Wreckage and hope: looking towards 2021 from 2020

What can 2020 tell us about higher education in 2021?

It’s still too early to really make this call, in some ways.  2020 is too fresh, too close, and too riven by a mixture of fierce political fighting and enormous amounts of information for us to generate a thorough analysis of the year. But we can draw on what we’ve learned, now, in all its freshness and contingency, to scope out 2021 as it draws nigh. And such an analysis might shed additional light on how we think/thought about this extraordinary year.

Speaking of which, here’s a single gif to summon up our shared sense of 2020:

2020 dumpster fire

All right. I’m basing this post on a few sources, starting with this very blog, as I’ve been writing here all year.  I’ve also been tracking the year in a dozen FTTE reports. Georgetown University’s Big Rethink offered a great deal of insight and reflection.  My Patreon supporters have been very thoughtful. And the Future Trends Forum community has been talking up a storm all year.

What follows is not in any particular order.  It is not a history of 2020, but a sketch of possibilities for 2021 drawing on events from this year.  It is also not as extensively sourced as I prefer; please see preceding paragraph for more sources.

A mixed approach to the pandemic In spring 2020 effectively all of American higher education, and the systems of several other nations, moved online. This changed by fall. Roughly one quarter to one third, of campuses reopened for in-person education, about that many remained entirely online, and the rest attempted various hybrid forms.  During that semester some switched modes, including versions of a “toggle term.”

Looking ahead to 2021 we see the opportunity for another mixed approach, depending on how the pandemic plays out.  On the one hand, several vaccines have passed national tests, are being distributed, and taken up.  More than 2 million people have had the first dose, according to the CDC, and that number will rise. On the other hand, the B.1.1.7 COVID strain, which is more infection that previous strains, has spread from Britain to other nations, including several states within the United States. Global cases and deaths keep rising.  American cases rose horribly over the past two months:

coronavirus infections by nation-US 2020 Dec 30_91-DIVOCcoronavirus infections by nation-US 2020 Dec 30_91-DIVOC

The past week’s dip could be an artifact of holiday reporting.

And while more than 2 million people getting the shots sounds impressive, it represents less than one percent of the American population of roughly 330 million.

So we might begin spring 2021 in a version of fall’s mixed mode.  Hopefully we will turn a corner with the pandemic, once enough people receive vaccines, after which more campuses will host more in-person students.

Institutional flexibility It’s important to recall that many colleges and universities did something extraordinary in spring 2020. Yes, the shift online was done sloppily in some cases, we can argue about remote/emergency instruction versus online learning, and there were all kinds of logistical and resource problems. But hauling academia entirely online in a matter of weeks, often days – in a year that’s overused the term “unprecedented” we can identify this achievement as literally without precedent.  It showed a terrific institutional flexibility and energy that we rarely associate with the academy.  That is a crucial takeaway.

A renaissance of online pedagogy As soon as WHO declared a global pandemic faculty and staff began thinking about how to teach well online. There were a great number of first-time instructors who had to learn this and fast. As I’ve told every human being I’ve been in contact with this year, they were able to learn from a generation’s worth of study and practice, as well as the skilled professionals in instructional technology, instructional design, and educational technology positions. A tremendous amount of practice and development happened in a few months.

As shocked spring gave way to (alas) hopeful summer this rapid learning continued, both for those of us who taught during mid-year and for everyone planning fall term classes.  It was an immense moment of professional development, planning, learning, inspiration, and design.

It’s easy to see the problems here.  The financial hammering institutions took (see below) means professional development and professional developers were often cut down.  Not all faculty were interested in learning from mere staff members about how to teach online. Not everyone had the time to do so, either, given the pandemic’s brutal hits to the economy and families. There were many, far too many instances of mistakes, of bad online pedagogy inflicted on students who deserved better. But the opportunities were there to various degrees, and some took advantage of them. 2020 saw a big chunk of academia think and work hard on how to improve teaching.

Instructional designers et al received zero publicity for this work.  Ditto centers for teaching and learning.  They certainly haven’t enjoyed lavish bonuses for work in poor conditions. But they did great work and deserve our applause – and our awareness of them as key players to be in 2021.

A reawakening on race and racism One of 2020’s signal events was the massive social movement against anti-black racism.  This engaged higher ed from students to presidents, driving a rethinking of how campuses supported or opposed racism.

A big question for 2021 is: how much of this energy will persist?  Many Big Rethink interviewees were not sure 2020’s activism would continue into the next year, or yield structural changes. Personally, I can see both persistence and a falling off, depending on an individual institution’s climate and how national politics plays out.

