Reflecting on higher ed in the pandemic

As higher education continues to grapple with COVID-19 I’ve been talking with various kind interviewers.  It’s a good way for me to think through my analyses.

Here are two.

First, Howard Teibel and a colleague talked with me on his podcast.  They asked good questions, aimed at futures work, sustainability, and organizational change.

Second, Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed asked me to reflect on this question: “What is your emerging vision for post-crisis higher education in general?”  My compressed answer is in his column, and also copied here:

Much depends on how the pandemic plays out.

If nations like the U.S. can burn through all or the worst of COVID-19 in a couple of months, as China did, the impact will be intense but short term. If the coronavirus and our response persist for a year or more, academia will be redefined.

I fear many of the financial costs will clobber our budgets as state appropriations to publics reduce even further, as campus costs mount, international enrollment drops, endowments wither and families are just able to spend less on education. All of that occurs in the short-term scenario. If COVID-19 gnaws on nations for semesters on end, that will gut higher education’s finances. Given recent institutional history, we should expect an expanded adjunctification of the faculty and “queen sacrifice” cuts to programs (especially the humanities).

Our shift online could take several forms. First, if bad-experience stories circulate and have influence, we could see participation and even enrollment decline. Second, given equity issues worsened by recession, open education resources and open-access publishing could triumph. We may also see inequality drive different technology uses, with wealthier communities using more demanding technologies (virtual and mixed reality, telepresence) while poorer ones turn to tools with lower infrastructure demands (asynchronous video, audio, images and text).

Third, as entirely online pedagogy continues, certain pedagogies and support structures should win widespread attention. Colleges and universities might compete for students (as well as faculty and staff) based on how well and prominently they carry out these teaching methods. Fourth, if the pandemic persists unevenly, coming and going in waves over a long period, we might get used to alternating between face-to-face (i.e., really blended) teaching and wholly online instruction.

Research is experiencing a stall now as faculty remove themselves from on-campus resources. An attenuated pandemic could depress scholarly output for a year or more. At the same time, some faculty members may play an increasingly public role for their research, from work in health care to analyzing COVID-19’s impact through the lenses of sociology, political science, culture, media, urban studies, etc. This may appear both in formal scholarship, research and development, or public advocacy.

Read the whole column, which interviews other people.  Interestingly, it’s a sequel to a first column, which is rich by itself.  George Station and others critiqued it, and Doug responded seriously.  Bravo to all.

And thank you to Howard, Doug, and their teams for interviewing me and sharing the results.

Every day I’m researching and reflecting on how the academy is rapidly changing.  I try to blog about it for a bunch of reasons: to spur discussion, to get feedback on my thinking, to share information, and to document this extraordinary moment in history.

More to come!

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5 Responses to Reflecting on higher ed in the pandemic

  1. Very interesting stuff, thank you for another great article Bryan.

    Some other questions that came to mind while reading are: do you think this even will increase the push for faster 5G adoption given the need for faster Internet, what are your thoughts on the speed of virtual and augmented reality adoption as more will seek a way to overcome social distancing via virtual joining, gathering, “closering” (I know its not a word but there isn’t a good one-word opposite for “distancing”). Also, do you see this event impacting the actual cost of higher education in general? Business Insider’s Hillary Hoffower (2019) expressed that the high costs of higher education were due to “…a surge in demand, an increase in financial aid, a lack of state funding, a need for more faculty members and money to pay them, and ballooning student services.” I have personally seen many excessive student services offered for “free” at several universities, not done out of necessity, but purely out of competition. How might this pandemic actually reduce costs for higher education?

    • Glen says:

      So, Brent — about those Kansas National Guard Online Courses — do soldiers get college credit for taking these courses?

  2. Keil Dumsch says:

    “If nations like the U.S. can burn through all or the worst of COVID-19 in a couple of months, as China did, the impact will be intense but short term.”

    I think you’re being way too optimistic. The unsustainable higher ed industrial complex was almost certainly headed for meltdown, with severe contractions and closures of colleges and a bursting of the $1.6 trillion debt bubble. The coronavirus will just deal it a death blow, even if the pandemic ends in the next couple months. The economy is being destroyed, and in the wake of the virus more priority will be given to public health and the social safety net.

    The money to sustain the massive higher ed industrial complex just won’t be there. I think online schooling will increase, but the main threat to colleges will be a) people being desperate for a paycheck, just deciding they can’t afford college at all and entering the trades and other occupations that don’t require a degree and b) employers stopping with requiring college degrees and just hiring by intelligence/ability or by whatever alternative credentialing systems spring up

  3. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Both Doug’s article and Bryan’s contribution ignore — as in, DENY — that the virus has unilaterally forced deep-level institutional change across the global culture of higher education. Bear in mind that a single, unforeseen event has caused this — catching the entire civilization off-guard !

    Focusing on the triumphant (or, not so triumphant) shift to online IGNORES the reason for all this running around and chaos.
    This was threat lurking in the shadows for centuries (i.e., how long ago did the apotropaic “Gesundheit!!” enter social interaction and culture when someone SNEEZED? And this is GLOBAL!).

    Sadly, the focus on what we are doing NOW online runs counter the mass-cultural narrative, which focuses instead on what the Coronavirus **is** doing.
    Our orientation is wrong, and has excavated an enormous epistemological pot-hole, a blind-spot that all triumphalists are falling into.

    But this is to be expected: When higher ed looks in the mirror — what does it see?
    Itself, of course. Like now. And that’s a liability right now, NOT an asset.

    What are the odds that US Sen. Patricia Murray’s Emergency Student Assistance Bill is passed? What does Bryan’s crystal ball say? But even IF it does pass, will it stop the Cononavirus Wrecking Ball from upending the Ivory Tower?

    A. F. C. Wallace spoke eloquently about disaster-related “mazeway distintegration” and the resulting need for “cultural revitalization”. Mazeways are the culturally-defined paths we travel, and once they are changed, all bets are OFF.

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