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Lasting Impacts of COVID-19

This is Part 5 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 4 looks at the Near-Term Strategic Priorities (2020-21). This part is still in process, with new sections being added daily.


The End of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis will eventually abate, once the virus itself has become an endemic disease worldwide, and the urgent need for social distancing is alleviated by some combination of herd immunity, an effective vaccine, or effective treatments that minimize its mortality. Most epidemiologists anticipate this will occur after about 18 months, likely in the summer of 2021. Until then, governments may need to impose waves of restrictions in response to waves of infection, to manage the load on healthcare systems – potentially leading to intermittent campus closures and economic slowdowns.

Life will eventually get back to normal – or at least, a “new normal.”

But no matter when the COVID-19 public health emergency finally ends, the financial, social, and psychological repercussions of global travel bans, social distancing, business shutdowns and quarantines will have ripple effects for years. Economic recovery from recession or depression will take years. Family lawyers anticipate a surge in the divorce rate. Mental health advocates anticipate an “echo pandemic of depression, anxiety and potentially even suicide.”

Echoes of the Pandemic

Many of the immediate and near-term impacts of 2020 (described in previous chapters) will fade only gradually throughout the 2020s. Governments and donors will be more frugal, prospective students and overprotective parents will be more price-sensitive and less mobile, domestic and international recruitment will be even more intensely competitive, campus dorms will be more difficult to fill, and institutions will consider a broader range of public and private partnerships to control costs and introduce innovations in pedagogy and student support.

COVID-19 will have lasting repercussions for years.

Political Repercussions

Futurists can predict technological and demographic change with considerable confidence, but when it comes to politics, change can be rapid, irrational, and often unexpected. After all, in just the past few weeks, North American legislators across the political spectrum agreed to support what is in essence an emergency pilot test of universal basic income. Major corporations, small businesses, students, seniors, displaced workers and public institutions have all turned to government for a financial lifeline. Few would have predicted the multi-trillion-dollar scale of stimulus packages.

Upcoming elections will be inevitably impacted by COVID-19.

Authoritarian leaders are taking on emergency powers. Worldwide, more than 70 national elections are scheduled this year, and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance worries that states of emergency may mean many do not occur at all.

This November, many Americans will doubtless see the election as referendum on the Trump administration’s management of the health crisis and the economy. Doubtless the pandemic will reinforce xenophobia and isolationist policies in many countries. If social distancing precautions remain in effect, voter turnout will be suppressed in lower-income regions, and crowded urban cities. (At least in the early days of the US outbreak, it impacted Democrat “coastal elites” most).

It might be morbid to contemplate, but election results may ultimately be reshaped by whether the Coronavirus kills off more wealthy seniors or beach-loving youth.


In Canada, will the eventual outcome of this abrupt “socialist left turn” be a small-government backlash, as governments try to tame deficits and pay down debts through aggressive budget cuts? Or will the electorate and lawmakers alike be more open to medicare, UBI, and nationalized infrastructure, perhaps paid for through higher taxes on income or wealth? Historically, Canadians have often responded to global economic disasters by enhancing our social safety net. Will this time be different? Trudeau’s minority government can expect plenty of vocal criticism from both sides of the political spectrum once the crisis ends. The opposition may even pursue a vote of non-confidence, to bring about an election sooner than October 2023.

Whether this crisis brings us together and moderates the polarization of left and right, or serves only to intensify entrenched positions, it will have lasting political effects.   

For higher ed, obviously, the political fallout of COVID-19 will impact both emergency government bailouts in the short term, and long-term trends towards performance-based funding and private competition. It could mean the difference between greater investment to shore up our institutions as cornerstones of society, or greater willingness to finally let institutions merge and even fail where local demographics and market demands dictate. And obviously, once the health crisis abates, it will be politics that determines how porous our borders will be to international students, and how attractive our study and work permit policies will seem.

Hope that government will save us cannot be our strategy in the face of an existential threat.



Generation Alpha

Generation Y, or the Millennials, started enrolling in PSE in 1997. Generation Z, or the Homeland generation, came to our campuses starting in 2011. The next cohort of college students, starting in 2027, is most frequently called “Generation Alpha” (see sidebar). If you accept the premise of social generations, the distinctive outlook and prospects of each 15-year cohort are shaped by traumatic events (like WWI, Vietnam, or 9/11), major social changes (like civil rights, gender equality, or gay marriage), pandemics in their youth (such as polio or AIDS), and economic recessions when they hit the workforce.

