What might the coronavirus mean for higher education?

Yesterday I blogged about the possible future paths of the coronavirus outbreak.  Today I’d like to ask: what does all of this mean for academia?

I’ve been thinking about this problem for years, actually. Disease outbreak futuring is a longstanding thing. I also find it useful for getting people to think more creatively about education, since it’s a deep and unusual idea to bring to the academic table.  A year ago I led a short workshop session on this for Georgetown’s new Learning, Design, and Technology students.

Today I’ll break the topic into a series of subtopics for the present and very short term, then speculate about how they might shape the future of education looking further ahead.  And check the previous post if you have questions about COVID-19 in general.  Lots of links there.

Some of this will be sketchy, as things are developing quickly, and facts on the ground may be hard to discern in the moment.

Academics as public players The coronavirus is an opportunity for us to bring intellectual firepower to bear in helping ease the crisis.  There are plenty of examples already, like Imperial College London’s report series, this University of San Francisco explainer or this Johns Hopkins University visualization:

Coronavirus JHU 2020 Feb 13

Academics in public intellectual roles can do a lot of good. Or at least get a lot of attention through social media, as Eric Fiegl-Ding (Harvard Chan School of Public Health) has done (and to be fair, he’s tweeting very well now). At least two Chinese academics – law profs, both – have spoken and written publicly to criticize their government’s handling of the crisis.

Naturally some academics are energetically researching the disease.  For example,

Researchers from multiple organizations, including the State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease under Guangzhou Medical University, have successfully isolated a strain of virus from swab sample of an infected patient’s feces, said Zhao Jincun, a member of Chinese respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan’s research group, at a press conference Thursday.

The swab sample was provided by the Fifth Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-Sen University, said Zhao, also a professor with the laboratory.

I easily found more instances of this, like one from Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University and another from the University of Pittsburgh.

Georgetown library_wipes sign

From Georgetown University’s Lauringer Library.

Changes to campus life On the ground, campuses will take steps to protect their populations, with different strategies and implementations.   Closing a school for any length of time is one big step.

Some may reduce student, faculty, and staff travel, either in general or, more likely, to regions deemed especially infection-prone.

Related to this, campus operations may suffer a loss of capacity as employees stay away, either from illness or fear thereof.  Think of what happens to instructional staff, public safety officers, medical staff, financial staff, residence life staff, and so on.  Add to this the mental health stress on students bodies already prone to anxiety and depression; how will they fare when counselors run short?

Schools may also implement quarantine measures within parts of, or the entirety of, a campus. As Jay Sieling points out, “Given the high R factor, on campus housing becomes a hotspot for potential spread.”   Campuses aren’t great places for social distancing.  Princeton asked students who visited China recently to self-quarantine.

Others may expand on-site health care offerings at all levels, from advice and basic supplies to adding facilities. This could stress an institution’s capacities, especially if an outbreak takes place. (credit to Jay Sieling)

Clear and rapid communication will be key.  Alas, academics are not always good at this skill.

Face-to-face classes may decline in popularity, or administrations could just suspend them.  We’re already seeing this in China, which just canceled some major exams.  This can lead to an uptick in distance learning in various forms (asynchronous, synchronous).

Which brings us to the third point…

Expanding digital academics  On the teaching and support side, how can a university or college connect with students who can’t leave home, are warned away by the highest levels of travel restrictions, or are stuck in quarantine?  Online teaching and general communication is likely to expand.  Growing that will run into all of the problems we already know: faculty attitudes, campus support, infrastructure, learning design, student expectations, etc.

Scholarly communication Publishing is responding in interesting but historically consistent ways. The large publishing groups have launched sites with some opened-up content: Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer.  Nature is running a kind of live blog about the outbreak.

A Change.org petition calls on them to do more.  A pirate content site, The-Eye, has set up a coronavirus research paper archive.  There’s an interesting story about open access preprints and confusion over naming the virus.

I wonder about informal links between professors in China and elsewhere.  As the Chinese government seems to be making international cooperation difficult, will faculty cross borders to share and build knowledge of the coronavirus?

Impacts on institutional finance All of this can impact universities’ and colleges’ bottom lines.  Australian universities have lobbied that government to soften its travel bans in order to allow students back on campus.  Some American campuses are worried about a drop in Chinese students.

