When COVID hit higher education: one year ago this week

The COVID-19 pandemic has raged long enough that we now have one year anniversaries.  As vaccines race against variants, we can look back a year to see what we were doing and thinking at the terrible thing began.

What did March’s first week look like in 2020, here on this blog?  As a work of futuring, what did we get right?

March 3rd, 2020 I posted a news round-up and some forecasting thoughts. (My first post on the topic was early February) Here’s the Johns Hopkins dashboard screenshot from that day:

coronavirus 2020 Mars 3_JHU

Not even 100,000 infections.  Just over 3,000 deaths.  For comparison’s sake, the same dashboard today shows 116,697,629 cases and 2,590,877 dead.

That year-ago blog post also describes the first lock-downs and quarantines, especially around China. Travel recommendations and bans, ditto the western Pacific.  Academic conferences were canceled.  Academic research dug in.

I looked ahead for what COVID-19 could mean for higher ed:

Campus emergency plans and exercises seem to be being updated and tested.

How many members of a given academic community lack sufficient access to health care?

I wonder if campuses or on-campus projects are planning on asking governments for financial relief…

I would like to draw attention to two big, overlapping, and potential developments: a big push online for colleges and universities and a boost to video.

[C]hallenges[:] my readers know that the digital divide means unequal access to bandwidth, which can limit use of video and large files.  Faculty are not universally schooled, practiced in, and happy about teaching online.  Campuses may lack sufficient staff to enable a big, fast online push.  This is also happening during the middle of academic terms in many instance, which makes the transition even more difficult.

Video may pose particular challenges.  While humanity loves video, most are not skilled and practiced at creating it.  Think of awful webinars you’ve been exposed to, for a sample of how low the quality can be.  And we still don’t view video as an adequate substitute for in person connection, generally; we may deem rushed online education to be a poor experience.

Those thoughts are actually pretty close to what would shortly unfold.  And so is this:

This [the pandemic] could simply keep going.  Students, faculty, and staff may feel increasingly nervous about being in face to face meetings and will prefer to work and study remotely.  We already have access to a lot of the tech, and maintain some of it in house: campus hosted or leased LMS, document hosting (Google Apps, Office 365), email, some video solution (Elluminate, Connect, Shindig, Zoom, etc).  Networked hardware is fairly widespread, if unevenly.

I shared an awkward photo, but what’s prescient is the caption, repeated here:

Bryan: I voted! 2020 March

“Me this morning after voting, back in my office. I may be spending a lot more time here.”

Too true.  As was this:

Such an online migration is buttressed by a similar, larger move across society.  As people increasingly find face-to-face contact problematic, they will likely shift more functions and experienced into the digital realm.  Shopping in stores, where COVID-infected folks will be coughing?  Head to Amazon and Etsy.  Health care, where crucial workers are overexposed?  Anticipate a rise in various forms of telemedicine.  Want to see a movie or live concert?  The digital world offers plentiful riches.  2020 may well see the past generation’s digital migration accelerate, both in the world at large and within academia in particular.

One bit I got wrong had to do with elders:

If this data [about people over 70 being in the most danger] bears out – or, more importantly, if most people believe and act upon it – then we could see efforts to enroll senior citizens become more digital.  Which can be challenging, given that population’s tendency to be less digitally experienced as well as being likely to have less tech access.

I just haven’t seen so much of this as I’d expected.

March 5th, 2020 I asked readers to suggest ways we could work to mitigate the virus’ impact, especially in higher education.

To start off, I floated a few ideas:

  1. Holding video conversations about COVID-19 and education, modeled on the Future Trends Forum.  Host one or several experts (CDC, WHO, campus planners, HHS, researchers) and connect them with an audience in actual conversation.  Grab sponsors.
  2. Work with a nonprofit, government agency, professional organization, or business to host a video conversation aimed at their particular slice of academia.
  3. Start a podcast series updating us on the latest about COVID-19 and education.  It might have to be fairly frequent, given the speed of events.
  4. Run an email newsletter updating readers on the latest about COVID-19 and education.  Each issue would be smaller than FTTE, which is monthly.
  5. Launch a public research project on how campuses can best use the digital world to protect their communities while conducting their educational missions.  This could include blog posts here, articles, video, audio, interviews, discussions, etc.
  6. Keep doing what I’ve been doing with blogging and Twitter.

All of that turned out to be too ambitious.  I did some: 1 and 6, plus sharing FTTE for free. And that’s what people preferred, in the poll.  But the rest ran into the stark limits of my own time.

Commentators offered some fine ideas.  Joe Murphy suggested analyzing cooperation.

I’m noticing that I’m not seeing any discussion of cooperation, anywhere. All the solutions seem to be based on some form of hunkering down and focusing internally. And given physical quarantine, maybe that’s the best we could hope for… but it seems like now would be a really good time to talk about inter-institutional disaster preparedness and business continuity.

Gigi Johnson was optimistic and pointed to one project.  Yet looking back over the year, there seems to have been a lot more hunkering down and a lot less cooperation.  Well, with one dark exception.

Davin Heckman presented other ideas:

volunteer to provide care for the ill and elderly in the case of community outbreak. If you aren’t in a high risk group, the best thing you can do is to make yourself available to help others if medical resources are thin. Buying groceries, checking in on people, bringing them to get care if they need it, etc.

Jailbreak content behind firewalls so that everyone has access to it, until the crisis subsides.

A more specifically “academic” thing we could is for those who have access with people who have caught the virus is to record anecdotes of the sickness and recovery. I think ethnography could go a long way towards giving a clearer picture of what the typical case is like. People are too fearful right now due to the uncertainty. People should be cautious, but try not to be scared. And maybe academics can help with circulating information in an honest way.

The first one proved to be too dangerous for such a virulent infection.  The second, jailbreaking, didn’t happen that much, from what I can tell. For the third, well, I’ve been trying to do so on my own, here at this blog as well as on social media.  Much more important is this University of Connecticut project journaling project:

coronavirus U Conn journal example

March 6-7, 2020 This post focused on news and analysis.  I’m not sure that those news round ups were of use, or if they were just depressing or, worse, superfluous. They are useful to me today as historical data.

I also shared pointers to work from other people, like the the Coronavirus Tech Handbook and Remote Teaching Resources for Business Continuity.  I’m glad to see those still up.

And some humor!  Do we all remember not only the insistence on hand washing, but being able to joke about it?

coronavirus Dune washing

(It’s a reference to a fictional meditation in Dune.)

So what do these blog posts and related discussions tell us?

Painfully (or so it seems to be) they point out a time before two and a half million people died, and millions more would be stricken with chronic damage. It wasn’t an innocent time, save in the sense that America and other nations were already fumbling the crisis on multiple levels, as we now know.  Three months after COVID appeared in Hubei province and so many were just starting to respond.

On the academic side, these posts remind us of academia’s twin impulses of drawing inwards and reaching out, of hunkering down versus collaborating.  There are hints of the struggle to come over college sports.

As a forecaster, these posts generally please me.  Many of those themes did come to pass.. I did overshoot with the senior students part.  And I didn’t identify some things, like Trump’s spectacular chaos, or the role of social media in helping people spread awful stuff about the pandemic.  (Cue Daniel Defoe: “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since.”)

I also overdid it with what I could offer folks.  As some of you know I spent more of 2020 working 70 hour weeks.

Speaking of which, I hope posts like this are useful for considering what we’ve lived through.  Or will be so, down the road.  Want to share your own reflection about early March 2020?


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2 Responses to When COVID hit higher education: one year ago this week

  1. Deborah says:

    I had already shifted most of my classes to hybrid in fall and spring 2019-2020 to accommodate an institutional request to ease space and schedule conflicts ( 2 hours in person class 1 hour online for a 3 hour course) so my students had less of an adjustment when we went all online. Contrary to administration policy, I prepared my students in the week before March 11 for a long absence. I tend to see the world from the POV of being prepared for the worst at all times. As I closed up my classroom on that day, I thought : I will never teach my classes in my preferred way again—high literal personal touch and intimate in person small group work. We have kept the hybrid format this academic year. At least I see each student an smaller groupings at least one hour each week with supplemented Zoom, phone calls, and emails.

  2. In March of 2020 we were starting to see the signs of the supply-chain impact that would result (in late April – June for hotspots, and still ongoing for some computing devices) from the surge in demand and schools planned virtual options (later ubiquitous). As a company, we widened our supplier list and started contracting for dedicated supply that would arrive in the Summer in time for AY 20-21. Jumping on that quickly meant that we were never again out of stock once that initial period was over.

    My own family went into lockdown right away and I told them (and my extended family) that this would not be over quickly. I believe that setting expectations and putting in place new habits for life in lockdown helped tremendously for us.

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