Two competing visions of fall higher education, plus a ghostly third

Oxford Christ Church College_Judy DeanWhat will fall 2020 look like in higher education?

I’ve been exploring this topic for months.  In April I published three scenarios for colleges and universities may approach the fall 2020 semester in the wake of COVID-19, based on different ways the pandemic might play out, which were posted in March.  I followed those up with real world examples of each scenario, as different institutions subsequently issued announcements about their plans.

Let’s see how things are playing out now, in the middle of May.

To recap, the three fall scenarios are:

  1. The Post-Pandemic Campus.  A college or university deems the pandemic to be over, or managed, or about as dangerous as the winter flu, and so opens up for face-to-face education and activities.* (I posted some problems with this here.)
  2. COVID Fall.  A campus plans on an online fall term, seeing the pandemic as too dangerous and/or not being able to administer appropriate countermeasures.
  3. Toggle Term.  Campus leaders are ready to toggle between online and in-person education depending on conditions.

Post-Pandemic Campus Since I last posted, more American colleges and universities have announced plans to open up.  The Chronicle has one list with about 13% of the US sector; out of that, about 70% are saying they expect to resume face-to-face instruction.

A key assumption in this scenario planning is that the American COVID-19 pandemic peaks sometime this summer, then drops.  We can see evidence for that belief in the latest IHME projections, for infections:

coronavirus US infections testing 2020 Mar1-Aug1_-recorded May 16-IHME

And a similar patterns for deaths:

coronavirus US deaths 2020 Mar1-Aug-1 -recorded May 16-IHME

There are other assumptions, leading with: that students will enroll in greater numbers for face-to-face classes than online ones.  In some cases, campus leaders may see in-person operation as the only alternative to shutting down forever.

My assumption is that many of these cases, if carried out, will involve serious shifting in resources.  More resources to certain academic programs (allied health care), more to certain administrative units (IT, academic computing, marketing, enrollment) – and fewer to others.  A net loss, overall.

COVID Fall In contrast, other institutions find taking most or all of their mission online is best.  They may largely be motivated by a desire to reduce infections, injuries, and deaths, fearing that in-person operations are just too dangerous.  There are many examples of this train of thought.

The most prominent recent example of COVID Fall has been the 23-campus California State University system, which will teach online this fall.

…so we can find examples of my first two scenarios.  The third, Toggle Term, has been harder to find in the real world.

Yet on-campus planning may actually be headed that way.  Campus IT is preparing for Toggle Term in terms of HyFlex and other modes, according to a new EDUCAUSE poll.  Here is what respondents are gearing up to do:

fall 2020 tech prep by IT_EDUCAUSE

Community college dean Matt “Dean Dad” Reed (and excellent 2017 Future Trends Forum guest) posited a version of the Toggle Term, with a clear sequence:

one possible scenario has us off-campus in September and maybe October, and then having the option to return to campus after that. In anticipation of that scenario, a proposal making the rounds is to post “remote live” classes (synchronous online) for the fall with classrooms tied to them. The courses would be held at set times remotely until we get the all clear, at which point they’d move to campus for the rest of the semester. (Asynchronous online classes would remain as they are.)

“In other words, the proposal is the mirror image of the spring. Instead of starting on campus and then moving off, we’d start off-campus and move on.”  The column’s commentators did not approve, mostly.

To sum up: at least two of these scenarios are in full swing.  COVID Fall is a viable option and the Post-Pandemic Campus leads the way.  In contrast Toggle Term seems to be a hidden third choice, a ghostly option now, at least in public.  Few want to mention it, but campus IT looks ready to roll it out.

Let’s see how colleges and universities continue down the path for fall 2020.

(Oxford photo by judy dean)

*Several readers have taken issue with the term “post-pandemic,” arguing that it diminishes the reality of a dangerous virus.  To explain: I use this term to describe someone’s mindset, where they see COVID-19 as no longer in emergency mode.  These people may think the pandemic phase is over, in that the virus has been controlled. Or they find that while other regions may suffer, they themselves are not in danger.

This is a question of perception.  With that scenario title I am not describing biological reality, but the viewpoint of certain people.

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Again, I am describing someone else’s attitude.  Not my own.

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24 Responses to Two competing visions of fall higher education, plus a ghostly third

  1. Keil Dumsch says:

    “They may largely be motivated by a desire to reduce infections, injuries, and deaths, fearing that in-person operations are just too dangerous.”

    For the past year or so when Glen McGhee, Dahn Shaulis, and I have discussed the looming threat of a college meltdown, none of us ever envisioned this scenario. If people are afraid to go to a brick-and-mortar college, then higher ed is in a serious world of hurt. I’m still seeing a lot of delusion on the part of colleges that see online as a reliable replacement. The reaction from students is that online is a very poor substitute, and way too expensive as that. Plus the entire edifice of the higher ed industrial complex (and its subsidiary economy) rests on lots and lots of people attending brick-and-mortar schools.

  2. Craig Allen says:

    No college student should sign up for this fall semester. Take a gap semester or a gap year & let this all settle down

  3. Joe Essid says:

    One problem with any remote scenario: time zones. I already have kids on the West Coast saying “sorry but I would prefer to wait for Spring” instead of taking what would amount to a 6am class. Before we yell “snowflake!” I’d feel the same way, if asked to teach at 6am.

    Our enrollment is over 10% International. That’s going to be a nightmare with remote learning, for discussion-based classes that predominate on what we love to call a “high touch” campus. We will need a new metaphor for that one. A decision comes, we are told, in July about the road ahead.

    Going to be a busy July for our Faculty Senate, whose ranks I join this year. Colleagues are saying things like “good luck” and I’m envisioning the Senate House from Shakespeare’s play…

  4. Joe Essid says:

    I can see a “gap year” with students requesting to defer admission or take a leave, in order to take online classes from a local and less expensive school.

    Or we cut tuition. The students don’t get any amenities when away, save for a good advising program and careful instruction, as we pride ourselves on small classes and individual help.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      A gap year, or perhaps for millions never going to school in the traditional manner, unless its affordable and gets people work.

      • Keil Dumsch says:

        The whole concept of a “gap year” is a stupid concept that we got from the aristocratic British. It is further confirmation that we should just start over again a start a new education system from scratch. The concept of “preparing” at this school to “matriculate” at this school, with a lockstep age-segregated climb up a ladder and every fourth rung containing a sheepskin and silly cap-and-gown ritual has to stop. We need to end all that and have a system of seamless and unbroken lifelong learning (independent of where the knowledge is acquired), concurrent with work and life experience.

  5. Matt Shatzkin says:

    The bar chart graphic doesn’t make sense. The sum of the column headings are much greater than 100%. Data presented should make sense…


    “The high attrition rate in online courses is a cause for concern (Herbert, 2006; Heyman, 2010; B. Smith, 2010).
    This phenomenon needs to be studied in light of the growing demand for online programs in academic and corporate settings, and the fact that a fall in attrition rates will benefit students, institutions, and businesses (Allen & Seaman, 2011; Overton, 2007; Stanford-Bowers, 2008). Several studies have been conducted specifically to observe when and why students withdraw from graduate programs (Jaggars,
    2011; Levy, 2007; Perry et al., 2008; Willging & Johnson, 2009). The results of these indicate that students were more apt to drop out during earlier stages of the semester, and there are multiple reasons for doing this including personal preferences, profession-related, and program-related issues. “

  7. Dahn Shaulis says:

    This is a golden opportunity for white supremacists and other hate groups on campus, including Charlie Kirk’s Students for Trump and Turning Point USA.

  8. Rebecca says:

    My institution is currently working on drastically reducing student density on campus for fall. We are moving a lot of large lecture-based courses online, with an explicit goal of cutting campus density in half. We are then reviewing room assignments to move classes to larger spaces where students can spread out more and changing times so that there are breaks in between. Cleaning supplies (clorox wipes, etc) will be everywhere. Courses that require labs, studios, clinical experiences, or other on-campus supplies/interactions are currently most likely to be back on campus, but english 101 and the like are almost certainly to be online. I am not sure where a model like this falls (it’s not truly on-campus, since we are moving a lot of courses to online, but it isn’t entirely online either) and I am personally not sure that we won’t be just pulling those students off campus by the 3rd week of the semester, but the hope is that lower density will offer some level of protection.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s fascinating, Rebecca.
      How small (in student number) will labs etc. get?

      • Rebecca says:

        Of course it is going to depend on how big the room is, but on average we are estimating 1/3rd the previous class sizes.

        Faculty are also rethinking the assignments and the timing to see if we can phase students through; For example adjusting an activity that used to take an hour down to the core 30 minutes so that two groups might be able to move through in that time period. This is still in its early stage, and there may not be a way to do that in every case, but if we can make a few changes we may be able to eek out a few more available hours in the lab rooms that can then be used to spread the students out.

        I should also mention that we are looking at changing the class times a little. Instead of the majority of classes running between 8:30-4:30, we are looking at stretching the day a bit from 8-5 or even 5:30, with the idea of allowing more time between classes for cleaning. We are also putting more sections on fridays than we had in the past, since most students and faculty are telling us they would rather have fridays on campus than be crowded in all of the rest of the week.

        What I have NOT heard is the changes other institutions are making to remove fall break and finish by thanksgiving, although I personally think that would be a good idea. I wonder how much accreditation requirements are affecting institutional ability to pursue that type of approach.

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