months, if not longer. Therefore COVID seems likely to continue cutting a swathe through the human race.  That necessitates not only hospitalizations, suffering, long-term injuries, and deaths, but also emotional tolls taken on families and communities, stresses on already strained medical and public health care, and continued economic recession. The unevenness of public health and medical care’s availability could worsen an already bitter national mood, even helping accelerate civil instability, especially as a potentially chaotic election occurs.

All of those damages hit academia, from infections and long-haul injuries to more deaths.  All of the attending effects also play across higher ed on multiple levels: enrollment, finance, educational operations, building renovations, mental health, etc.  To pick one example, the pandemic’s enormous stress might drive some students to reduce the number of classes they take, or simply to withdraw altogether.  To pick another, we could expect COVID-related research to surge, as it already has, while non-epidemic research declines.

Additionally, academia plays some role in spreading the pandemic, to the extent that we do our work in person and fail to rigorously follow sufficient public health measures.  At least one study finds campuses conducting face-to-face activities to increase infection rates in surrounding counties by a statistically significant measure.  This will take some toll on town-gown relations, not to mention academia’s broader reputation.

The global nature of the pandemic, and America’s international standing thereof, have hit international study hard.  We should expect a continued drop in the number of overseas students taking classes.  This has financial and campus cultural effects, of course.

How will higher ed respond? If we follow fall 2020 practices, colleges and universities will adopt a variety of plans, with no one system being used by a majority.  i.e., some campuses will teach entirely online, others all face-to-face, some blending the two, and so on.  We could expect around forty toggle term instances, if my fall 2020 count holds up.

Now, many campuses changed their fall schedule to end in-person classes early, typically by Thanksgiving break.  On the calendrical flip side, some could also start spring term later.  For example, Bowdoin College will commence classes several weeks late.  There are other cases as well.  One effect is a much longer winter break, lasting one to two months.  Historically this is interesting, as that winter gap starts to resemble summer sessions in size.  Perhaps we’re heading to a four season structure for American colleges and universities: fall classes on, winter off, spring on, summer off. Alternatively, schools can offer fully online winter programs.

Not present in the preceding, but present in how I imagine many readers react as they work through this post, is growing pandemic fatigue.  The virus has been attacking the world for nearly one year.  Many are tired of coping with it.  This is one driver behind lax compliance with public health measures. We may also be normalizing the thing, weaving it into the quiddity of daily and national life, so that we cease to single it out for attention, but gradually include it within the battery of threats we all face.  It’s possible that such acculturation and normalization will involve our no longer thinking about new habits, from masking up to expecting more open social spaces than we once did.  Already I, an energetic extrovert, flinch at the sight of other people in the same building as myself.  It might take extra effort to identify COVID effects in 2021, or even to draw attention to it.

One last note: we still badly need good data about what COVID-19 is doing to higher education.  We can’t assess this problem on anything other than a case by case basic without it.  The lack hurts our decision-making.  History will struggle to understand what happened in 2020, and will not look kindly at our fumbling to record it.

(thanks to Laurie Garrett, Eric Feigl-Ding, this Inside Higher Ed roundup, this bigger IHE roundup, this Chronicle resource, my old college friend Sheldon Robertson, and others)

Posted in coronavirus | 2 Comments

College and university enrollment fell even more steeply this fall, continuing a long term trend

How is college and university enrollment currently changing as a result of fall conditions?  Have the pandemic and recession sent more people to campus?

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoIn late September the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center offered its first pass at presenting fall 2020 enrollment data.  It showed an increase in graduate students attending American higher ed and a larger decrease in undergrads, together yielding a 1.9% overall downturn.

Today the Clearinghouse released a new presentation, with more and updated data, and it paints a darker picture.

Here I’ll summarize what I see as key findings, then offer some of my own thoughts.

tl;dr version – in fall 2020 American higher ed enrollment declined more steeply than it appeared last month.


Across the entire postsecondary sector, total student enrollment “is down 3.0 percent as of September 24.”  Grad enrollment rose 2.7%, a bright spot, while undergraduate dropped 4%.  (The September report had total enrollment down 1.8%, with undergrads down 2.5%.)

enrollment undergrad 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Note the for-profit gain. Recall that 2019 was also a term in decline.

The number of first-year students in particular saw a very significant decline:

[F]irst-time students are by far the biggest decline of any student group from last year (-16.1% nationwide and -22.7% at community colleges).

That first-year drop cut deeply into every sector of American higher ed, but one.  Here’s a nice chart from the Wall Street Journal:

enrollment by institutional type fall 2020_WSJ

As that chart shows, community colleges are being hit much harder than anyone else, overall:

Community colleges continue to suffer the most with a decrease of 9.4% percent. Community colleges’ enrollment decline is now nearly nine times their pre-pandemic loss rate (-1.1% for fall 2019 compared to fall 2018). Even more concerning, the number of freshmen also dropped most drastically at community colleges (-22.7%).

You can see signs of the community college crisis in which undergrad degrees are being taken, with certifications and associates’ falling steeply, while bachelors’ are almost stable:

enrollment by degree 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Recall that community colleges often enroll more students in recessions.  That’s because we identify them most closely with job skills, and recessions, like the one we’re in now, mean higher unemployment.  But this isn’t happening now.

In Insider Higher Ed Doug Shapiro – the Clearinghouse’s executive director and very fine Future Trends Forum guest – observes:

But it’s possible [that decline will continue], Shapiro said, because the students that community colleges serve are most likely to face challenges with access to technology, making online learning difficult. It’s also hard to translate vocational programs to remote formats.

In contrast, “[p]ublic four-year and private nonprofit four-year colleges show a much smaller drop (-1.4% and – 2.0%, respectively).”  And for-profits have actually turned a corner, after years of disaster: “As the only exception, for-profit four-year colleges are running 3% higher than last fall.”

International student numbers are seriously low: “A double-digit drop continued for international undergraduates (-13.7%)… International graduate enrollment declined 7.6%.”

Institutions that normally teach entirely or almost entirely online are doing just fine:

enrollment online schools_ 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Demographically, certain patterns are clear by race and gender.  Every race and ethnicity saw a decline, without exception:

American Indian and Native Alaskan students suffered the sharpest decline of all racial/ethnic undergraduate students (-10.7%), followed by Black students (-7.9%), White students (-7.6%), Hispanic students (-6.1%), and Asian students (-4.0%)…

Preliminary data shows that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) track closely the national trends for undergraduates overall, with somewhat more larger declines among private nonprofit four-year HBCUs and smaller drops among public two-year HBCUs.

Doug Shapiro notes: “We expected to see steeper declines among Black, Native American and Hispanic students.”

And male enrollment dropped by much more than female:

enrollment by age and gender 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Male undergraduate enrollment fell by three times the rate of female enrollment (-6.4% vs. -2.2%)…

One bright spot is the demographics of grad schools: “Graduate enrollment grew across all racial/ethnic groups, particularly Hispanic and Black students (14.2% and 9.3%, respectively).”

Geographically, one part of the United States saw a steeper enrollment decline than the rest: “the Midwest suffered the most (-5.7%) followed by the West (-3.9%), South (-3.6%) and Northeast (-3.4%).”


As any good piece of research does, this report causes me to ask more questions.  What are the total absolute numbers?  Any sense of changes by academic subject?

That first-year student drop is dismaying.  Think about the ripple effects on next year’s class, and the next, and the next.  Doug Shapiro again:

​”These declines are so large and so fast, and they’re so concentrated on first-year students who may never make it back,” he said. “​If there’s not a sudden rebound where they all come back in the spring — I don’t see that happening — I think many of these students will never make it back.”