The financial hammer came down Readers and other audiences know that I’ve been warning about increasing economic pressure on American higher education for years.  The pressure comes from a bad mix of forces, including demographics, public defunding, financialization, overbuilding, an out of date business model, and more. This argument powers much of my recent book, Academia Next (Johns Hopkins, 2020), so read therein for more details.

If we think of that pressure as a fire increasing in temperature, COVID-19 poured accelerant all over the blaze. States cut back appropriations more than usual. Campus costs rose as their revenue dropped. Total enrollment ticked down even further than it has been for nearly a decade. Reserves were tapped. And cuts started in spring, then kept coming.

What does this tell us about 2021? The larger economy has been badly damaged, and will need recovery and rebuilding time.  It’s an open question if Congress can assist.

Higher education faculty and staff (those who aren’t cut) will probably, generally, have to do more with fewer resources. There will be campus political battles fought over dwindling budgets.  Queen sacrifices will occur.  Campus leaders will decide if they want to lose adjuncts and squeeze more teaching out of full time and tenure-track faculty, or ax the latter to maximize the former.  I expect old fights to break out with redoubled urgency, struggles over campus sports, residence hall amenities, “administrative bloat,” the role of the humanities, just how many professional programs can be offered, and so on.

Macroeconomics 2020 saw many economies injured badly.  America experienced a vertiginous collapse of GDP and employment, then a rapid race in the direction of recovery. How this will play out in 2021… it might look like 2009-2015, as a slow, incremental recovery.

At the same time, income and wealth inequality sharpened during this awful year.  Implications for higher ed include a greater focus on the very wealthy for fund raising and recruitment.

Speaking of inequality, the American recession hit women harder than men, based on gender representation within afflicted industries as well as persistent child-rearing practices.  Women scholars saw work fall behind.  How will 2021 address these losses?

Politics This year we learned the old lesson about higher education being politically active. Doubtless to the shock of some folks who grouched that young folks were too passive, 2020 saw some campuses mobilize along different political lines. Some day anti-racism activism in different forms, from renaming buildings to efforts to decolonize curricula. National elections were waged across campuses.  Other social justice causes – over sexual harassment and assault, by gender, by sexual orientation, by immigrant status – energized some. Rising US-China geopolitical tension hit campuses from Confucius Institutes to jailed faculty members, and saw increasing federal pressure on higher education.

Looking to 2021, we might expect each of these causes to live again within higher education. There is some variability, of course. Some energy might be lost with Trump out of the White House. The Biden administration’s China policy will shape that vast conflict’s presence in colleges and universities.  Trump and right wing activists may play some role on campuses, either in recruiting or just stirring the pot for publicity and donations.

I am not sure if a Biden Department of Education will increase campus administrative demands. I expect that they will attempt to reverse DeVos sexual assault guidelines. They may offer more policy requests on gender and race. Campuses might see hiring more staff to address such changes as prudent.

Climate change This is not something most academics wanted to discuss in 2020.  Most I spoke with and listened to were aware of the crisis to some extent, but they were much more focused on COVID and Black Lives Matter.  They also rarely saw a connection to climate change from their work.

To the extent that academic individuals and organizations see their way past 2020’s two signal crises, they may have openings to think ahead into the climate crisis.

College sports It is clear that American higher education will do whatever it takes to support some athletic activity. Some colleges and universities suspended or shed various teams, notably the ones that were not high profile, or weren’t basketball or football.  Meanwhile, others set up science fiction levels of expensive containment systems to keep games happening, even in the teeth of COVID.

Frankly, I don’t know how this impacts higher education. I don’t know if it cost sports campus support or made academia look cold blooded to the sports-obsessed American public. But looking to 2021, I would expect this pattern to continue: tennis and rifle teams set aside, while football players struggle across playing fields layered in more security than most banks.

Speaking of which…

Higher education’s reputation American academia has been dinged over the past decade for many reasons, including perceived costs and results.  Under the Trump administration the old right-wing complaint about culture warrior profs has seized a larger population of Republicans.

Did academia’s response to the pandemic change our standing? To what extent does the public view universities as the wellsprings of vital health research?  Does that public think academia played a role in the amazing vaccine triumph? Or do people see academia as mishandling the crisis, offering substandard online teaching and being willing to welcome back students at the costs of injuries and death?

In 2021 we might seek to repair that reputation, especially if we want to get enrollments up, to win governmental policies we prefer, and avoid the ones we don’t.