The 2001 World Trade Center attacks transformed life for Generation Z permanently. The Homeland Generation has always known heightened security at airports, court houses and schools, and has never quite experienced the same sense of personal safety on domestic soil. Surveillance by police and their parents has been a given, and privacy is a very different thing in a social media world. Transnational friend networks and fragmented media have made Gen Z more aware of cultural imperialism and appropriation, social injustice and silenced voices. These are the students we have been teaching at college and university for the past decade.

About 5 years post-Pandemic, we’ll be teaching a new cohort of students.

From 2027 until 2040, Generation Alpha will be arriving at post-secondary. Before they were ten, they will have experienced the Coronavirus pandemic, national lockdowns, overwhelmed hospitals and what is likely to be the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. As toddlers, they were probably not aware of the election of Donald Trump, the UK’s Brexit vote, the #MeToo movement or even #BlackLivesMatter. But Gen Alpha’s perspective will be permanently altered by the much more tangible effects they are witnessing in the world around them: unprecedented anxiety in their parents, cancelled classes and closed schools, shuttered shopping centres, movie theatres and playgrounds, empty grocery store shelves and perhaps even rationed toilet paper. Social distancing and hand sanitizer is everywhere in early 2020, and it may be a permanent fixture of our lives from now on. Governments have closed borders, grounded airlines, declared states of emergency and implemented curfews and quarantines. Mandatory shutdowns have put their parents out of work, or (even more memorably) moved their parents’ work lives into the living room.

However long public health precautions persist, COVID-19 is probably THE defining formative event for Gen Alpha.

As Ed Yong put it in The Atlantic, “Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.” If this pandemic persists, or others arise, this new generation will grow up in a germophobic and agoraphobic era, with occasional or recurrent reminders to maintain social distance, use hand sanitizer, and avoid large crowds. Face masks or coverings may become a much more common fashion choice. There could be zero tolerance for handshakes and hugs alike.

Gen Alpha may well come to see the idea of gathering in a crowded lecture hall with hundreds of other students as an unreasonable health risk, when video recordings and livestreams will be even more prevalent and convenient. Study abroad may seem less like a self-indulgent luxury to them, and more like a dangerous and unpredictable adventure. Almost certainly, they will be less willing than Generations Y or Z to share traditional dorm rooms with roommates, or share washroom facilities with an entire floor.

At a minimum, students arriving on our campuses over the next decade will all have experienced several months of purely online learning. If school closures persist into the fall, or recur in waves for several years, Gen Alpha will be less willing to move away from home, and more comfortable with online learning, than any previous generation.



Blended Delivery

This spring, the COVID pandemic forced 100% of instruction – at all levels of education – online within a matter of days. Inexperienced instructors were not prepared for the shift, and campus teaching supports and IT infrastructure were overwhelmed. Institutions that had already emphasized online delivery had a huge head start. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers like EdX, Coursera or Udacity experienced a massive upswing in interest, and many pundits declared the MOOC moment had finally arrived. (Again?)

But will the pandemic power a MOOC revolution?

Despite years of media hype, there is growing evidence that online is not an effective learning environment for many students. The vast majority of Athabasca University students are not pursuing an entire online degree, but are “visiting” students from other institutions, picking up a course or two online to supplement what is available on their own campus. Very few students complete an undergraduate degree online without significant face-to-face components. Completion rates of MOOCs are stuck in the single digits, and those who do complete them are typically education professionals with above-average ability for self-directed learning. A major study of a million California community college students found a 14% performance gap: just 60% of students passed online courses, compared to 70% on campus. Moreover, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups experienced an even larger penalty when attempting an online course. Even Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, has been forced to reverse his position, admitting that “the basic MOOC is a great thing for the top 5% of the student body, but not… for the bottom 95%.” The majority of PSE students today are simply not prepared for completely online learning.

Even before COVID-19, evidence was stacking up in favour of a blended delivery model.

