What does COVID-19 mean for higher education? Looking ahead.

Today I was planning on responding to Eddie Maloney and Joshua Kim’s thoughtful column about what powers change in academia.

But circumstances urge me instead to post about COVID-19* and higher education instead.  I’ve been tracking this so far in my professional capacity as higher ed futurist (see here, here, here, here).  Today I’d like to respond to recent developments in the outbreak-nigh-unto-pandemic and discussion in the higher ed space.

I’ll start by summarizing what we know so far, then explore what this means for colleges and universities.  As ever, please add your thoughts, information, and questions below.

Caveats: to paraphrase McCoy, I’m a futurist, not a medical specialist.  This is a fast-moving story.  Data and news are provisional.  And I don’t have time to represent the long futures practice of modeling outbreaks today – I can claw my way to that soon, if you all like.

I: the status of COVID-19 so far

What do we know of the outbreak as of February 28, 2020?  I’ll work from the links I listed here (and please add more resources).

We have some understanding of how it works and spreads (CDC info page).  Vaccines are under development.  There are many open questions: incubation period, lethality rate, reinfection rates, how it can be transmitted on surfaces.

The coronavirus has spread to more nations, touching every continent save Antartica.  The latest additions include “Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Norway, Pakistan, Romania, and North Macedonia,” according to WHO.  Nigeria claimed the first sub-Saharan case. WHO also mapped out the spread graphically:

coronavirus 2020 Feb 28_WHO

Countries depicted in white have at least one infection.

WHO’s leaders have taken to addressing the human race on a daily basis (this morning’s).

For more data about infections and deaths across the world, we can turn to the Johns Hopkins dashboard, which is still the best:

Coronavirus 2020 Feb 28_JHU

That matches Worldometer data. I suspect people will see 100,000 infections and 3,000 deaths as milestones.  It’s spreading faster outside of China than within.

Death rates vary quite wildly by age.  I’ve been seeing charts like this all over:

coronavirus death rates by 2020 Feb_Worldometers

(I’m still waiting for people to nickname this “boomer flu.”)

In the United States the outbreak hit partisan territory very strongly.  The Trump administration appointed vice president Mike Pence to lead American efforts; following this Democrats criticized the administration (one example), which defended itself by claiming Democrats and the media were blowing things out of proportion in pursuit of electoral gain (for example) (or this).  In at least one case conflict between local authorities and the CDC seems to not have turned out well.  The United States Navy will quarantine some ships in the Pacific.  There are calls for individuals and families to prepare for pandemic.

Economically we continue to see problems.  Stock markets have been staggering. Asian-based supply chains are struggling.  Air travel isn’t doing well.

Where is all of this headed?

On the New York Times Daily podcast health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. offered two extreme scenarios for the next couple of years.  Best case: COVID-19 gradually becomes part of the seasonal cold cycle, a nuisance to cope with.  Worst case: something like the Spanish flu, with hundreds of millions or more infected and millions dying (remember the lethality rate of around 2%).

Goldman Sachs offered a similar scenario pairing.  Best case sees China’s economy suffer two bad quarters, then return to growth by fall 2020.  Worst case sounds like recessions rippling worldwide.  As I said on February 12,

we could imagine coronavirus becoming a minor but long-standing piece of our total disease puzzle… something between SARS (which it has just exceeded) and the unspeakably devastating Spanish flu. It’s a wide range, but we don’t have a lot of data now.

Politically, we seem to be following my forecast of increasing state power.  China seems to have succeeded in controlling COVID spread through exercising enormous powers, while clamping down on free speech.  The Trump administration through Pence might start throwing its weight around.  This trend suggests data will be problematic, as seen with this story about a potentially hidden Iranian death toll.

At least 210 patients have died in Iran, health sources have told BBC Persian, way above the official figure of 34. Iran denies withholding information about the number of people infected.

Speaking of which, Alex Tabarrock points us to a nice 2016 summary of political lessons learned from the history of disease.

Culturally, people are making jokes about the outbreak and how we respond.  McSweeney’s mocks Pence and the CDC’s facial hair announcement.  The New Yorker jabs at Trump’s response.

II: What this does to higher ed and how higher ed may respond

Already COVID-19 is being felt directly.  One University of California-Davis student seems to be infected and is under quarantine.

Let me recap the categories I set out earlier in February: academics as public players, changes to campus life, expanding digital academics, scholarly communication, impacts on institutional finance, political dimensions, and planning for the next disease.

