When will campuses end in-person instruction this fall? How about August or September?

As of this writing a majority of American colleges and universities appear poised to resume in-person education this fall, as we last saw.   That fits with my Post-Pandemic Campus scenario.  I do think I’ve demonstrated that “in-person” isn’t an accurate phrase for the actual nature of plans, which are “a mix of online and face-to-face,” but that’s not what I wanted to write about today.

Instead, I’d like to explore fall 2020 from another angle based on a different scenario.  In April I offered the Toggle Term scenario to describe a semester which alternates between online and in-person education, toggling between Post-Pandemic and COVIC Campuses. No institutions are publicly proclaiming that Toggle is in their plans now, but I suspect it’s widely in play in terms of internal contingency planning.

Bryan_3 COVID scenarios_WSJ

How might a Toggle take place?  And when?

Rather than brood about this by myself, I put this question out as a poll to several audiences last week.*  It’s a very basic kind of crowdsourcing.  I posed the same question and offered the same answers (slightly edited to fit formatting requirements) on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter:

When do you think the majority of American colleges and universities will decide to move most (or all) instruction online again?

A) Before fall term (in July or August)

B) Right after fall starts (September)

C) Later in the term, Novemberish

D) They will not – in 2020.

Here’s how they responded.  I’ll share how people voted as well as some of the comments they shared.

tl;dr – the consensus settled on around August-September for throwing the online switch.

To the polls!

On my LinkedIn post 151 people voted, with these results:

coronavirus academia open fall 2020_LinkedIn poll

July-August and September are in a nearly dead heat.  Together they represent three quarters of the responding population.

17% put the Toggle in November, possibly when many schools have already vowed to move to online instruction (i.e., final exam prep and final project consultations).  Less than 10% saw “face to face” continuing through December 2020.

A former student of mine at Georgetown, Sandy Lee, offered this insightful forecast:

My logic is that even if the health situation gets worse over the summer and fall, the unis that have decided to operate in person (until Thanksgiving) will not switch to fully online learning and remove students from the dorms again given the backlash from spring. Those who have already made the decision by now (July) for in person learning cannot afford again to refund students and change student plans.

Over on Facebook, my audience offered more qualitative commentary than quantitative votes, which fits that social group to a T.  Some key ideas appeared:

  • Campuses are waiting for state guidance or simply orders
  • Community deaths will drive action, as might massive infections
  • The likelihood of geographical variation across the US, especially by state

Some commentators also broke from thinking about what was likely to occur in favor of what they preferred to see: a shift online sooner rather than later.

Here’s how they voted, when they decided to:**

open up fall 2020 poll_FB_chart and rows

There were fewer quantitative responses than we saw on the LinkedIn one, but the results are actually fairly similar.  Again the July – September votes dominate.  Again only a few saw “in person” running through December.  November ran a little higher, over 10%, but not much more than that.

How did the Twitter poll go?

coronavirus academia open fall 2020_Twitter poll

(You can see I had to offer shortened options, given character limits.  So I left out the names of months, but I think the ideas came through.)

As with the Facebook poll, September leads.  The July-September combination is roughly the same as the other two, totally nearly 71%.  Again under 10% saw face to face proceeding through December 2020.

There were some very thoughtful comments in response.  John Warner observes: “When it becomes clear what F2F is going to be like, enthusiasm among students will decline.”

Laura Gibbs notes that her institution seems to have boxed itself into face-to-face:

Chris Heard offers several good cautions, including a reminder about sunk costs:

Then Ed Garay offers this advice:

“>> Redesign NOW for quality mostly-asynchronous #onlinelearning #blendedlearning!!”

So, overall, what do I make of this polling/crowdsourcing exercise?

On the first glance, it looks fairly decisive, with a clear majority seeing a toggle thrown before October. Massive majorities don’t see American higher ed doing “in person” in December.

Now, I should issue a bunch of caveats.  The n of this sample is puny, just a few hundred.  I haven’t done any serious statistical work on the results.  There are all kinds of biases, as most Facebook respondents see themselves in a friendly relationship to me, more or less.

But it’s still useful.  The three populations are quite different, from what I’ve seen, with little overlap.  LinkedIn and Twitter contacts usually know me professionally, so there’s some relevant expertise behind those responses.  Further, and best of all, I think, are those qualitative responses, the hesitations, skepticism, hopes, advice, and analyses.

I’d love to repeat this survey at a larger scale.  Or shift its focus from fall 2020 to spring 2021.

And now the polls re-open for a second round, aimed just at you, dear blog reader.  When do you think American higher ed will throw the switch in fall 2020, if it will?

*Timing: you can see some of these polls are still open now, thanks to timeline constraints of each platform.  Since nearly all of the votes thundered in in a hurry, followed by a faint trickle afterwards, I’m comfortable ending the polls now.

**Facebook didn’t offer a neat visualization, unlike Twitter or LinkedIn, or I just couldn’t find one.  So I totaled up the results, pasted them into a Google Sheet, and had it cough up a pie chart.


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