Learning is a social, interactive activity, and most students still want a face-to-face campus experience – particularly traditional-age students, and those pursuing applied skills and experiential learning. Increasingly, though, a sizable percentage are attracted by academic programs that combine in-person classes and online learning: a “blended” delivery model. A growing number of K-12 teachers are experimenting with ways to introduce mobile technology, social media, VR and digital resources into the traditional classroom. So-called “low-residency” programs, like those at Royal Roads University, Vermont’s Goddard College, or Arizona’s Prescott College, offer largely online courses, punctuated with a few brief residency periods on campus.

Blended pedagogies are not just popular, but effective and economical.

A meta-analysis of more than 1,100 studies, conducted by the US Department of Education in 2010, concluded that blended delivery achieved significantly better learning outcomes than purely online or traditional face-to-face methods alone.  Coursera has found that it can increase those dismal MOOC completion rates to 30% or better, simply by assembling students in bricks-and-mortar “learning hubs” to complete online MOOCs together. (Coursera has established more than 30 such centres worldwide.) Blended delivery also paves the way for instructors to implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles for students with disabilities, giving them options for content delivery, classroom engagement, and even evaluation.

Blended learning is also appealing to government and administrations for its cost efficiency, and colleges across Canada have been emphasizing it in their academic and strategic plans. In the New England Journal of Higher Education, Algonquin College reported significant savings on physical space required per student, reducing demand for the construction of new facilities and their operating costs over time.

In the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown, faculty and students will be slightly more comfortable with online tools, but they will have a greater appreciation for the traditional classroom, too.

Traditional classes hastily adapted to remote delivery at the end of term won’t inspire tremendous demand for online learning or MOOCs, but the pandemic will accelerate the pre-existing trend towards blended delivery. As Joshua Kimputs it, “We will come back from COVID-19 with a much more widely shared understanding that digital tools are complements, not substitutes, for the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face learning. Residential courses will be better for the practice that professors have received in moving content online, as precious classroom time will be more productively utilized for discussion, debate and guided practice.”

Blended learning will also be a risk management strategy to ensure academic continuity.

Summer 2020 terms will be offered exclusively online at most institutions in North America, and there is a better than even chance that the Fall term will begin, or eventually wind up, online as well. In the near term, the option of online delivery will be essential to contingency planning. But even after this pandemic, there will inevitably be future epidemics and pandemics, hurricanes, wildfires, snow days, and other events that force campus closures. The lesson of spring 2020 is clear: going forward, institutions will be highly motivated to invest in the infrastructure and supports necessary to offer blended delivery courses and programs, if only as an emergency contingency.

Institutions may even do one better than blended.

There is a fascinating experiment in truly flexible blended delivery going on at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ohio State University, and a handful of other institutions around the world. “HyFlex” courses allow students to choose, every single day, whether to attend class in person, participate synchronously online, or catch the class asynchronously later. Courses designed this way not only provide flexibility to students who need accommodations, or are juggling family or work responsibilities, but would also provide a smooth and seamless transition to online delivery in the event of an abrupt campus closure. With the prospect of recurrent waves of social distancing over the next two years, this approach to program design may get a lot more attention.


More Compassionate Assessment

Arguably, educators at every level – primary, secondary, and tertiary – depend too much upon high-stakes, timed exams to measure student learning and ability. In theory, these proctored, time-limited assessments level the playing field, reduce opportunities for cheating, and provide an objective measure of learning.

In practice, all too often high-stakes exams are simplistic, reductive, biased and stressful.

School districts use standardized tests to measure teaching efficacy and identify struggling schools, although more often they are a reflection of neighbourhood socioeconomics. “Teaching to the test” narrows the curriculum and focuses teachers on remediation for the weakest students, rather than enrichment for the strongest. (The en masse home-schooling of 2020 will further advantage children whose parents have higher education, broadband internet, and the flexibility to work from home.)

Outside Canada, college admission often hinges on a single, high-stakes entrance exam like the SAT, ACT, or A Levels. In China, about 10 million students write the 9-hour Gaokao every summer. Student performance on these tests is again influenced by socioeconomics: affluent families invest in years of test prep, tutoring, and practice exams. Performance is also affected by incidentals like illness, sleep deprivation, test anxiety, and even room temperature.

In many ways, admission tests are really just measuring student aptitude for taking high-stakes exams.

