Eduvation Blog

Sailing through Turbulence to Opportunity: The Long View of COVID19

Good morning, and TGIF!

Believe it or not, I’ve been writing these daily updates for 5 months now, tracking the impacts of COVID19 on higher ed – 109,000 words and counting! What has really interested me has never been so much the daily minutiae, as the subtle shifts in trajectory that provide insight into the future reality facing colleges and universities.

Earlier this week, Canada’s Chief PHO Theresa Tam warned that even once a vaccine is developed (not until 2021 in the most optimistic scenario), we can expect to practice social distancing, wear face masks, and wrestle with enhanced hygiene and disinfection for “two to three years.” While the thought is disheartening, at least the past 5 months immersing myself in COVID19 have been justified. This pandemic will have a transformative effect on our society, economy, and institutions.

In today’s issue, I want to turn our eyes towards the horizon, and consider strategic opportunities for our institutions. It’s a digest of 15 particularly meaty articles, and I hope you’ll set aside some time to chew on them…

Focus on the Future

In times of crisis, organizations look to their leaders for vision and focus. The academic instinct will lead to analysis paralysis, and certainly administrations have been consumed by damage control and firefighting. Take some time to contemplate big ideas and a longer time horizon, with a future-focused mindset…

Leadership in Uncertainty

During times of crisis and ambiguity, when our routines are disrupted, “leaders help us find meaning in the chaos, offering direction, perspective, and purpose.” But the best leaders don’t fake confidence; they are authentic and intentional. When confronted with uncertainty, “stop, challenge and choose” to get grounded. Step back from the chaos beyond your control, and focus on what you do know, and what you can do. “Focus on those areas you can influence over time.” Fast Company

Coping with Anxiety and Ambiguity

The world stands at a liminal moment, on the threshold of a “new normal,” filled with potential but also with anxiety, and our reflex is often fight or flight. The “hyper-analytic mindset” (an occupational hazard of higher ed if ever there were one) seldom helps when so much is uncertain and unknowable. Problem-solving modes of thought “make little sense in times of global turbulence, when solutions are beyond our grasp.” Fear and anxiety cause “egocentric thinking,” biasing our perspective; the antidote is community and connection with others. “Caring for others is a wise form of self-interest – especially in a crisis.” Self-awareness and self-care are crucial, as is a focus “in the moment,” to your surroundings and the people you meet. Harvard Business Review

Keeping a Future-Focused Mindset

To emerge from this pandemic stronger (as individuals, teams, and institutions), we need to reframe this “challenging time” as a “window of opportunity.” In many ways, we have less time but more flexibility than ever before. Carve out an hour of “clean slate” time each day or week, for you and your team, to think about future possibilities, perhaps by reading this newsletter, or listening to a podcast and then reflecting. “Hit the reset” and reconsider the habits and self-imposed rules that govern your life, perhaps establishing new rules. Focus on people and relationships, particularly while working remotely. And in a supposedly “learning culture,” don’t “quarantine” professional development, growth and learning. AI

Forget Scarcity

A scarcity mindset creates anxiety and prevents innovative problem-solving. No institution will cut its way to greatness. Focus your attention on long-term solutions, not short-term fixes, and move from triage to transformative strategy…

A New Budget Playbook

Across-the-board cuts and salary freezes may balance budgets and preserve the status quo, but won’t address long-term systemic and structural challenges. In times of crisis, campus leaders need to “prioritize long-term solutions over short-term fixes.” A more strategic approach to institutional finances demands a shared vision for the future based on student needs, clear success metrics, data-driven decision making, and focused investments. Effective change management will also require extensive two-way communication and consultation with stakeholders. IHE

Turning from Triage to Transformation

The sudden impacts of “worldwide disease, injustice and widespread unemployment” make this a pivotal moment for higher ed, says former university president Elaine Maimon. Obviously, campus leaders must deal with the immediate crisis, but they must also “think beyond triage.” “Addressing injustice cannot wait until the budget picture improves.” Like the New Deal following the Great Depression, society’s institutions should be putting people to work, not resorting to layoffs and furloughs. They should expend reserves and even borrow to make new investments in more inclusive curricula, expanded counselling services, and top-quality remote and hybrid instruction. Our students, like ourselves, need to be taught to live with ambiguity, and address problems without clear definitions. Rather than cutting humanities courses and abandoning gen ed to contingent faculty, “making high-quality liberal education available to all students is an investment in the future.” IHE

The New Normal

If the disruption of campus life is going to persist, to some degree, for more than one year, it will unquestionably result in some permanent changes to student expectations and institutional operations. We may well see a decade’s worth of change packed into the next 18 months…

5 Aspects of the New Normal

Post-pandemic, many things about higher ed will revert to “business as it was,” says Derek Newton, but 5 things will outlive COVID19 and become part of the “new normal.” Every school in the world will have an “online backup plan” to ensure academic continuity, and will adopt remote test security and live proctoring solutions for academic integrity. Institutions will recognize that information technology is more crucial than the campus – that the mobile app effectively is the campus. More creative, student-to-student recruitment approaches will continue. And eventually, campus architecture may downplay physical spaces to meet and mingle. Forbes

5 Permanent Megatrends

The pandemic is a transformative crisis for higher ed, accelerating 5 pre-existing disruptive trends. “We will get a decade’s worth of change over the next 6 to 18 months.” Students and parents will challenge tuition prices, and seek more perceived value from their investment in “life launch.” Expectations will rise for flexible “education on demand,” in hybrid and blended formats, accelerated and part-time programs, and focused microcredentials. We may see even more growth of mega-universities like Arizona State and SNHU. In the wake of COVID19, location will matter more than ever, but stories of successful alumni will shape attractive institutional brands. “Students will seek out brands that speak to the journey they hope to take.” USA Today