How much of this decline is due to COVID-19, and how much to the relentless enrollment decline lasting nearly a decade?  I’m willing to bet the community college drop owes much to the pandemic, given how shockingly that goes against the usual economic pattern of increased attendance. Beyond CCs, the decline in non-profits looks close to the historical decline trajectory I’ve been tracking.

The international student number is a serious hit to the many schools depending on overseas enrollment.  I’d really like to see breakdowns by nation.  How much is due to the worsening US-China relationship?  Is India, normally the second-highest contributor of students to the US, now the leader?

The gender divide indicates a strengthened majority status for women as college and university students.

For-profits are enjoying a rebirth, it seems.  At the undergrad level they alone saw growth.  And at the grad level, a roaring 9.3% rise.  This is enormously important.  First, it shows the Obama-era collapse of that sector has clearly ended.  A second for-profit growth period may now be starting up.  Further, it means that for-profits are eating community colleges’ lunch.  I base this view on the community college plummet, and also on Tressie McMillan Cottom’s research identifying that for-profits’ main competitor is community colleges.

I worry that this latest report won’t get much traction, due to American culture in general and around higher ed in particular.  First, the geographical focus of loss is in the Midwest, an area the rest of the country tries to forget.  Second, while community colleges are the biggest segment within the higher ed ecosystem, they are scarcely talked about within the rest of academia.  So it’ll be easy for many to dismiss this report.

Today’s data report is bad news for colleges and universities that depend primarily on tuition for revenue – i.e., the supermajority of them.  Remember that big endowments are quite rare, and that state governments have been cutting public higher ed support since the 20th century. So American higher ed will be even more financially stressed.

For those reading here who are new to my work, hello!  I view this data as another iteration of a long-running decline in both higher ed enrollment and sustainability.  I’ve tracked the story of declining enrollment on this blog for almost a decade. I’ve also written about it in my most recent book, Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, (Johns Hopkins University Press) (Amazon). This trend is vital for understanding American higher ed, especially its strategic choices.  The historical fact is that America grew higher education enrollment for a generation, from around 1980 to 2012.  That was a great achievement.  But 2012 was the peak, and we’ve fallen away from it every year – every semester, in fact.

The blow to community colleges is very hard.  I don’t think this will garner much attention, but CCs are the biggest sector within American higher ed.  The drop could push some to merge and/or close programs or even shut down entirely.

Final point: if the United States is serious about expanding higher education access, we are not only failing, but continuing to fail.  We are now locked in a solid, established failure trend of enrollment decline. We’ve been failing at this for nearly a decade, despite a combination of policies, lots of money, administrative actions, technologies, pedagogical and curricular offerings.

Further, if we are serious about wanting to give underrepresented populations that post-secondary experience, we are seriously failing at that goal.

Posted in enrollment, trends | 1 Comment

Tomorrow: inside college admissions, with Jeff Selingo

How do colleges and universities decide whom to admit in 2020?  Which aspects of an applicant’s background matter the most?  What are the controversies within admissions?  And where is that crucial part of higher education headed?

Selingo_Who Gets In and WhyWe’ll dive into these questions tomorrow, with the help of a brilliant guest.  I’m delighted to welcome Jeff Selingo back to the Future Trends Forum.  Jeff just published Who Gets In and Why (our bookstore; Jeff’s page), a new book on college admissions.  It’s based on his embedding with three different campuses (Davidson College, Emory University, and the University of Washington), looking closely at how each one composed their incoming classes.  Who Gets In is also based on Selingo’s lifetime of thoughtful reporting on higher education.

A quick bio sketch for those who don’t know him: Jeff has published several books including New York Times bestsellers. Named one of LinkedIn’s “must-know influencers” of 2016, Jeff is a regular contributor to the Washington Post and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.  Jeff is a special advisor for innovation to the president at Arizona State University, where he is the founding director of the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership.  He is the former top editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he worked for 16 years in a variety of reporting and editing roles.

Jeff is not new to the Forum.  Not only have I been recommending him to the community for years, but he was also a great guest back in 2017.

Our session starts at 1:30 pm EDT, a little earlier than usual.  Click here to register ahead of time – for free, of course, as always – or click to join us during the appointed hour.

And if you’re new to the Future Trends Forum, the best discussions about higher education’s future, click here to learn more about it!

Posted in Future Trends Forum | 2 Comments

How does the coronavirus intersect with climate change? Part 2: the dress rehearsal

What does the coronavirus experience tell us about climate change?

Last week I started posting on connections between these two enormous challenges.  There I touched on the ways climate change can change the spread of diseases, the possibility that COVID lockdowns give us a glimpse into how we can throttle back carbon emissions, and the ways that coping with the pandemic could accelerate, or blot out, climate crisis thinking and planning.

Today I wanted to explore a different approach, one where we think of our response to COVID-19 as a dress rehearsal for how humanity can handle the climate crisis.  Reflect on the pandemic as a dry run for what comes next.*

Philosopher of science Bruno Latour raised this point way back in March. (French original) “I am advancing the hypothesis, as have many others, that the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change. This hypothesis still needs to be tested.”

Latour actually comes to argue that his hypothesis doesn’t work, at least in France.  We’ll address that below.  For now, though, I’d like to test it out a bit on the rest of the world and explore just how we can explore our future engagement with the climate crisis based on what COVID has shown us.

There are many parts to this.  Let’s identify some of the biggest.

We can start with the social position of science.  Attitudes towards science are wide-ranging, at times contradictory, and sometimes shifting.  A good number of people (media figures, government officials, public health leaders, the population as revealed by polling) saw science as a useful guide through the pandemic.  Epidemiology was the center of this approval, of course, accompanied by the full gamut of health care: biology, anatomy and physiology, respiratory science, psychotherapy, geriatrics, and so on. Huge numbers and forms of statistics have been in the air continuously.

At the same time there have been various forms of skepticism and opposition directed at science.  A good number of people (media figures, government officials, public health leaders, the population as revealed by polling) have charged science with overstating the danger.  Some are now convinced the science is openly political, either connected with party politics, racial politics (in the US), or some form of globalism running roughshod over localities. Scientists themselves contradict each other, not just in the centuries-old tradition of how science develops, but in offering opposed policy prescriptions and seeing their opponents as too politically biased.  These attitudes didn’t emerge out of nowhere, of course, as they draw on pre-established cultural patterns, from the global antivax movement to anti-Darwin religious belief to various forms of popular dislike of authority figures.

In the United States I suspect there’s also some our anxiety about health care, given America’s unusual funding structure.  I fear we might also experience an uptick in suspicion of academic science, driven in part by partisan politics (Republicans being much more skeptical of higher ed than Democrats) as well as negative responses to how many colleges and universities handled the epidemic (opening up leading to infections and deaths within campus communities and beyond).

A similar range of anti- and pro-science stances have already been taken concerning climate change, and it seems reasonable to project them forward.  The particular contours of COVID-era opposition to science – charges of politicization, exaggeration, and being part of a globalist agenda – are certainly in play on climate issues.

One of the strongest sources of opposition to scientific recommendations is the body of counterarguments in favor of economic stability or growth.  That objection has cropped up since the start of the pandemic in the west and continues through today.  It charges that the economic costs of strong public health measures are too deep, and also carry public health burdens in the forms of exhaustion, suicide, etc. A fresh example appeared this week as the Irish government rejected that nation’s leading medical authorities’ call for high levels of behavior restrictions. “The surprise proposal drew widespread opposition amid concerns that severe new curbs would derail an economic recovery.”