Entrance exams have predictive power for PSE success solely because so much of college or university achievement is measured through mid-term and final exams. In many university courses, one or two exams can be worth 75% or even 100% of the student’s grade for the entire class. Such high-stakes tests encourage procrastination, cramming, anxiety attacks, and even academic misconduct. Rising levels of student anxiety have meant more and more academic accommodations, assessment test anxiety lounges or quiet rooms, and exam-week wellness interventions, from napping stations and nutritious snacks to therapy dogs and Zumba sessions. Salary expenditures on staff psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors have steadily increased for more than a decade. The academic and psychological costs of high-stakes exams are also becoming budgetary costs.

We know better ways to assess learning.

Instructional designers have argued for years that multiple, lower-stakes quizzes and tests gather more comprehensive data about student progress, and provide ongoing motivation to keep up with readings and lectures. (For example, Psychology professors in Texas found that replacing exams with daily online tests in an introductory course increased class attendance by 50% and student learning by 10%.) Neuroscientists tell us that the human mind learns best with interleaved practice and plenty of periods of mental rest – not in stressful periods of cramming and artificial high-stakes testing. Psychologist Sian Beilock concludes that “those most likely to fail in demanding situations are those who, in the absence of pressure, have the greatest capacity for success.”

For years now, there has been a growing movement against high-stakes testing and even grades.

More than 20 years ago, pedagogical experts argued that formative feedback provided students with a focus for progression, whereas numerical grades offered ego reward or punishment – and in fact decreased student learning. School districts like BC’s Surrey Board of Education are piloting more formative and descriptive assessment for students. Alberta has reduced the weighting of grade 12 standardized diploma exams from 50% to 30% of final grades. Facing demographic decline and looking to enroll more under-represented students, more and more American colleges have been going “test-optional” for admissions. Hampshire College in Massachusetts not only ignores admission test scores, but has eliminated grades and GPAs entirely, replacing them with long narrative evaluations. The growing interest in competency-based evaluation, badging, and microcredentials reinforces this trend away from summative grading curves.

The COVID-19 crisis has finally forced us to rethink exams entirely.

In March 2020, when public health authorities prohibited gatherings of large or even small groups, they effectively banned traditional in-person examinations. The April ACTs were postponed, and the May SATs were cancelled. For the first time in four decades, China postponed the Gaokao nationwide. Colleges and universities were thrown into disarray mere weeks before final exams, and individual faculty members had to adapt. Some moved final exams online, using AI proctoring tools like ProctorU, TopHat, or Proctortrack (recommended by eCampus Ontario). Others opted to reweight assignments and tests within the course, to base final grades on work already completed. Still others replaced the final exam with a take-home exam or essay assignment.

We are acknowledging that we can’t know the challenges students are facing.

Some students may be ill or self-isolating, or coping with ill parents, children, siblings or roommates. Governments are urging employers and schools to waive the requirement for a doctor’s note, so institutions are trusting students to be honest. Because of COVID-19, some students may face economic disaster, residence eviction, unemployment, or death of a relative. Without a doubt they are coping with the transition to an online learning mode, and the generalized anxiety of a society in crisis.

As a result, hundreds of institutions have announced temporary academic leniency or academic forgiveness policies. A few institutions (like uAlberta) have decreed that grades will not be issued at all. Most are allowing students to withdraw from courses as late as the final day of class, or even after receiving their final grade, without academic penalty. More than half are giving students the option to convert a weak passing grade into a pass/fail credit, so as not to impact their GPAs. Some will offer an “Aegrotat” standing, traditionally used to excuse an ill student from missing the final exam. In trades or applied programs where students cannot complete coursework until campus can reopen, institutions are granting “deferred standing” to students. (In effect, we’re confronted with the fact that we have no way to recognize completion of a part-course – something that microcredentials could do.)

The Great Pandemic has prompted us to reconsider academic policies with unprecedented compassion.

We have demonstrated that, under the right circumstances, academic senates and campus administrators can, in a matter of weeks, overturn decades-old policies in order to accommodate students in exceptional circumstances. Going forward, the challenge will be for us to treat students in less obvious circumstances with the same empathy and understanding. Some will have invisible disabilities, family obligations, financial difficulties, housing or food insecurity; some may be entirely homeless; and growing numbers will wrestle with mental health challenges or anxiety.

Here’s hoping that institutional decision-makers can still do the right thing for students, when they are not personally facing the same disruptions and stress.


Working from Home

Generations of faculty have enjoyed the privilege of private offices on campus, and the flexibility to maintain a study at home, ideal for quiet, solitary work like reading, writing, and grading student work. (My father had his own microfilm reader, so he could bring the campus library home too; now digital campus libraries are effectively anywhere, and everywhere.) Of course, the reality for untenured, adjunct faculty is quite different today: often they share crowded cubicle space on campus, and share apartments with roommates at home. But aside from class hours, office hours and a few committee meetings, faculty have always had freedom to set their own hours, and work from home (WFH) at their own discretion.

WFH has always been part of the great divide between faculty and staff on campus.

Support staff and administration have almost always been required to put in full days on campus, serving students across counters or attending meetings. Job descriptions and collective agreements specify hours of work, breaks, overtime pay, sick days and statutory holidays. Many higher ed directors and managers have management styles that depend upon close daily supervision, sometimes to the point of micromanagement. Internet and computers are tightly locked down by overzealous IT departments. Policies and procedures dictate ergonomics, respectful and professional behaviour in the workplace, personal business and more.

Meanwhile, private-sector employers have been embracing WFH approaches.

Obviously, contract workers in the gig economy provide their own workspaces and equipment, reducing corporate overhead, space costs, bandwidth requirements and utility usage. Many full-time employees also WFH or WFA (work from anywhere), particularly in sales jobs, social media work, web development, programming or design roles. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23.7% of the American workforce worked from home an average of 3 hours per day in 2018. And projecting forward, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Future of Jobs report identified flexible working arrangements (including remote working, co-working spaces, and teleconferencing) as the #1 trend driving change in the global labour market. WFH was widespread and accelerating.

Many companies have found strategic advantage in allowing employees to WFH.

WFH can be a powerful incentive to attract or retain talented people who need to juggle family responsibilities, or want to live in more affordable communities without spending hours a day commuting. A 2017 study found that workers were willing to accept 8% less pay for the option to WFH, and 20% less pay to have more control over their own schedules. Committed employees often wind up spending more time, not less, on work while they WFH, and can even be more efficient at routine tasks. One study found that productivity for a major call centre improved 13% among WFH employees, thanks to fewer breaks and sick days, and a quieter, more convenient environment. In a global economy, WFH employees can more readily accommodate teleconferences in overseas time zones. With improving broadband and software tools for collaboration and teleconferencing, conditions have been ripe for knowledge workers, in particular, to WFH.

Yet ironically, higher ed has maintained a traditional, place-bound attitude towards staff work.

Yes, a few colleges had begun developing WFH policies in recent years, to allow staff some limited flexibility to spend a day or two working from home from time to time. Unless WFH was part of a formal return-to-work plan for someone returning from disability leave, though, it was typically positioned as a convenience, not a right, which required manager pre-approval and could be revoked without notice. Staff needed to maintain the same hours, be available with the same responsiveness, and be prepared to attend campus in person whenever required.

In a matter of days, COVID-19 upended the status quo by forcing all non-essential employees to WFH indefinitely.  

Social distancing recommendations, states of emergency, and enforced lockdowns forced most institutional faculty and staff to work from their homes, likely for months. (See The Scale of the Pandemic.) Campuses began operating on an “essential services” model, in which all student services were offered virtually, online or by telephone (aside from essential health, security, and residence staff). Although it overcame decades of managerial resistance, this abrupt shift to WFH was far from ideal. There was virtually no time to establish WFH policies, expand VPN access to campus systems, acquire thousands of laptops, redesign job descriptions, or train staff on the use of collaboration platforms. Many employees left work thinking they would WFH for a few weeks, not months. Most didn’t have dedicated workspaces, desks or office chairs at home. Parents of young children would be coping with the closure of daycares and K-12 schools as well, and the need to supervise their children or even homeschool them. And of course, everyone was making this transition in the context of heightened anxiety, a public health emergency, and substantial economic disruption.

Like the emergency transition to remote teaching, this massive WFH experiment is an unfair test of feasibility.

Hopefully, however, the shared experience of thousands of managers across hundreds of institutions will open minds in higher ed to the potential advantages of WFH for some employees, in some roles, for some tasks.


Next time, let’s take a look at what makes for a good WFH experience.

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