Enrollments Total enrollment ticked down again in fall 2020. If we banish COVID effectively next year we *could* see a reversal… if enough Americans can muster up the desire and ability to take classes. If that happens, and Biden manages to reverse America’s Trumped reputation abroad, and China doesn’t decide to pull students from its great adversary, then perhaps international numbers will rebound.

How might which academic programs change as a result of 2020’s events?  I have previous spoken of a COVID curriculum, which would be higher on allied health, with possible additions of poli sci, government, econ, and business. It is still early for data, but early signs are that the allied health care forecast is correct.  NPR refers to this as the Fauci Effect.  It could easily continue next year, especially as students continue their majors. I do wonder which programs are losing a corresponding number of interested learners.

Libraries We know that most academic libraries suffered financial cuts in 2020. If 2021 is as bad economically, I can’t see a way for libraries to escape further hits.

I am appalled that so few people concerned about misinformation, disinfotainment, the infodemic, etc. bother to recognize that librarians are superb guides to the online information world, have been working on this for decades, and are eager to help. It infuriates me every time someone hollers about bad information and refuses to recognize some of my heroes, the librarians.

Technologies and education

  • 2020 saw the greatest number of people taking classes online. To the extent COVID recedes in 2021 that number will drop… but I think not in perfect correspondence. Some number of students approved of the experience. Once COVID is done (say, at seasonal flu levels of infections and deaths) I suspect online class rolls will be higher than before the pandemic.
  • More hacking and crime: the past year showed plenty of evidence of this, culminating in spectacular hacks of the federal government. I can’t see why there wouldn’t be more of this.
  • Fragmenting and controlling the internet: several nations showed they could shut off internet access, or just modify access to certain content. By year’s end Silicon Valley giants started expanding content moderation strategies. Will a Democratic White House change this in the United States?
  • Automation: every month saw further advances and controversies for both hardware and software.

In education automation proceeds on many vectors, from chatbots to academic research to robots for certain tasks. I do wonder if we will see some students and faculty protesting some of these projects and services.

  • Open education possibilities: 2020 saw textbook spending decline, based on some measures.  Surely the economic crisis will encourage more OER usage. Hopefully cuts to library and research budgets will similarly spur more researchers to consider open access, which also grew incrementally.
  • XR (virtual, mixed, augmented reality) is making gradual progress, primarily with militaries and tech firms, but still awaits a breakthrough device.  Many expect Apple to offer one.
  • I do wonder what happens to social media in 2021. Most platforms had a terrible 2020, with a rising techlash and hostile government responses. User bases have been solid, though, and no alternatives have gotten traction, including just exiting social media.
  • The learning management system/virtual learning environment world seems to have settle into tweaking and incremental adjustments.  Canvas keeps growing.
  • Big data and data analytics: 2020 saw the debate over this grow in intensity. On the one side, people and organizations who view the tech as empowering students, done well. On the other, people and groups who dread privacy violations and “cop shit.” The pandemic heightened things, as a public health emergency typically involves additional scrutiny of human behavior.  At home proctoring had good year in deployment, from what I can see, and a bad one reputationally.  2021 will see this debate continue.
  • 3d printing had some bright spots in 2020 as folks printed medical equipment parts.  (I still adore this one: the Vermontilator.) I haven’t seen much holding this tech back, and expect continued development.
  • The second wave of podcasting grew and grew this year. I have been anticipating retrenchment, and would not be surprised to see some kind of podcast recession.  Except for audiobooks, which have a rich market growing in place: aging folks.
  • Video obviously grew in importance in 2020, from videoconferencing to producing and consuming content, from Tiktok to Netflix. Many complain about Zoom, the one brand folks have chosen to stand in for an ecosystem, and so we are seeing a series of experiments and innovations seeking to improve it.
  • Copyright and technology: big intellectual property holders continue their efforts to stop what they see as infringement. We saw that with an anti-streaming measure stuck into an American COVID relief bill and how the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) pushed the Mexican government to pass a new copyright law with stricter measures.  I would expect this decades-long behavior to continue.

That’s enough for now.  I have another, more personal post about 2020 and 2021 for tomorrow.  What do you think of this sketch?

(thanks to my Patreon supporters for their thoughts on this topic; thanks, too, to Terri Bradley, James Neal, Jeff Penta, and Lisa Durff on Twitter for same)

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in future of education, higher education. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wreckage and hope: looking towards 2021 from 2020

  1. Catherine Wehlburg says:

    I am so glad to see you call out the incredible work done by instructional designers and teaching and learning centers. They were the backbone behind so much of the transition to online courses and got so very little credit for this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *