I’ve been tracking the global coronavirus since early February, with a focus on how it impacts higher education worldwide. That tracking has meant blogging here, tweeting, and creating a resource post.
Then I made something new, and now I have a tiger by the tail.
tl;dr – there is now a giant and still growing spreadsheet of campus closures and migration online. I am looking for one or two helpers.
OK, the story.
Several days ago I came up with the idea of tracking college and university responses to the outbreak. Specifically, I was interested in how academia migrated education online. I saw how one part of this migration often included suspending face-to-face classes, if not shutting down entire campuses. I wanted more data and stories.
Not finding a good resource, I did the web/Generation X thing and made one. Over on my personal Google Drive I set up a simple spreadsheet with a few columns: name of institution, their schedule for going online and/or closing, misc. notes, and also supporting documentation.
I could have kept this private. Heck, it could have been an Excel file on one of my desktops. But I’m an old Web 2.0 fan, a lover of what the open web can accomplish, and am also very very busy. So I decided to open the Sheet and tell the world, hoping folks would contribute data, correction, and stories.
Did they ever.
Within hours the spreadsheet grew. More campuses appeared. Folks added extra columns for more data. Still more colleges and universities appeared.
Then the geniuses at Ithaka S+R, led by the splendid Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, really went to town. They hauled in IPEDS data and deployed a dozen extra columns. Why? Now we could automatically have fields populated with institutional type, geographical location (including lat and lon), student headcount, and more. Student headcount meant we – any user, actually – could generate a live count of how many enrolled students were impacted (2,972,409 as of this writing). 4 columns became 13. A dozen rows became a hundred, then more. Tabs for worksheets popped up.
Christine and her crew then turned some of the growing data to generate a live map of US campuses responses:
Interest and use accelerated. People started sending me more information by Twitter and email. I emailed the Sheet link to certain folks who might have more to add.
Then media attention appeared. National Public Radio interviewed me, and included a link to the Sheet. Al-Jazeera interviewed me. Times Higher Education joined in and linked as well. Inside Higher Ed wrote about us several times.
Which led to a torrent of contributions. The spreadsheet grew further. More news stories about colleges closing and going online appeared, along with rumors (which I wouldn’t add unless confirmed), official statements, elected officials making pronouncements, analyses, etc.
Tim Young got inspired and generated this map of US campus closings/migrations through Tableau:
And all of that growth and energy… ultimately broke Google Docs.
Yes, we hit the limit of what Google would provision. I started getting weird issues with the Sheet, like the editing bar disappearing. Others reported not being able to edit it or the page taking too long to load. There is no formal Google Sheets support, so I hit up a Google Support page and researched. Meanwhile, the hits – and errors – kept coming.
At one point I managed to switch the document’s setting to let users request editing access. I thought that might work. But in 10 minutes I received more than 300 requests.
Whooops. I threw the switch back – although it took me some time, as the page kept misloading. Finally, eventually, I set it back to view-only, with a plea for folks to contact me with new data.
So today I’ve spent a lot of time manually adding data as people share it with me over email, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Gchat.
To be fair, we have gotten some criticism. Stephen diFilipo raised a classic web 2.0 argument:
The problem with crowdsourced is… crowdsourced. The data is neither comprehensive nor reliable. Crowdsourcing anything should be considered a hobby https://t.co/RT6KtnzxYr
— Stephen diFilipo (@S_dF) March 11, 2020
Good point. However, for reliability the Sheet has one great strength. Every campus line has a documentation field. Folks have filled that with official announcements and journalism, mostly.
For comprehensive – we’re trying. I’ve been bugging people around the world to add data from their nations and regions.
Where do things stand now?
As of this writing Tom Hanks has the coronavirus, Donald Trump mangled an address, the NBA canceled some games (!), and Angela Merkel is scaring the Hohenzollerns out of Germans. For my story, I’m talking with Google engineers to make the Sheet editable by the world again. It might not be feasible, and I’ll have to figure out how to build a Form that feeds a Sheet (which sounds like a sailing term), so people can send me data with a bit of structure.
It’s possible that American higher ed will just shut down in person, and transition totally to online education. In which case the document becomes a snapshot of a giant transformation.
The Sheet’s story is an interesting one for social media and online tech in 2020. It’s largely a successful instance of crowdsourcing, in that the results are useful. It hearkens back to the rise of Wikipedia etc. But it also ran smack into infrastructure limitations – here, how Google provisions its Docs.
Also, would any of you like to help me? I’m at my wit’s end with handling the thing. Normally I’m supposed to be doing my future of education research, teaching a class, prepping another, starting the next book. Now thanks to COVID-19 I’m also trying to redesign my business for a largely online world, work on two projects for paying clients, help my students get their class wholly online, redo my summer class for ditto… and this spreadsheet is sucking down hours each day. I’d be delighted if one or two of you could help me add data. I have zero budget for this, but at least I can promise you my thanks, the gratitude of people in and around higher education, and a polite, social distancing refusal to shake your hand until this is all over.
PS: stay safe, everyone.