Related to these political arguments are the dynamics of economic and racial inequalities.  Since its start COVID-19 has impacted populations unevenly in many ways, including by racial and economic inequities.  Economically, poor people have a more difficult time accessing health care, especially in privatized nations like the United States.  The pandemic has rewarded the wealthy, generally, increasing economic divides.  In the United States black and Latinx populations suffer disproportionately by numbers of infections and deaths.  Awareness of this dynamic seems to be widespread; actions to redress it are not.

Climate change seems likely to continue this pattern.  Globally, economically and ethnically marginalized populations tend to be geographically and culturally placed to bear the brunt of rising waters, deserts, and temperatures.  If 2020’s attitude of criticizing this inequity without doing much to respond materially bears out, COVID suggests racial and economic inequalities will continue to shape humanity’s response to climate change.

Let me return to politics from another angle.  How has the human race responded to the pandemic in terms of state power and governance?

Globally we can see several patterns.  Nation-states are leading the charge, regardless of how well they succeed.  Battling COVID requires action and coordination at the level of provinces, states, and departments.  Cities also play a key role.  Super- and international organizations have some part as well, most visibly the World Health Organization.

coronavirus global dashboard 2020 Oct 10 WHO

The WHO global dashboard as of this writing.

It is not even a year in, and governments can act very slowly indeed, but this suggests to me that humanity is not ready to make seriously political changes in response to global catastrophe.  Indeed, our reactions are in many ways conservative.  We often hearken back to national governments, and among those a great many reactionaries, as in Brazil, India, the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, etc.  None of those states have changed in organization.  Beyond them, there is little international cooperation beyond some of Europe and East Asia, and there it was already in place.  There are no new treaties or compacts, nothing like the agreements that nations made to handle acid rain (1979) or ozone layer depletion (1987).  The European Union doesn’t seem to be changing up to grapple the pandemic. On the other end of the political scale, localisms don’t seem to have taken off as the center of human activity.  We might be more urban than at any other time in history, but the state looks central to our response.

In 2018 Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright posited four ways civilization could reshape states and governance to grapple with the climate crisis. To recap:

  1. Climate Leviathan, the creation of a superstate to organize the world along somewhat technocratic, neoliberal lines.
  2. Climate Behemoth, which sees a host of right wing states defying climate change and fighting to maintain their individual positions.
  3. Climate Mao, where multiple nations pick up China’s unique brand of state communism and climate mitigation.
  4. Climate X, an open category for a kind of decentralized yet collaborative, progressive and liberatory response.

If we can project those scenarios into our present day, it looks like 2020 is the year of COVID Behemoth, followed distantly by at least one Mao in the works (but not others, given global responses to Beijing’s handling of the virus). There are plenty of nation-states addressing the problem, and a bunch are in various forms of denial and/or clumsiness.  Despite ad hoc and often quiet international collaborations, there is no sign of any Leviathan and it is too early to see traces of Climate X, except perhaps for some antiracist awareness in the United States.

Again, it’s still early days, but COVID shows us a human race wedded to the nation state, and suggests our climate change response will follow suit.  Latour argues that these states are operating from an out of date playbook:

What is more worrying is that we do not see how that state would prepare the move from the one crisis to the next. In the health crisis, the administration has the very classic educational role and its authority coincides perfectly with the old national borders – the archaism of the sudden return to European borders is painful proof of this. In the case of ecological change, the relationship is reversed: it is the administration that must learn from a multiform people, on multiple scales, what will be the territories upon which people are trying to survive in many new ways as they seek to escape from globalized production. The present state would be completely incapable of dictating measures from above. If in the health crisis, it is the brave people who must relearn to wash their hands and cough into their elbows as they did in primary school, in the case of the ecological mutation, it is the state that finds itself in a learning situation.

Perhaps we are approaching the boundary of a phase change, when we realize that our response systems are flailing, and that we need to invent or innovate new structures.  If I can add another qualified hypothetical, maybe the web of ad hoc transnational collaboration we see in 2020 gives us the first hint of how that new political order might start to appear.

On the other hand, there are clear limits to this entire way of thinking about the pandemic and the climate crisis together.  Maybe the dress rehearsal hypothesis just doesn’t work. Back to Latour, who winds up his article with these thoughts:

[I]n the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity!

I wonder about this – not in terms of reality, but perception and culture.  I watched a webinar recently about using games to teach and mobilize people about climate change, and I asked a design question.  If such a game is competitive, and at least one player represents the forces of good, who are the opponents?  If the game has a narrative element, who are the villains?  I suggested some possibilities: energy companies; certain forms of human behavior (acquisitiveness, short-sightedness, consumerism); certain politics (petrostates, capitalism); the planetary ecosystemsystem as a whole.  Responses tended towards the latter, angling for a kind of (good) humans versus nature (dangerous) dynamic.   Such a game would involve rebalancing the global ecosystem.

That game design thinking sounds like a benevolent terraforming exercise.  The classic and far too apposite game Pandemic (2008) was suggested as one model. There players team up to stop the spread of a disease, working collaboratively and using complementary abilities.  I mentioned this idea to a game designer friend, and he suggested Terraforming Mars (2016) as another useful example.  In that game players compete to reshape the Martian surface and planetary ecosystem:


That conceptual approach to climate change, as a kind of global, complex system to intervene in and modify for the better, is not only well suited for game design.  It also echoes one leading response to the pandemic.  In this view the coronavirus is not a narrative challenge but a natural albeit dangerous life form we need to wrangle, manage, and control.  Put another way, viruses are not political, or rather they impinge on politics.

Latour argues thusly:

What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms. This is true of microbes – as we have known since Pasteur – but also of the internet, the law, the organization of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate.

It’s a way of decentering humanity from the problem.  That can key into several other currents of thought, such as posthumanism. I can see ways for anticolonial thinking to connect with this as well.

Opposed to such as approach is, of course, the nationalistic take that COVID-19 is something China mishandled or even created the pandemic.  (Trump just said “China put the curse on” the world.) This take gives us a way of thinking about the crisis in terms of human actors, featuring blameworthy figures (and nations) opposed by heroes.

It then suggests how different people could come to think through the climate crisis, and not just American conservatives.  Anyone in the world can blame, for example, the United States for its outsized consumption, voracious energy companies, and global dithering.  Others could charge the developing world with ramping up their consumption levels in the face of demands to cut back.  Some can cast NGOs and other nonprofits in the roles of bad shepherds, misleading us into counterproductive or openly dangerous paths; the 2019 documentary Planet of the Humans is one example of this.  As the 21st century progresses other figures and entities will, no doubt, appear culpable.  Either the crisis is something for which humans can play protagonist and antagonist roles, or it’s about humanity as a whole grappling with a vast ecological system problem – the COVID experience points towards both options.

To be clear, I’m not just describing game design, but the narratives and frameworks we use and can apply to these dual crises.  These in turn shape our multiple responses, especially at the social, cultural, and political levels.  I am also not endorsing any single response in this post, but describing what I’m seeing in the present and tentatively anticipating for the future.

Overall, I find Latour’s hypothesis fascinating as a prompt.  There are limitations to it beyond his own, final critique.  The crises are very different in many key ways – climate change is a long term progression, for example, while COVID is a blazingly fast eruption whose fate might be long term stasis or repetition, a la flu.  The wealthy and powerful can far more easily dodge climate woes than they can the pandemic – indeed, for me one of the sad aspects of 2020 in the United States is watching not only the elite enjoy access to better testing and care, but also how their woes move so many other people to sympathy. (Celebrity culture is a kind of pedagogy at times.) But thinking through the Latour hypothesis is a fine exercise.

Does the Latour hypothesis  work for you?  What forecasts does it elicit in your mind?  The comment box, and the rest of the internet, await your responses.

*”Next” also means “now,” but see the previous post about how COVID can blot out climate change.

(thanks to Ruben Puentedura, Tom Haymes, and my family for conversations around this post)

Posted in climatechange, coronavirus | 2 Comments

NPR rips higher ed for poor pandemic testing

How is American higher education faring this semester, as COVID-19 continues to attack the world?  National Public Radio has a very critical report which should provoke some rethinking, at least.

For context, colleges and universities are currently using a wide range of strategies to conduct operations now, from offering classes entirely online to holding the full range of campus life entirely in-person to many choices in between.  Here’s one description from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, updated almost a week ago:

coronavirus higher ed operations fall 2020 Oct 1_Chronicle

How are those primarily in person, hybrid, and fully in person schools doing how?

According to NPRthe majority of campuses have fallen down on testing.

more than 2 out of 3 colleges with in-person classes either have no clear testing plan or are testing only students who are at risk — mostly when they feel sick or have had contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

coronavirus colleges fall testing 2020 Oct 6_NPR

Click to get the bigger and mouseover-able version.

This is especially a problem with larger institutions:

Of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are conducting mass screening or random “surveillance” testing of students. Only 6% are routinely testing all of their students. Most, instead, are relying on only diagnostic testing of symptomatic students, which many experts say comes too late to control outbreaks and understates the true number of cases.

And it’s also a problem for campuses located in outbreak zones, where “[a]bout two-thirds of full-time undergraduates who attend a college in a hot spot county are on campuses that do not require routine or surveillance tests”:

coronavirus colleges fall testing hot spots 2020 Oct 6_NPR

How dangerous is this?  My readers have a good idea, but let’s add a passage from the NPR story:

“You can’t play catch-up with this virus,” says David Paltiel, a public health expert at Yale University who co-authored a study on the importance of frequent testing. “Any school that thinks it can get away with nothing more than symptomatic monitoring is a fire department responding only to calls once houses have already burned down,” he added. “You need to do more.”

The reason for this potentially horrific shortfall is also one my readers will anticipate: money.

Tests can cost more than $100 each, though some schools have found cheaper options. The Broad Institute, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, is working with more than 100 colleges, including many small private schools in New England, to provide regular coronavirus testing. Through that partnership, tests are $25 each. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where officials are using a saliva test they developed themselves to regularly test students and staff, individual tests are about $10, but given the frequency of testing, officials estimate they’re spending about $1 million a week.

Another reason: lack of national leadership, either from the CDC or the Trump administration.

A third reason: worries that more testing would mean less compliance.  For example,

leaders [at Furman University] said they worried that regular testing would give students a false sense of security. When you test negative, “we think psychologically, you feel safer about your own health and well-being,” Ken Peterson, the provost at Furman, told NPR in late August. “So we actually think you’re less likely to mask up, you’re less likely to distance.”

Several quick thoughts:

First, this is potentially a human disaster, especially once infected students leave to spread the virus to their families and communities.

Second, perhaps governments (local, state, federal) will feel the lack of testing as something they should take steps to address.

Third, I don’t think fall 2020 is doing higher ed’s reputation any favors.  How many people will think, based on stories like this, that colleges and universities are ruthless with human lives, driven primarily by monetary concerns?

Fourth, the data problem I identified during the summer still continues.  NPR is relying on one data source hosted by one small college.  The College Crisis Initiative is a fine thing, and it only captures about one third of American higher ed.  We just don’t know how many infections higher ed is hosting now, much less how many it’ll be responsible for as the virus spreads.  It’s not even clear how many academics COVID has killed.

Fifth, if public concern about colleges and universities hosting and spreading the pandemic rises, where will funds come from to support serious testing, not to mention tracing and data publication?  State governments have been hammered by the recession.  The federal government is locked into the impending election and its possible chaos.  How many campus leaders will have to choose between COVID testing and keeping academic programs alive?

Sixth: it’s October.  Flu season is coming.  An unsprung election is unfolding.  Global COVID cases are rising:

coronavirus global spread US highlight 2020 October 6_91-DIVOC

I don’t think this is going to get better anytime soon.

Posted in coronavirus | 8 Comments

How does the coronavirus intersect with climate change? Part 1

Over the past few months I’ve been blogging, speaking, and writing about some of the largest issues concerning the future of higher education: demographics, inequalities, international academia.

I’ve also explored climate change, possibly the largest challenge facing colleges and universities, not to mention humanity as a whole.  And, of course, I’ve tracked the recently emergent and globe-spanning coronavirus.

In this post I’d like to scale up and connect some macro concepts.  Specifically, how does the COVID-19 outbreak intersect with climate change?

climate change need reinforcements

It’s daunting to address this intersection.  Each is large and deep, fraught with technical and social complexity.  Both are also sources of dread, based on real damage to humanity.  Connecting them ramps up these challenges, but I think it’s useful and actually necessary.

There is no single way to grasp the intersection.  There are several ways of understanding it already in the world, starting with a causal link. Climate change can drive the spread of diseases into new domains by rearranging parts of the ecosystem.  For example, rising temperatures change animals’ migratory habits, then yield secondary effects.  Aaron Bernstein observes that “animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”

Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people.

Another example can be found in the gentler winters in America’s north country.  These might relieve drivers and snow-shovelers, but they also tend to kill fewer ticks, which increases the spread of Lyme disease. On top of that, warming weather could also weaken the human body’s thermal and immune defenses.

There doesn’t seem to be a direct arrow between climate change and COVID-19. WHO is pretty clear on it: “There is no evidence of a direct connection between climate change and the emergence or transmission of COVID-19 disease.”  Yet we can imagine similar disease incursions to come.  We can think of the current pandemic as a dry run for more to come.

A related climate-coronavirus connection concerns the reverse, how climate change impacts our response to the virus.  WHO advises us that: “climate change… undermines environmental determinants of health, and places additional stress on health systems.”  A good number of humans are weaker, or poorer, or more marginalized thanks to climate change, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID.  This in turn stresses both medical and public health systems, which makes it harder to them to accomplish their functions.  In short, the climate crisis makes the coronavirus worse.

Another way of thinking about this vast pairing of viral and planetary crises is that one might show humanity how to weather the other.  It’s clear that scientific authorities are crucial for leading us away from the pandemic’s worst.  To the extent we recognize this (as Bill Gates calls on us to do), we may be better prepared to understand and respond to climate change.

Further, some commentators (for example) observe that certain coronavirus responses entail economic slowdowns which reduce carbon emissions.  Factories produced fewer widgets, cars drove less, planes flew less, etc. According to one study. spring 2020 economic shut-downs and physical confinements cut back emissions

by –17% (–11 to –25% for ±1σ) by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average.

carbon use and drop in 2020_Lambert

This gave us a practice run on what it means to deliberately turn down our carbon output.  That could then help us adjust to a post-carbon lifestyle. In fact, it’s possible we’ll connect the COVID slowdown with consumerism and become more accepting of anticonsumerism.  One futurist thinks “It might just turn the world around for the better.”