3 Things COVID19 will End

The flip side of the 5 trends COVID19 will make permanent in higher ed, are 3 things that the pandemic will end. 1) Email will cease to be a primary communication tool to students, replaced by text and push notifications from dedicated apps. 2) Campus testing centres will seem unnecessary once large-scale use of online testing becomes commonplace. 3) Full tuition for online programs may be a tough sell, now that some schools have started to reduce the price for remote learning. “Taking classes online isn’t quite the same as being on campus.” Forbes

Spotting Opportunities

It’s all well and good to talk about investing in opportunities, but what might they look like? Consider new programs, delivery models, credentials, partnerships, networks, mergers and acquisitions…

Opportunities Amidst Chaos

Higher ed leaders don’t have the luxury of “waiting to see what everyone else does”; they must take decisive action in a chaotic situation, at the confluence of 3 crises: the pandemic, the recession, and protests over racial inequality. A return to normal is not an option; institutions must “evolve or sink.” Visionary institutions have been anticipating a PSE disruption for years, preparing like SNHU has for online, competency-based, half-priced programs. Because of COVID19, program demand will rise in health care, medicine, nursing, epidemiology and immunology fields – and the pandemic is accelerating growth in alternative energy, AI and robotics. There will be opportunity in affordable, short-term, even non-credit courses and programs to reskill displaced workers. AI

Now, We’re ALL Outside the Box

Some so-called decisive actions by college leaders are actually doing damage to institutional missions, cutting key programs at the expense of pet projects. Many small colleges have already cut expenses to the bone, and now can only wait for inevitable closure. The COVID19 crisis has thrust higher ed completely “outside the box,” and now is the time to integrate distance learning into everyday delivery, pursue mergers or acquisitions, partner to reduce costs, share curricula or even senior leadership. AI

Innovating for Student Success

The pandemic, budget pressures and demographic shifts mean that PSE can’t afford to go back to “normal” – and COVID19 “has exposed the flaws in our ability to deliver remote education in a manner that is equitable, inclusive – and innovative.” For the longer term, institutions need to redesign their programs and retrain their faculty to incorporate AI, VR, microcredentials, creative teaching and assessment strategies, and online or hybrid delivery. “Our institutions must commit to innovating beyond theory.” EdSurge

Nimble Planning

No question, it’s an inconvenient time to revisit the institutional strategic plan, in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis and economic recession, with our faculty, staff and students scattered across the globe and working from home. Something more nimble than the traditional 18-month planning cycle is required, to help your institution pivot to be ready for new opportunities…

Scenario Planning in Uncertainty

In a year of epidemiological and economic uncertainty, higher ed leaders must nonetheless consider medium and long-term implications for teaching, infrastructure, services and staffing. Back in April, McKinsey suggested 3 COVID19 scenarios (which could be pushed 6 months later to align with our current reality), and recommended designing financial plans for each. “Crises can create paralysis and fear. Rigorous scenario planning can help leaders map the potential damage and devise ways to deal with it. Universities need to look beyond the immediate crisis to create effective long-term strategies both to get through the present and to safeguard their futures in the new normal that will follow.” McKinsey

Think Like a Designer During Crisis

In the past 20 years, many organizations have moved away from the traditional, ponderous approach to strategic planning that is still practiced on most higher ed campuses. In unpredictable times, when “fully rational planning” is increasingly pointless, “design thinking” may be a better model for institutional strategy. Our “focus on activities” (in syllabi, strat plans and job descriptions) needs to shift to a “focus on results” – particularly during remote work. Designers start by asking “what problems do we need to solve?” – and they don’t focus on “gravity problems” like demographics, which are simply givens, but on “wicked” problems with complex solutions. Instead of “blue sky thinking,” designers find that constraints can be catalysts for creativity. Instead of focusing on institutional self-preservation, focus on the needs of students. “Once you design something, it changes the future that is possible.” IHE

The Upside of Turbulence

If this pandemic is to have an upside, it will be to the degree that it reinvigorates our society and its institutions, increases social justice and equity, and prepares our colleges and universities to navigate continuous turbulence with optimism…

Reinventing the American University

COVID19 will have a greater impact on US colleges because of their remarkably broad quality stratification, increasingly corporate structures, and the high cost of tuition. Rather than “an instrument of social equity and justice,” the American higher ed system is polarized between elite colleges and the community colleges and online institutions that enrol most students. “Pandemic-driven reform may have an upside,” if it brings about “a more accessible and affordable education model,” even if students miss out on “some of the atmospheric trappings.” Massification along the lines of large Italian universities can still produce “strong minds that are internationally competitive.” Quillette

Thriving after Turbulence

In the wake of the pandemic, no company (or campus) can afford a return to the pre-COVID status quo. Research shows that “the biggest shifts in company fortunes, for good or for ill, happen coming out of downturns.” (There are 47% more “rising stars” during turbulence than calm – but also 89% more “sinking ships.”) Recovery will be asymmetric and iterative, but “leaders in the next wave will use each advance to move toward a new future, not back to an old and outdated idea of ‘normal.’” Emergency measures to bypass needless bureaucracy or automate processes need to become permanent improvements. Efficiencies need to be balanced with resilience, possibly through networks and collaborations. For agility that lasts, simplicity needs to replace complexity. Short bursts of activity will be more energizing than “monolithic moon shots,” and will help build an institution that can thrive in the face of continuous turbulence. Bain & Co


I’m sure, if you took some time to chew on all that, you found more than enough food for thought for a weekend!  Please keep me in mind if you want your team to engage in future-focused thinking or scenario planning.  I can develop a custom (virtual) presentation or workshop to shift mindsets away from triage and towards opportunities!

Enjoy your weekend. Stay safe and be well!

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