Academics as public players The examples I gave are continuing, both in terms of researching the virus, sharing information, and intervening in public discourse.  I haven’t seen much beyond that.

Changes to campus life Chinese academia still seems to be hit hard, from exams and classes to scholarly travel.  I think something similar is happening to Italy and Japan.  I’m not sure about other nations, including South Korea.

Many campuses are ramping up health measures worldwide, from what I can tell.

How will this impact college sports? I don’t know if leagues and teams are postponing games or even practices.  I do suspect it could further boost interest in e-sports.

Study abroad and other international travel is coming under scrutiny, and sometimes being suspended.

American K-12 is apparently ramping up all kinds of measures.

Expanding digital academics I’ve been hearing about large numbers of Chinese students learning online.  Worldwide, there are signs of campuses exploring shifting face to face classes to the online world. This could be a major development in ed tech, possibly driving online learning to new enrollment heights and into campuses that have tried to avoid it so far.

Scholarly communication Open access projects are still going on.

Impacts on institutional finance Enrollment threats are ongoing, focused on China.  Other nations hit so far do not contribute quite so many students to the international higher education market, but their impact could well count, depending on a given campus.

A protracted pandemic that clamps down on economic growth could also injure academic economics.  Those institutions relying on endowments might not be able to do so for a year or two.  If states see tax revenues suppressed, they will likely cut back on supporting public universities.

Political dimensions The United States Department of Education will launch a COVID-19 task force.

I’m still looking for connections between COVID-19 and Chinese international politics.  I’m also tracking anti-Chinese campus bigotry.

Planning for the next disease And planning for this one?

I’ve heard offline and listserv discussions about universities dusting off contingency plans created from 2001 on, after 9-11, Katrina, SARS, and so on.  I don’t know how up to date those plans are.  A biologist/former university president just asked us all to get planning and operational right now.  (Don’t miss this line: “Consider pedagogic and technological plans to move instruction online.”)

I wonder how many campuses have run simulation exercises recently.  For a prompt, here’s a handy little web game from Indiana University which you can easily rerun:

emergency game page_Indiana U

Additionally, I suspect COVID-19 is starting to appear as a classroom subject.  I don’t know how many classes are focused on it entirely.

Personally, I’ve been sharing information and thoughts on this blog, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, and Facebook. I also had my ed tech seminar explore the topic in realtime.  Here was the in-class assignment:

  1. Based on our class work so far, what can we say about how people learn of the coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak?  How will the potential pandemic impact teaching with technology? You can use these resources.
  2. Analyze the WHO COVID online class .

To sum up: COVID-19 is starting to impact higher education worldwide, unevenly.  Hardest hit nations are reducing face-to-face operations and shifting online.  Financial stresses are appearing, if unevenly.  Campus planning may be shifting into gear.

What’s next: we still don’t know if we’re seeing limited outbreaks or a roaring global pandemic, and that obviously determines everything else.  Only a few academics are likely to participate in the bigger picture either as researchers or communicators.  Campuses may entrench to protect their populations and business models, which migrating operations online.  If things get Spanish flu horrible, then we could see academia crunched economically while distance learning becomes normative.

What do you think?  What have I missed?

*Following WHO, I’m going to refer to the disease as COVID-19 from now on.  SARS-CoV-2 is what causes it.

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2 Responses to What does COVID-19 mean for higher education? Looking ahead.

  1. Kate Bowles says:

    Hi Bryan, I’d add a couple of things. As you suggest, this has exposed significant dependence on international student tuition revenue to cross subsidise other core activities (research especially) that have been hit by defunding. What’s also revealed is the heavy machinery of government regulation of international student flows both through visa granting and refusal, and through flow-on regulation of online education as part of the on campus experience. In Australia the national regulatory body for quality assurance has temporarily removed limits on the proportion of teaching that can be online for an affected student. Second, universities are differentiating sharply in whether a pivot to online is appropriate, given extraordinary technical roadblocks, and if so whether it should attract a fee discount.

    Third, given the timing at the beginning of our academic year we’re seeing some novel (and perhaps impulsive) cash strategies across the sector to incentivise commencing enrolments that might be seen as wavering.

    Overall this unfolding emergency has flushed out all sorts of taken-for-granted things about how we operate, and it’s shown that our attention in planning has been focused on trends, not surprises. It’s a case study in universities learning rapidly and in public.

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