“The virus will slow down everything,” [Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort] notes. “We will see an arrest in the making of consumer goods. That is terrible and wonderful because we need to stop producing at such a pace. We need to change our behavior to save the environment. It’s almost as if the virus is an amazing grace for the planet.”

Edelkoort takes this further, drawing on localism, transition towns, and what sounds like small is beautiful:

Covid-19 could open new avenues for innovation, akin to how the bubonic plague ushered in an era of labor reforms and improvements in medicine in the Middle Ages. Being confined to our own towns or cities could foster a revival of cottage industries and an appreciation for locally made goods, she says. “There are so many possibilities,” Edelkoort says. “I’m strangely looking forward to it.”

The inequality of COVID’s pain – felt disproportionally by the poor, by people of color – and the growing consciousness of this injustice could inspire us to act against similar inequalities wrought by climate change.

It’s not clear to me that many people view spring 2020 in this light.  Many instead view it with horror based on damage cause by virus and recession.  Moreover, recent estimates suggest the carbon draw-down was less than expected.  The IEA estimates a decline of only 8%.  Forster et al found that the spring cutback actually sparked a short term heating.  “As a result, we estimate that the direct effect of the pandemic-driven response will be negligible…”

In fact, the pandemic might have the opposite pedagogical or heuristic impact.  David Wallace-Wells argues that COVID is “a white-noise machine, drowning out what would be, in any other year, the unmistakable signal of a climate emergency.”  This makes intuitive sense, given how much the pandemic occupied (and occupies) our attention.  How might it function?

First, it’s a question of relative speeds.  The virus blitzed society, experienced by many as a sudden black swan, while climate change proceeds incrementally, very slowly.  “The sudden arrival of the pandemic, and its likely medium-term disappearance, makes a powerful emotional case for rapid and dramatic response, one that the slower-boil, permanent threat of climate change doesn’t.”

Second, there’s normalization.  We may be getting used to climate disasters as they become less novel.  We may also be accepting, generally, climate change activism as part of contemporary politics.  Baselines shift and each generation grows used to a different world without much comparison. In contrast, the pandemic is novel, shocking, “unprecedented” (to use that overused, often incorrect word).

In a different way, COVID could actually set climate activism back.  Andreas Malm argues that left movements have been wrong footed, taking issue with Edelkoort’s vision:

Nevertheless, we have to be honest about the situation we find ourselves in. COVID-19 has brought about the sudden obliteration of the climate justice movement in terms of everything that had been built up by the end of 2019. Since early 2020, COVID-19 has completely paralyzed all the most promising developments in the environmental movement — Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände, and so on — this is a situation of grave disaster. Prior to this, there had been a growing momentum toward aggressively disrupting business as usual…

In short, according to this view COVID masks or neutralizes in the short term our long term ways of growing accustomed to living in a climate emergency.

There’s another way of linking corona and climate, one where the pandemic might be a planetary dress rehearsal for civilization’s confrontation with an epochal struggle.  We’ll explore that in the next post.

(cartoon found on Kaiser site; thanks to Tom Haymes for cartoons and conversation) 

Posted in climatechange, coronavirus | Leave a comment

Trump tests positive for COVID-19: a futurist’s questions and possibilities, plus your thoughts

It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle. It will disappear.

Donald Trump

Late last night the president and First Lady of the United States were diagnosed with COVID-19, shortly after Trump announced that a close aide had tested positive.

There are plenty of hot takes being emitted right now, from observers across social media to mainstream journalism to politicians tweeting.  I’d like to join them and offer a few quick thoughts and questions from my unusual perspective as a futurist.  That means I’m focused on looking ahead.  I also work with a macro view of society and politics.  Additionally, my perspective draws on closely tracking COVID-19 since the start.

I especially look forward to your thoughts in comments below, plus posts from your own blogs, LinkedIn, etc.

One topic to set aside right away is the question of Trump’s (or the Trumps’) personal health, what’s likely to happen to him in this illness, etc.  We simply don’t know enough, since this instance is quite opaque and likely to be ridden by rumors and (information) links.  And while I’ve studied pandemics as policy and cultural issues, I’m not a medical professional.  That said, I’m comfortable pointing to Donald Trump’s age and (to some mysterious degree) health issues as danger signs for his progress.

coronavirus US deaths by age CDC 2020 Oct 2_via Conversation articlecoronavirus US deaths by age CDC 2020 Oct 2_via Conversation article

So, starting with the most immediate topic:

Contact tracing How many people have the Trumps been in close physical contact with over the past week? I’m thinking of White House staff, senior governmental officials, members of Congress (both parties), state politicians, reporters, and supporters.

Already there are some indications.  Some announcements of new infections have cropped up, including the Republican National Committee chair and a Utah Senator.

Trump’s announcement of a Supreme Court nominee may have been an infection spot.  This video clip suggests so, with maskless people getting close to each other and hugging, no doubt delighting any nearby COVID-19:

During this week’s “presidential” debate, did Trump manage to snarl and shout enough virus over to Joe Biden?  Possibly not, as he just tested negative.

Moreover, how public will this contact tracing be?  What will we know as the story comes together?

(See Academic Impact below)

Peer examples What can we learn from similar national leaders’ experiences?  I’m thinking of Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Alexander Lukashenko (Byelarus), who, like Trump, downplayed the virus before his nation and his own body suffered outbreaks.  Or we could consider Boris Johnson (Britain), who was similarly infected, and also criticized for mishandling the crisis.

Politically it doesn’t seem that any of these politicians suffered from their infections.  Perhaps the dynamic to anticipate is that this kind of leaders’ case confirms their supporters and critics in their respective beliefs.  However, Trump could have it worse, if he is more seriously injured and the public knows of this, preferably through video footage.  Compare his older age: 74 to 66 (Lukashenko), 65 (Bolsonaro), and 56 (Johnson).

Decapitation Back in the Cold War (he said to the younger readers) nuclear powers saw that they had the ability to conduct atomic attacks that would remove a government’s upper echelons with one blow, dubbed “decapitation strikes.”  Such a strategy has some obvious military advantages – indeed, the United States attempted such a coup with conventional forces during the 2003 Gulf War.

To what extent is the American federal leadership paused or otherwise hit by the Trump infection?  He alone being biologically compromised is a problem, especially given his leadership styles, call it personal or autocratic as you like. But the situation ramified when we consider how far the contagion may have gone.  How many senior officials will be – or already are – sick enough to harm their ability to perform their jobs?  How many will die?

One political response draws on this and is already floating in the Republican world: blame and threaten China.

“China tried to kill our President” is a powerful charge.  It might not have any real geopolitical effect, but serve to rally voters for an election just one month away.

The 25th Amendment*  Will Trump be incapacitated enough to shift authority to vice president Pence?

Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

I expect there will be struggles over this.  Trump’s personality is such that he’s likely to not cede anything, since he prefers to project strength.  If some staff see him dangerously weakening they could lobby him for a declaration.  They could also lobby the vice president and the cabinet to issue their own declaration:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Nationally I expect to see calls for Trump to yield to Pence, especially from Democrats, and even more so if media leaks show Trump looking bad.

Now, Pence is testing negative so far.  If Pence gets sick as well, then things get even more interesting.

Campaigning with a compromised candidate How will Trump’s illness change his presidential campaign over the next month?  He clearly loves his in-person rallies, so those will be set aside for some period of time.  Perhaps he’ll take to Zoom, or phone alone if the visuals are too disturbing.  Will this depress his ultimate turnout?

Two debates remain.  Perhaps they will be Zoom events, which will make interruption and cross-talk worse.  That is if Trump feels he is visually presentable.

Further, what happens if Trump is too injured to act, or dies?  Several analyses are out there which work this through; here’s a good one.  It looks like the Republican party will have to determine who’ll actually stand for president, which can mean a complicated shuffle of Pence, electors, voters (remember than some have already cast ballots), and state governments.

Ultimately, how might this story shape the November election results?  If Trump makes a full recovery, that should boost his ratings as supporters happily cast ballots for their victorious hero.  But if he’s clearly, visibly weakened… I’m not sure if there’s a net loss, or if he gains from sympathy.

On 538 Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux offers a similar forking path:

I could see this playing out at least two ways …

  1. Trump gets moderately or very sick and this does prompt Republicans to think, “Oh geez, this actually is serious and if it could happen to Trump it could happen to me”;

  2. Trump remains mostly asymptomatic and it bolsters the idea that this is actually not such a big deal.

One cultural angle Will the Trumps’ infections change how Americans think of the virus?  It seems that, back in springtime, our celebrity obsession led many to take COVID seriously once Tom Hanks and other glitterati tested positive.  Will Trump’s vulnerability nudge more supporters – especially older white men – to mask up and observe social distancing?

Some will view this inhuman virus carving out a morality tale in the Trumps’ case.

A second cultural angle: the president’s bodies  I’m reminded of the old mythic dimensions linking the ruler’s body to the health of the nation/state/community.   Think of the line from Excalibur (1981): “You [the king] and the land are one.” There can be some modern resonance to this for people who project cultural, psychological, and mythic dimensions onto national executives.

Another cultural angle: conspiracy  We should expect variously imaginative interpretations of the Trumps’ infections, given American culture in general as well as the tenor of the season.  How many folks will think the positive test revealed a deliberate infection by a deep state agent?  Or that it wasn’t COVID per se but a bioweapon cooked up and deployed by the nefarious intelligence community/George Soros/the Illuminati/Hillary Clinton? It looks like some Q-anon believers think Trump contracted the virus on purpose, in order to… speed up arrests?  I honestly don’t follow it.

How many anti-Trump folks will suspect Trump doesn’t really have the virus, thinking that the self-announced story is a ploy aimed at distracting us from, or covering up, some other development?  Michael Moore is already floating ideas along these lines:

he’s losing the election. And he knows it. It’s not 2016. He was hated in 2016, but he’s hated even more now. Millions of Americans are ON FIRE and on the verge of serving him up a major league ass-whooping and a record landslide defeat.

So he needs – badly – to totally change the conversation about this campaign.

And he just has.

Academic impacts Let me take the story back to higher education, the future of which is the putative subject of this very blog.  One case is that of the University of Notre Dame, whose president was apparently infected during a White House event.

Over to you all.  What kind of fallout do you anticipate from the Trump COVID situation?

(thanks to various my family, Facebook friends, Tom Haymes, this 538 discussion, and this MetaFilter thread for conversations feeding into this post)

*It looks like the last state to ratify the amendment did so on my birthday.  I feel weirdly hailed by history.

Posted in coronavirus, politics | 2 Comments

Humanity to 2100: a new demographic analysis

Today I started to write a post about last night’s American presidential debate.  I live-tweeted the whole thing, listening and typing frantically in my office with only cats for company. It felt like having rocks tossed at my head.   Revisiting my notes this morning felt like discovering the text of a lost Phil Dick novel, surreal and disturbing.

So instead I will blog about something at a complete different scale.  Something that doesn’t feel like having rocks hurled at my face when I write about it: demographics.

Demographics, yes, that essential tool in the futurist’s toolkit.  A way of looking ahead at a large scale, working with large amounts of data to identify powerful trends. Readers know that I’ve been looking into demographics for a while.

A recent paper in the Lancet offers some simulations of human population growth through the year 2100.  Vollset et al conclude that fertility rate (the number of children per woman) will keep dropping and what we’ll pass peak population two-thirds of the way through our century.  This is vital reading for anyone interested in the future and for anyone looking ahead for higher education.

Key takeaway:

[B]ecause of progress in female educational attainment and access to contraception contributing to declining fertility rates, continued global population growth through the century is no longer the most likely trajectory for the world’s population.

Total humanity: “the global population was projected to peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion (8.84–10.9 [billion]) people and decline to 8.79 billion (6.83–11.8) in 2100.”  Put another way, “continued global population growth through the century is no longer the most likely trajectory for the world’s population.”

The age of the typical (well, median) human keeps rising: “Mean age was forecasted to increase in the reference scenario from 32.6 years in 2017 to 46.2 years (43.4–47.8) in 2100.”  Further,

The number of children younger than 5 years was forecasted to decline from 681 million in 2017 to 401 million (251–704) in 2100, a drop of 41·0% (23.5–51.8). At the same time, the number of individuals older than 80 years was forecasted to increase from 141 million in 2017 to 866 million (617–1140) in 2100.

Fertility rate: “The global TFR in the reference scenario was forecasted to be 1.66 (95% UI 1.33–2.08) in 2100.”  Which is a big change from the recent past:

fertility rate 1990-2100 Vortel et al

Life expectancy keeps rising, but there are variations: “life expectancy was forecasted to increase, the rate of progress is likely to slow.”

Large inequalities remained at the global level in 2100, with forecasts of country and territory life expectancies for both sexes combined ranging from 69.4 years (95% UI 61.4–76.0) to 88.9 years (85.0–92.6)… The standard deviation of life expectancy across countries and territories narrowed from 6.9 years in 2017 to 3.6 years in 2100… Ten countries were forecasted to still have life expectancies lower than 75 years in 2100, seven of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Gender differences look strong, as per usual;

life expectancy 2000-2100 Volset et al

Why does all of this matter?

After all, some of us have been discussing this sort of thing for a while. Birthdates declining?  Check.  Rising median age?  Check.  Central Africa the main source of childbirth?  Got it.  A shrinking total population?  Indeed.

There are reasons.  First, it’s a lower estimate than what we’ve seen elsewhere.  The authors cite two leading sources envisioning fertility rates a bit high, around 1.75.  It’s also lower than what the United Nations thinks, which is quite the authority.  (A Future Trends Forum guest speculated that the relevant UN agency was inflating figures.)

Second, for folks who haven’t been paying attention to the massive sea change in human demographics, this might be some of the best modeling we have.

I’ve written about what this means for society and education elsewhere: good news for the natural environment, a triumph for health care and public health, challenges to economies. The primary and secondary school pipeline narrows, followed by the traditional age undergraduate population.  We have to take lifelong learning seriously.

That’s it for now.  I’m still resisting writing about the debate.

(thanks to my splendid wife for the links)

Posted in demographics | 4 Comments

A community discussion of implementing HyFlex in the real world

How and when can we best use the HyFlex blended teaching approach?

Last week the Future Trends Forum met with Brian Beatty, the San Francisco State University professor who coined and first theorized the idea.  Given the pandemic and higher education’s response, Brian is obviously much in demand, so we were delighted that he could join the Forum to discuss HyFlex, not just once, but twice: this summer and last week.

Here’s the whole recording:

We had an hour of intense, rich conversation, and still there were questions and comments we didn’t get to.  I wanted to share all of them here.  Hopefully campuses can find some echoes or anticipations of strategic and operational questions.

I’ve Chatham House-ized the text, retaining the contents and words but removing speakers’ identities, except for a few who identified themselves.  I lightly edited comments for clarity and punctuation.  I also separated some into common, general categories; otherwise, the flow of comments is mostly chronological.  You’ll see some overlap among them.

All following text is by participants.  The only bits from me are the headers.

My deepest thanks to professor Beatty and the very fine Forum community for this discussion:


Are there “standards” like QM and others for HyFLex? I’m not so much into regulation, but to provide best practices.

I’d like to hear about any links between Hy Flex and universal design for learning?

Forum Hyflex 2 Nuffer Question


What if we all said, if everyone doesn’t have access, nobody gets access?

Speaking of inequities and the spirit of UDL, how can Hyflex continue to support access for all?

I have found that even more challenging than access to devices and wifi — has been a “place to learn” as their homes are small with many people. Reveals another level of inequity.

I would to see the research on asynchronous creating inequity from lower reported engagements.

Supporting faculty

I think many faculty in the U.S. discovered this year that they have fallen way behind in use of technology. It doesn’t get fixed overnight. For those that have been teaching online for years, I think this has been a much easier transition… For the record, I think a lot of workplaces discovered this too! 

What we need as faculty is continuous support from the respective staff. As I have progressed, I have had questions and requests that I am not prepared/trained to address right away. 

How much time did you put into planning your HyFlex courses prior to implementing? How much time in revising?

When asynchronous is an option, how do you keep students engaged and tuned in? Specifically in classes such as nursing and engineering where hands-on experiences are essential.

Forum Hyflex 2 small groups question

I’m interested in how small groups work with choice to participate synchronously or not class to class. Prefer pre-formed small groups that work together, build relationships, over a number of weeks.

In a hyflex HigherEd course, is there a recommendation on how much asynchronous/synchronous/f2f is involved so that is clear? I feel that the pedagogies may be mixed up.

Because of COVID, we have limits to how many students can come into the classroom. Do you have any suggestions for systems or processes for choosing/ inviting students into the classroom when there are capacity constraints?    

quick question – for the courses that are hyflex, will the instruction being delivered does it need to be consistent across all courses, or are you looking at it from a course by course basis so instructors have complete control on their delivery? 

FOLLOWUP question: how about compensation for faculty for teaching in hyflex or multimodal systems…arguably — its MUCH more difficult for faculty to do that.

Observing certificate candidates doesn’t include travel any longer; as face -to-face time reduces diminishes, is anyone else seeing lower pay for faculty?   

I’m seeing many of my colleagues talk about in-person, synchronous learning as something implicitly promised to faculty, that the college owes it to us to provide an environment that is as close to that setup as it can. 


Brian, if you distribute mics do you require a soundboard for each class?

Brian mentioned having students in the class log into the online environment even while in class. I’m curious about the impact of microphone/speaker feedback & how to manage that.

From experience are breakout rooms highly useful in HyFlex design? Or would you recommend trying to rethink design to find other ways to interact (we have AV limitations to using breakouts…)

One of the challenges for me to teach Hy-Flex is the lack of technology to capture classroom conversations so that the students who are online can hear. Much is lost when I repeat the question. Any advice for managing the limited technology? 

One challenge for me to teach Hy-Flex is the lack of technology to capture classroom conversations so that the students who are online can hear. Much is lost when I repeat the question. Advice?

What is the best combination of equipment that is required for students to have a good learning experience? We are exploring technology right now and want to get the “right” technology, spending a reasonable amount of money. Student experience is important. 

I feel like AV in classrooms is never good enough to carry the voice of the face-to-face learners to the virtual participants. Any tips on this? 

adding a ~$300 Voicetracker USB mic to our classrooms has been one way to quickly ‘convert’ a classroom to have strong audio input for Zoom.  

So many faculty computers (or classroom computers) are not powerful enough to really handle hyflex. Too much processing power to run live synchronous, direct to video screen, recording, doc camera, etc. 

We use a blue snowball condenser mic and webcam and that combo has gotten the audio quality well enough to facilitate conversation in class. 

I was thinking yesterday that I might start bringing a third screen to address that issue.  Of course that’s a big extra load for me, but I think it might be much better in terms of student-to-student engagement.

I am definitely going to invite my classroom students to also log into to my synchronous audio/video program.

No mic balls with COVID 


If an institution charges different cost/credit hour for on campus vs online course, where does hyflex sit in terms of charging students? If no difference, what about technology fees?

What means are various schools using to fund the technology needs?

As a learning community (staff, teachers, students, parents, admin) we can demand reallocation of funds (eg, from investments in private prisons) to tech access.

I think you should charge technology fees but give in-person rebates based on-campus costs (housekeeping, maintenance, AC, etc.) 

Forum Hyflex 2: four people on stage


Would you quickly define “hyflex” and “multimodal” the way you are using them?

Can we get a definition of what HyFlex is and, more importantly, what it isn’t?

How much time does it take to develop a hyflex course for the first time with a faculty? Are there any prerequisites?

How do we handle instruction of physical skills, such as nursing procedures or shop skills, in an increasingly online environment?

I love the emphasis on student choice in learning in the hyflex model! How can we help students have that same sense of choice when they have to be remote for situations outside of their control?

If the synchronous sessions are designed to be interactive and the recording is harvested as the kernel of an asynchronous experience – isn’t that asynchronous path the more impoverished?

How long are your workshops and are they a series of workshops that build a course over time or a one and done model?

The words engagement and attendance have been used interchangeably but in hyflex, attendance is not a measure of success.

besides the release time, what other institutional/ pedagogical support was most useful for teachers to do HyFlex most effectively?

(recommended) Ray Schroeder, “Thoughts on Creating an Inclusive Environment in Online Classes.”

What is the title of the open-access book? (Hybrid-Flexible Course Design)  

Thank you for confirming that using different modalities within a course is an effective strategy. I am doing face-to-face, streaming, and asynchronous at the same time. 

You have to play jazz with your teaching tools to reach all of your students.

Love Fort Lewis College!!! 

To Brian’s point, I think we should design classes so students can skip all synchronicity and still get what they need out of the class, even if it means for the faculty to give a phone call to a student once in a while. 

Delivery – every which way available. That includes mobile, audio (w/visual available online), email, etc. 

Some of my students who were home could not hear my students in the classroom in part because we were all wearing masks.

A remote synchronous class taught with good pedagogy can be as or more effective than in person (provided the students have the resources to participate remotely, which they don’t always have)

I would be concerned that other classes may need or want the option to attend sync online or in-person. I find different classes have diff personalities. 

I had a student tell me today that he likes to be in-person, even when he’s the only one (like today), because it helps him focus and pay attention better than remote.   

Our school supposedly put in a major investment in classroom AV. I don’t know. We shut down again before we got to see what they’d done.

Agreed, you must right-size the tech!

I mention the audio, because I think audio is important for the student experience 

I always emphasize “creating a legacy”. Every student needs to leave a trace of what we have learned for the benefit of other students in this class AND for future offerings of the course. 

Yes! If you expect students to participate, you have to show them that you value that work. In our context, grades are the coin of the realm…

What about the learning implicitly promised to the students who pay their salaries.

I call them “class chores”, such as notetaker, recapper, highlight reel, the meta, etc. We also build Google Sites together as shared course content.   

If you need some positives to look forward to, I wrote this after the last FTF where we shared stories: “Finding the Silver Lining in 2020 — 10 Developments in Online and Remote Education That Make Us Hopeful” (Maria Andersen)   

Posted in Future Trends Forum | 2 Comments

Goodbye, delicious steak: adapting to a vegan diet in 2020

What’s it like to switch from a diet based on meat and animal products to one entirely consisting of plants?

Back in January I wrote about experimenting with a vegan diet.  After a lifetime of meat eating I started the “VB6” plan. It was a part time thing, alternating vegan meals with those based on dairy and meat.  I launched the experiment partly for health reasons, and partly as a kind of personal exploration into what a future vegan-oriented society could be.

This practice showed some promise overall, after two months, despite challenges and problems.  As a result I decided to lean into it, as they say, and expand my vegan eating.  In February I gradually increased plant-based foods in my eating and cut back on the animal ones, until around March 1 I was eating 99-100% vegan.  That’s what I’ve been doing every month since.

Today I’ll update you on my vegan 2020 experience.  And yes, there is something counterintuitive about redesigning my bodily intake during a pandemic.

tl;dr – I’m getting better at this.  It’s quite interesting.

berbere spice mixing

I’ve expanded my vegan cooking repertoire through frequent research, trial and error, experiments, more experiments, research, more research, and the help of friends.  Right now I currently make from scratch:

BREAKFAST – an onion, tofu, and spices (especially turmeric) scramble about three times a week.  Hash browns or corn tortillas with mushrooms or  the other days.  In fact, I make a stack of corn tortillas about twice a week.

LUNCH – falafel. Various dals (lentils with spices and other stuff). Gluten-free flatbreads.  Fried rice with various veggies.

DINNER –  channa masala. Potato and chickpea curry. Sega wat, an Ethiopian stew with berbere spice (which I mix; see colorful photo above). Roasted veggies, including just about everything: potatoes, brussel sprouts, onions, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, squash. Mujadara might be my favorite so far, a mix of rice, lentils, onions, shallots, and either raisins or cherries.

(lunch and dinner overlap at times, especially when I make a big batch and reheat it later for either meal)

vegan meals in prep

SNACKS – baked garbanzo beans with spices are a standby. Baked sweet potato fries are good, and the family loves them.

Sometimes I snack on some raw foods, such as celery, apples, raisins, or nuts.  Dried fruit works well, too.

I have so much more to learn!  Belatedly I’m starting to cook with quinoa.  Vegan Indian, Ethiopian, and Chinese cooking needs deeper investigation.

In terms of restaurants, I don’t eat out much, partly because of the pandemic, partly because I’m focused on improving my cooking, and partly to save money.  When I do I usually find vegan options, especially from the local Indian and Ethiopian restaurants, whom I love supporting.

Two gaps in my eating and cooking persist.  First, salads just don’t work for me.  I find them unappealing, dull, or even repulsive.  I’ve never been able to get into them.  Leafy greens are purely a chore to eat.  I need to figure out how to eat more and not feel like it’s medicinal. I’d love to hear ideas on this.

Second, smoothies seem to be a hit among vegans, but I cannot stand them.  In the past I’ve never been able to stomach shakes.  Yuck – I shudder just writing about smoothies.  I can do without them, but am open to hearing more from knowledgeable folks.

weight down to 219In terms of bodily effects, I have continued losing weight since January.  I started in December over 250 pounds; I’m down to 220 now.  That’s around a 12% loss.  I haven’t noticed changes others have reported in their own experience, such as differences in skin completion or muscle tone.  There isn’t any change in my daily energy – i.e., I work very long hours and am physically active at the same level as I was in 2019.

My appetite remains lower than it used to be, back when I was eating animals and animal products.  I’m more likely to skip a meal because I’m busy or just not hungry than when I was eating animal products.

Do I miss meat and dairy?  Not too much, except when I’m around it.  I just forgot about steak for weeks, until my family ordered some in and all kinds of memories came flooding back.  I do miss good cheese.  And fried chicken is a comfort food for which I have nothing like a replacement.

One challenge for vegans is keeping up with multiple vitamins and other nutrition issues.  I find eating a tablespoon of nutritional yeast every morning does well.  Otherwise… I’m leery of getting into supplements because of cost, and also due to that sector’s light regulation.  Nutrition science as a whole looks like a seething chaos now.  There are so many contradictions, so many agendas at work, that I despair of getting good, useful information.

All of this sounds socially isolated, with all of these “I” statements above and nobody else involved, and that isn’t exactly true.  My family is very supportive emotionally and with patience. They willingly subject themselves to my culinary experiments, which shapes what I choose to cook, although none of them have followed my vegan path so far (and I haven’t encouraged them to do so).  Additionally, our family doctor is delighted in my taking this path.

Beyond her and my family, I reach out online for information and support.  Results are…  variable.  There are a lot of enthusiasts, and that sometimes cheers, and also can dismay. I’ve joined a few groups on Nextdoor and Facebook.  Mostly I track recipes and advice through blogs.  Overall, the experience is fairly solitary.  I am thinking about setting up a blog or podcast to track my story and share what I’ve found, especially recipes that I use and modify.

In January I mentioned wanting to return to gardening.  I was ready… and then COVID-19 hit, my business blew up, and I’ve had zero time to spend outside.  Now that schedule has eased up slightly, and yet it’s the wrong time of the year.  Still, I hope to get back to growing food.

One more point: this vegan diet is cheaper by far than the way I used to eat.  Lentils, rice, chickpeas as far less expensive than meats or cheeses.  And many of the foods I now make are seriously filling.

falafel on a plate

Falafel right out of the pot.

Beyond my own experience, what am I learning as a futurist?

On a practical level, vegan cooking is a serious reboot for a carnivore’s kitchen.  First, obviously, in terms of contents.  Instead of cheeses, eggs, chops, milk, etc., my shelves are devoted to plenty of dry goods: lentils, beans, potatoes, onions, shallots, nuts, rice, etc.  The spice rack is about the same, although with greater use of some Indian spices. If I extrapolate from this, imagining myself as a typical consumer (I know, not ideal), I see changes to social food systems in terms of what’s grown.

Storage has changed.  I use the fridge and freezer far less often, and mostly for storing food in process (for example, a falafel mix before frying), stashing big ginger roots in mid-use, and big meals cooked up for later eating.  My old habits of preparing meat for cooking – getting frozen meats to thaw in time, setting up marinades – are mostly gone.  Extrapolating from this, do we see a decline in refrigeration?

Nutrition questions seem wide open.  There are many passionate advocates for different substances and protocols.  Religions, other belief systems, and companies urge their respective courses of action.  The progress of evidence-based medicine gives me some hope for the medium-term future.

I’ve tried some vegan meats, like the Impossible Burger, and personally am not that interested.  Impossible is the kind of thin hamburger I’ve disliked since I was a teenager, and none of the rest sound appealing.  But I imagine they will serve as a bridge food for many, and that bridge could last for a while, depending on a person’s interest and habits.

I wonder about early adopters.  In classic innovation and technology studies, early adopters are evangelists about whatever they try.  Mainline adopters are less so.  Is this true for vegans?  I know plenty of vegans who seek to convert others to their diet, but don’t feel this myself.  Instead, this seems… too personal? Too medical? Or too technical, perhaps. It might be that if I stand in for a non-bleeding-edge vegan, then we could see enthusiasm fade away as people pick up plant-based diets in a more prosaic way: for health, for climate change, for monetary savings.

That’s all for now.  Anyone interested in my sharing recipes or further notes on this vegan experiment?

(thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their thoughts and help)

Posted in personal | 30 Comments