Back in July, I wrote an uncharacteristically clickbait-y post about the possibility that Elon Musk’s Space-X Starlink might deliver rural broadband everywhere in North America this year. I got mocked a little, which I expected. It’s usually hard to separate the hype from the genuine revolutions.
Well, here we are in October, and Starlink is delivering 100 Mbps broadband with latency below 30 ms to the Hoh Native American tribe in a remote part of Washington State (a few hours west of Seattle, just south of Vancouver Island). While there still are some hurdles to be crossed, it sure looks like rural broadband could be available everywhere fairly soon. The policy issue will not be funding new cell towers or cable lines to make rural service available but subsidizing the cost of that service for poorer Americans.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has announced that its COVID-induced work-from-home policy will become permanent for many employees. They will not be the last.
By the time life returns to post-pandemic “normal”—which, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, will be “toward the end of next year”—the world will have changed permanently in some profound and unpredictable ways. In higher education, beyond any major changes due to budget crises and/or policy changes in a new administration, I think we are likely to see the effects of a massive de-urbanization trend over the next three to five years (and beyond). As white-collar workers—and some middle-skills office workers—no longer need to live near their offices, as progress toward infrastructure for remote working accelerates, and as the scare of the pandemic (and potentially post-election violence) encourage people to spread out, the implications for higher education, the future of work, politics, and life are incredibly hard to predict.
But a trend toward de-urbanization would almost certainly drive more online and blended learning as students are increasingly spread out. This won’t hit all segments equally; some traditional college-aged students will still want to “go away” to school. But the premium paid for that experience will become increasingly difficult to justify. Meanwhile, digital-forward pedagogy is likely to become a core competency for the majority of academics.