Meanwhile, any damage to local or national economies caused by the outbreak could hit universities.  For example, they could enter recession and depress public funding.

Political dimensions In yesterday’s post I pointed to the possibility of racism directed at populations that people see as especially disease-carrying.  Right now this means the Chinese, as that nation contains the overwhelming majority of infected people, and there are a few early signs of racist reaction.

coronavirus_fear of Asian students

If COVID-19 spreads deeply to other nations or ethnicities, they could also become targets of bigotry.  Academic leaders will have to help tamp down any disease-fueled racism.

The coronavirus may also connect with geopolitics.  For example, the ongoing US-Chinese trade war/transnational rivalry already plays out on campuses, as my readers now, from American faculty disliking Confucius Institutes to the US Justice Department investigating researchers to IT departments rethinking Huawei purchases.  Fears of infection could nudge American staff and faculty towards a more anti-China stance.  For another example, universities in nations that are already trade partners with Beijing, or considering joining One Belt One Road, might turn to oppose those relationships if they are sufficiently scared by either COVID-19 or Xi’s treatment of it.

Planning for the next disease With every outbreak we can learn more about how to best respond to the next one.  Some colleges and universities already have plans in place (example) (example) (example) (example), which they can now test out or modify.  The CDC offers guidelines as does the American College Health Association (ACHA). An Australian university studied its response to H1N1 back in 2009-2010, as did researchers looking at two American campuses and another team for a Turkish university.

Putting these together, what do we get?

I can imagine tension between schools wanting to expand online teaching and those opposed to it for a variety of established reasons.

If the coronavirus hits hard in a university’s region, social unrest and political instability may break out.  I haven’t seen this yet at scale, beyond some individual voices criticizing governmental responses, but such events could place enormous pressure on academic communities.

Academics intervening in public issues expose themselves to all kinds of criticism and backlash.  Think of a professor, for example, who links coronavirus to climate change.  If an alternative medical treatment takes off, and a faculty member criticizes it, they could easily face an online (or in person; see preceding paragraph) outrage mob.  Imagine what happens if religious responses become significant, and staff or faculty tangle with them.

I do wonder if the outbreak will give open access a significant push forward.

As the outbreak persists, research universities may play a larger role in terms of developing treatments.  Other departments may also conduct and publish relevant research, from sociology and poli sci to media studies and law. Classes will address the topic, like this one from Oberlin.

If COVID-19 continues or reaches pandemic levels, all of these can be attenuated.  Given enough time, impacts may be felt at the curricular level.  And again academia may be roiled by larger economic forces.  In my Georgetown simulation student forecast rising interest in certain classes and departments: allied health, of course; agriculture (all kinds of disruptions are possible here, and people must eat); politics and economics (how to respond to the crisis and how to rebuild).

Universities in nations less well equipped to respond to the outbreak – i.e., poorer countries – are likely to run into these issues before others.

That’s it for now.  What are you seeing in higher education, wherever you are, readers?  PS: be safe.

(thanks to Nancy Margaret Saleeby, Joe Murphy,  la.donna.pietra, Roger Schonfeld, Tim Pendry, and more for conversation and links)

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One Response to What might the coronavirus mean for higher education?

  1. John Smith says:

    Hi Bryan,

    Long time reader of your blog, posting for the first time!

    I work on the admissions side of things for a well reputed university and a lot of our Asia trips are being cancelled across the board. I’m talking about recruitment travel, alumni/fundraising work, short-term certificates, etc. This not only results in revenue loss from students, but also loss in airfare, venue spaces, and so on.

    We are trying to be creative, but at the same time we are pretty limited. For example we get a lot of students from several Asian markets because of having a strong and fairly prominent alumni base there. Normally during our recruitment events these alumni show up as speakers and provide way more credibility than any admissions people do. Without being able to plan events, we are anticipating that our pipelines are going to get hit hard. This may impact our hubs and exchange programs in the region as they are heavily dependent on the revenue they generate.

    On the flip side I can’t say I’m surprised or even disappointed. I always felt that the heavy dependence on enrollment from Asia would eventually bite us and now it looks like that is going to be the case. Admissions as we know them now are very wasteful and the whole process can easily be more streamlined. Perhaps this will be the wake up call that will get our administration to focus on the deeper issues of institutional finance that go beyond Trump and the Coronavirus.



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