One of the weird things about humans is that we most want to be told what will happen next at the exact moment when the future is uncertain because the outcome depends upon decisions we have yet to make. Most of the time, the future is predictable partly because there isn’t a lot we can do to change it. This is not one of those times.
Like so many aspects of this civilizational crisis, our choices—as individuals, institutions, and societies—will shape the future. We can decide to let our institutions fall apart. We can try to hold them together with chewing gum and string. We can let others decide for us, which risks letting the most powerful and self-interested actors determine our future. Or we can choose to mindfully rebuild. Each of us gets some say in what happens next (though, tragically, some more than others).
I don’t know how all of this will play out, and pretending otherwise would be harmful. We all need to dwell in the uncertainty that enables us to make choices, and we need to make our choices together as a sector. For this reason, I’m reluctant to advocate too forcefully for my views of what is likely happen, or even what should happen. There may be time for that later. But at this moment, as our educational first responders are struggling to deal with the first wave of the crisis while beginning to brace themselves for the second wave, I think it important for those of us who are not in that role to exercise some situational awareness. Now is not a great time to pontificate or prognosticate—at least not without extra doses of humility and empathy.
That said, we are far enough into the first wave that it is time to start thinking about the future. For some of us, that will mean learning to walk, chew gum, and juggle chain saws at the same time. So with that in mind, I’m going to offer up some of the change vectors I’ve been thinking about lately as conversation starters
Everyone will be cash-strapped
Students and their parents have lost income. Adjunct faculty, upon whom so many colleges and universities rely, are also highly vulnerable to a social safety net with many holes in it. Universities face the possibility of refunding student tuition and fees, and may well experience a major shift in enrollments next year as students reconsider their options. States face massive budget deficits.
While all of this is obvious, the implications are not. We don’t know yet how our federal governments will respond. Or the states. Or the institutions. Or the students. Or anyone, really.
When I think about these sorts of multi-level problems, I try to find the highest organizational level at which I think I can have a significant influence. For climate change, I am more focused on state and local actions than at Federal or global ones because I feel more able to influence my state and local governments. For COVID-19 and higher education, it may be at the institutional level. University communities have never been terribly good at understanding the mechanics of their institutional sustainability models. How much money comes from public funding vs. grants vs. tuition vs. alumni donations? Which programs cross-subsidize which others? What have been the drivers of cost increases? How are these dynamics shifting? Now is the time to get smarter about this so that we can make smarter decisions going forward. While this sort of thinking feels uncomfortably close to reducing education to a consumer commodity, there will be no higher education if universities can’t get their budgets to balance. This is a particularly urgent conversation to be having.
Online isn’t going away any time soon
While I find some of the cheerleading for #pivotonline to be too soon and sometimes too opportunistic—particularly from folks who are not working on the front lines—we shouldn’t expect the need for online education to magically disappear by September, or for the world to eventually revert to the way it used to be. What holds for all other aspects of the post-coronavirus world also holds for education. Social distancing is a reality that we will be living with for a long time. Long enough that new patterns of life and work will set in. The implications are both deep and wide.
First, this change will impact the sustainability models I referenced above. Students are already asking for their housing costs to be refunded for the semester. Those who have been paying attention to the trends in online pricing are aware of a wide range of price-relevant experiments in various stages of progress in the market, from xMOOCs to stackable credentials to affordable degrees at scale to premium-priced OPM-designed master’s degrees. There is no one right answer here. Colleges and universities will find different combinations that fit their missions, sustainability needs, and organizational capabilities.
Second, we will need to pay extra attention to equity. This is an area that was already beginning to get some much-needed focus, but the current crisis will bring the problem into sharper relief. For example, universal access to affordable broadband is more obviously an equity issue when it is inextricably tied to access to education. More broadly, we know, based on a rich body of research, that underserved students underperform relative to their peers online. (This is likely even more true in hastily and poorly executed remote education courses like the ones that are being thrown up out of necessity this term.) We need to redouble efforts to understand their needs and fill gaps in our support for them.
One potential bright spot in the larger crisis is the opportunity to introduce more faculty to both new ways of thinking about their teaching practices and closer relationships with expert support staff. We know that both of these things tend to happen when faculty are introduced to online teaching on a more orderly and voluntary basis. Unlike with face-to-face instruction, many instructors don’t feel like they should be expected to somehow know how to be master teachers online and therefore are less reluctant to see themselves as novices and students. On the other hand, if the transition goes disastrously poorly at a moment when faculty (like all of us) are feeling vulnerable in other parts of their lives, the trend could turn in a different direction. This is a moment when the deep structure of academic culture will get rewired, one way or another. We need to be mindful about how we support and enable the support staff so that they have the best chance of steering the change in a productive direction.
The curricular materials ecosystem is especially fragile
This one may be less obvious to some. The curricular materials ecosystem was already in danger. Almost none of the textbook publishers were financially healthy even before the virus hit. OER is doing fine, but it is not on a growth path that is remotely fast enough to fill the giant hole in course coverage that would be left should the publishers start to implode. And while it may be tempting for some to say “good riddance” to the traditional providers, try telling frazzled faculty who are in the midst of a sudden, unplanned, and unwelcome online transition that they will also have to cobble together a replacement for their textbook in the process.
At the same time, if we really are facing a new reality of a large-scale and long-term switch to online education, then we need to find the means and measures for closing online achievement gaps for transitioning students in general and underserved populations in particular. To do this, we will need to embrace digital affordances. The sector is in no way prepared for this. We don’t have the privacy policies, procurement practices, or widespread literacy among faculty regarding how to make effective use of digital affordances. Furthermore, if the publishers collapse, where will these digital products come from? The majority of sophisticated courseware authoring platforms have either died on the vine or been acquired by the publishers. There is very little in the way of sustainable open-source alternatives. Nor is there an alternative ecosystem in place to produce content for these platforms.
As part of this larger shift, we need to engage in some big, out-of-the-box, but reality-grounded thinking about how we might reconfigure the entire curricular materials ecosystem to create more stable and beneficial sustainability models. I don’t have a lot to say about this yet but hope to have more to say about it soon.
Working together more effectively
Finally, folks who have been reading e-Literate regularly over the last few years know that my current professional obsession is about how ineffectively higher education collaborates as a sector, despite the deep reservoirs of goodwill and generosity among the people who work in it. I have written quite a bit about the Empirical Educator Project in general and the idea of a resilience network in particular. We need to work on improving our collaboration now more than ever.
As Ben Franklin memorably put it, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”