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Near-Term Strategic Priorities

Check out all of our COVID-19 coverage and analysis.

Near-Term Strategic Priorities

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series on the Strategic Implications of COVID-19 for higher ed. Part 1 of this series outlines the Scale of the Pandemic. Part 2 surveys the Immediate Impacts (March-August 2020). Part 3 looks at the Near-Term Impacts (2020-21). Part 5 looks at the Lasting Impacts beyond 2021 (still in progress).


Strategic Priorities for Fall 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic is a human tragedy that has already killed tens of thousands, and may well kill millions around the world. It will be a major shock to global economies, institutional balance sheets, academic instruction and research, as well as to middle-class finances and the psyche of a generation of students. It has already caused chaos and disruption in the immediate term, and as detailed above will cause plenty of challenge in the near-term.

Without minimizing these many tragedies and tribulations, we will soon also need to look forward to the horizon, and start preparing for new realities.


Pedagogy will be Top-of-Mind

In a few short days in March 2020, 100% of teaching and learning activity, from pre-school to post-graduate classes, was abruptly forced online. A global pandemic achieved in mere days what decades of scholarship in teaching and learning could not, thrusting even the most reluctant students and instructors into a brave new world of technologically-mediated education.

“It is easy to overlook the momentous shift that has occurred over the last seven days as over a million university students across Canada have moved their learning online or onto other remote platforms…  [H]ad we planned to do the same thing outside of the context of a public health emergency, we would have been hard pressed to manage it in less than a decade!”

Patrick Deane, Principal
Queen’s University

Centres for teaching and learning have been trying to encourage incremental changes in faculty pedagogy for decades, serving only to underscore the power of academic freedom (and the rewards structure of tenure and promotion criteria focused on research, not teaching). UBC’s Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative leveraged a Nobel-prize-winning champion, 50 educational specialists, and plenty of concrete evidence – and still it took 10 years of work to help hundreds of faculty members adopt active learning techniques in their classrooms.

Properly adapting courses for online or blended delivery takes months of work by dozens of specialists.

When Harvard develops a MOOC, they invest anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 per course, and engage dozens of specialists beyond the subject-matter expert (the professor). Developing a top-notch online learning experience involves curriculum designers, assessment experts, interactive software designers, documentary producers, animators, videographers, editors, typographers, and even performance coaches.

In March 2020, thousands of faculty were given 2-5 days to redesign the remainder of their classes for alternative delivery, working alone from makeshift home offices. Expectations were low. Some institutions, like Bishop’s University, made it clear that professors could declare instruction already completed for the year. Many profs would simply circulate lecture notes or Powerpoint decks. Students and faculty alike were encouraged to have patience with one another, and understood that these emergency measures were a desperate effort to preserve their academic year.

Obviously, the sudden shift to alternate delivery this spring did not make millions of professors overnight experts in online learning, but it did force them to give more thought than ever to learning outcomes and pedagogical delivery. (The closure of most campus research labs, and suspension of tenure clocks, may also enable a shift in the usual research-teaching balance.)

With the forced migration to new platforms and tools, faculty may be more open than ever before to pedagogical support and curriculum redesign.


True Online Delivery

Haphazard delivery through Zoom and email may have been acceptable for the final few weeks of courses this Spring. But already most institutions have announced that 2020 Spring/Summer/Intercession courses will be delivered entirely online, and it looks likely that the same will be true for Fall as well.

Students won’t pay premium tuition fees for makeshift online courses.

Students can access top-quality online learning materials through the major MOOC providers and OER repositories. They consume – and even produce – better quality online video than many classes offered this spring. If students enrol in institutions this Fall expecting online delivery, they will also have much higher expectations for the quality of that experience. Bricks and mortar institutions will be competing directly with experienced and accredited online providers, like Athabasca, TRU Open, Royal Roads, MIT, Purdue Global, and hundreds more. Traditional campus advantages, from facilities to extracurriculars, will be irrelevant this Fall; what will matter most is the quality of online interaction, the seamless integration of video lectures, realtime discussions, and asynchronous resources and chat.

Few institutions are ready to compete with global leaders in online delivery.

Of course, many traditional institutions will persist in denial, recruiting students into traditional on-campus courses for Fall 2020. They may well try to start the next academic year with the same makeshift, last-minute approaches to online delivery that closed the last. Unless they are offered substantially reduced tuition rates, expect most students to defer registration in these institutions until the pandemic is well and truly over, likely Fall 2021 at the earliest.

Forward-looking institutions will prepare for an online academic year in some key ways.


Rapid Virtualization

Campus libraries have been at the forefront of the digital revolution for decades, and in some ways, they managed the abrupt shift to virtual service delivery well as a result. Journals, books and databases have been available online and off-campus for years. Lecture classes were also easy to move online, in an age of lecture capture software and video-capable Learning Management Systems. By Fall, many one-on-one student services – from advising and counselling to financial aid and tutoring – will also have managed the shift to online delivery from remote workers without too much difficulty.

The biggest challenges to completing the winter term online were lab courses, work placements and co-ops, field schools and other experiential learning requirements.

This Spring, some colleges had to cancel hands-on courses and refund tuition, or suspend entire programs until further notice. If the campus shutdown persists through the Fall, they will need to more fully deploy some of the virtual experiential platforms that have been pilot-tested by hundreds of institutions in recent years. uWaterloo, MIT and others have been using Labster to provide a VR simulation of a biochemistry lab for experiments, and Riipen to deliver online co-op work experiences for students. Loyalist College did some early experiments with Second Life simulations of border crossings and prison riots for CBSA and law and security students. ARA Institute of Canterbury has been using VR simulations of X-ray suites to train radiography students. In the longer term, more simulations and platforms will need to be developed, and VR hardware will need to be in student and faculty homes.

This Fall, expect to see a massive surge in adoption of existing VR tools by institutions who do not want to completely suspend entire programs.


Pedagogical Supports

Some institutions have already developed expertise in teaching and learning on campus, such as Mount Royal University’s Academic Development Centre, Cambrian College’s Teaching & Learning Innovation Hub, or UBC’s Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative. On most campuses, though, Centres for Teaching and Learning have not just been underappreciated, but also short-staffed and under-resourced. Sudden, widespread demand for their services will inevitably exceed their capacity. And where the emphasis in recent years has been on active learning, OER adoption, or blended delivery – in the new reality, they may need to vastly increase the depth and breadth of expertise to support fully online learning across all programs and faculties. At some institutions, this expertise lies in IT units, online or continuing education divisions. At the best of times, it can be challenging to rally resources across these campus silos; now remote work arrangements will double the challenge.

Even while facing financial exigencies, institutions will need to invest more in TLCs, IT, and Continuing Ed expertise to support faculty on a massive scale.


External Partnerships

With the significant chance that campuses could remain closed this Fall, traditional colleges and universities face an existential threat and an urgent need to manage massive transformation in a very short period of time. Institutions like Southern New Hampshire University or Purdue Global have long-term online strategies that have been in development for years. Others will prepare for this transformation on a contingent and time-limited basis, assuming they will return to their traditional business model once the public health crisis is over. Moreover, they may be wrestling with hiring freezes or furloughs brought about by sharp budget cuts.

Institutions are very likely to consider external partnerships to manage a massive, urgent, contingent and temporary transformation to online delivery.

By Fall, we may well see exponential support for institutional collaborations and consortia like eCampusOntario, OntarioLearn, ContactNorth or BCCampus, developing online platforms, tools, and courses. There has already been record traffic on MOOC and OER websites, driven by faculty and students alike. Smelling opportunity, Coursera, EdXand University of the People have offered free access to their online courses this spring, for universities impacted by the pandemic. Likewise Rice University’s OpenStax is offering free digital textbooks, homework software, and resources for instructors. JSTOR is opening up an expanded library of content to students from their participating institutions, and secondary schools, free of charge. Riipen is offering free access to their co-op platform for spring and summer 2020.

Pilot tests of existing online platforms and tools may quickly turn into widespread deployment to save the 2020-21 academic year.

There will likely be renewed interest in fee-for-service or revenue-sharing contracts with Online Program Management (OPM) providers like Laureate Partners, Learning House, Wiley Education, or Academic Partners. They specialize in converting existing on-campus programs, particularly professional masters degrees, for online delivery. The sector, worth roughly $3 billion in 2020, was already expected to double before 2025. The aftermath of the pandemic will likely accelerate that growth, and the primary challenge these companies will have is coping with urgent and widespread demand. (I’ll return to this pedagogical shift in Long-term impacts of COVID-19.)


Buyer’s Market for Talent

The abrupt shutdown of more than half the economy to allow social distancing cannot continue indefinitely, but it will have permanent casualties in millions unemployed and hundreds of companies bankrupt. The upside (if you can call it that) is that we will have something of a “buyer’s market,” at least in the near term, for employers with remote work opportunities.  Over the years, many institutions have struggled to compete with private-sector employers for talent in IT, administration, marketing and even instruction (in trades and business programs in particular). To the extent that institutions have the capacity to hire, the tables have turned. Major employers in the travel, retail, and manufacturing sectors have already announced layoffs of thousands of Canadians. The ad agency bloodbath has only just begun.

The recession will free up considerable talent around the world – and virtual employees can join a remote team from anywhere.


Virtual Teamwork & PD

With the abrupt shift to an essential services model, institutions have sent staff home to work remotely with little warning and no practice. HR departments have hurriedly issued guidelines and policies for staff, and tips for managers. (Some URLs are documented in the COVID on Campus spreadsheet.) But if campuses remain closed this Fall, this state of affairs becomes the new normal. Staff will still need teambuilding and professional development activities after months of working from home – especially with traditional conferences and back-to-school barbeques cancelled. Governing boards and leadership groups will need to reconvene online to reconsider strategic and operational plans.

Henceforth, retreats, workshops and PD activities are even more likely to be virtual.

For years now, I’ve been delivering interactive virtual presentations and workshops to distributed campuses, or campus groups on the other side of the world. I use a combination of videoconference, realtime polling, and virtual whiteboards – and suddenly the Zoom experience is familiar to almost everyone on and off your campus.

Please forgive the shameless plug, but these are challenging times for all of us, so when you’re ready to consider back-to-school PD or workshops, please drop me a line!


Looking toward the Horizon

Once the dust of disruption settles, the institutions that survive will likely be changed permanently by the experience – sometimes in positive ways!  Stay tuned for part 5 in this series: Long-Term Impacts of COVID-19 (2021-2025 and beyond)

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What else do you think colleges and universities need to make a priority for this Fall? Please post a comment below!

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