Eduvation Blog

Some “Upsides” of the Pandemic

Good morning, and TGIF!

Today’s a quiet day for me, but that lets me gear up for a (virtual) presentation to the Durham College Board of Governors tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, I want to end the week on an “up” beat, looking at some of the lasting positives that could persist in higher ed once we make it through this pandemic. So today, I continue the brief essay I started yesterday, based on my keynote to the League for Innovation in the Community College earlier this week.

But first –



Breaking News


Coursera Going Public

Yesterday, TechCrunch reported that Coursera is planning to file for an IPO today. The company, founded in 2012, is estimated to have doubled in value in the past 7 months, from $2.4B to $5B (US, of course). >3,700 colleges are now using Coursera for Campus to add online courses with exams. 2 other Edtech companies, Nerdy and Skillsoft, went public recently, while remote instruction is hot.  TechCrunch


Faculty Grievances in BC

Faculty unions at 11 BC PSEs have reportedly filed grievances related to the online pivot last year, arguing that faculty members were not adequately compensated for transition time, and claiming IP rights in online materials. CKPG Today



COVID on Campus

Since yesterday, there have been 39 more cases of COVID19 reported by CdnPSEs – which makes a total of 135 cases reported this week! That’s substantially more than the 20 cases reported last week, or the 6 reported the week before that. (See my master spreadsheet for a running tally of >1500 cases in CdnPSE since Sept 2020.)


Ontario Police College’s COVID19 outbreak has now surged to 93 cases (up 28 from Tuesday) – or 23% of the recruits enrolled. “This is a clear case of how easy the virus — and this is not even the variant, this is the routine virus — can spread when people live together.” All in-person learning has been halted for 14 days, and any recruits who tested positive must remain at the college to self-isolate – but some cases may be reported in other jurisdictions by recruits who have already gone home.  CBC


Peterborough’s Severn Court student residence now reports 44 cases (up 9 from yesterday), including 30 “presumed” variants of concern – pushing the entire region to the “threshold” of the red zone. There are also 40 high-risk contacts, and >60 outside the complex.  Global  (Peterborough Public Health has established an FAQ page specific to the outbreak.)


St Clair College reports 2 students in residence at the Windsor campus have tested positive. They had direct contact with each other without PPE, and have been told to self-isolate. All students in the residence have been asked to self-monitor for symptoms.  CBC


So, with the pandemic curve turning upward again, is it too soon to talk about “upsides”?  I hope not…



Online Pivot

A year ago, educators at all levels worldwide pivoted to emergency remote delivery, and while we eagerly look forward to the opportunity to return to campus and classroom, our facility with technology and student expectations have been changed permanently…


Facility with Technologies

It’s hard to imagine, but just 14 months ago many institutions were still fretting over faculty members who seldom if ever logged into the LMS, or used it for more than posting the course syllabus. The pandemic has forced faculty to try using Zoom and Teams, recording lectures and lab demonstrations, engaging students in online chats and collaborations, and even to rethink evaluations like high-stakes exams. Not to minimize the stress and overtime many faculty had to endure in the process, but a year later they have at least a passing familiarity with a much broader range of delivery options and technological tools than ever before. Use of virtual simulations has skyrocketed, from Labster’s VR chemistry labs to Quanser’s VR engineering workbenches – and more and more VR simulations are being developed to replace field trips, archaeological digs and even work placements in industry. And the longer the pandemic drags on, the more software companies are improving the reliability, security, user experience and capabilities of their platforms.


“The notion that technology is incompatible with learning is dead. Can you believe it was less than a year ago we were banning devices from the classroom? In one year we’ve leapt forward a decade in our acceptance of technology in education.”Melodie Potts Rosevear, CEO, Teach for Australia



Adoption of OERs

The pivot to digital pushed us forward 5 years in just 5 days, and not only in terms of classroom engagement: faculty and instructors began adopting OER textbooks and other resources to ensure their students could access materials, without access to a physical campus library, and often despite international firewalls. Here in Canada, the McConnell Foundation assembled a consortium of more than a dozen universities last June, to adapt and adopt more OER resources. Ontario’s $50M investment in Virtual Learning includes funds for the development of online courses and OERs, and might not have occurred if not for COVID19. In the long run, greater adoption of OER textbooks, and so-called “Z-Degrees” that require zero textbook purchases, will help make higher ed affordable and accessible to students.


Extended Services

Outside the classroom, student services have evolved considerably in the shift to remote work and social distancing. Online transactions and digital workflows are streamlining functions from finance to the registrar’s office. In 2016 it was the “innovation of the year” for Howard Community College to offer students the flexibility of virtual advising using a relatively new online platform, Zoom. Students could access advisors from anywhere in the world, on a lunch break or even after hours, in a flexible, responsive approach to student service that has now become ubiquitous. Faculty report that more students attend virtual office hours than ever lined up outside their physical office door. Recruiters are getting better turnouts for virtual campus tours and open houses. Alumni officers are discovering it can be easier to get alumni to attend a virtual wine and cheese reception, or listen to an online lecture, than to get them to hunt for campus parking and walk to a live event on a cold winter night.


Automation and AI

Likewise, more and more institutions have adopted AI chatbots to provide 24/7 service to students, who can pose natural language questions to increasingly intelligent algorithms, often in >100 different languages. (Consider uAlberta’s “Vera” virtual assistant, or York’s “Savy.”) In many ways, with campuses closed to most students, the institution’s website is the institution – often accessed solely through a mobile phone browser. Automation is impacting campus food service, such as the fleet of autonomous delivery robots deployed at George Mason U in 2019. In a pandemic, reducing campus density means app-based interactions and automated services, appointments for in-person meetings, and perhaps even “the end of line-ups.”


Blended Learning

For years it seemed clear that blended (or hybrid) delivery provided a statistically-significant improvement in student learning, but only a select few instructors in a handful of subjects at a few dozen institutions were committed to blending online and F2F experiences for their students. Even fewer were experimenting with “HyFlex” delivery, which allowed students the flexibility to choose on a daily basis between F2F classes, online synchronous or even asynchronous learning. (I noticed it at Cambrian College back in 2018, but devoted an episode of Ten with Ken to it as the pandemic started closing down campuses last spring.) Now, hundreds of institutions are exploring HyFlex’s potential to ensure academic and business continuity in the face of potential disruptions like earthquakes, floods, wildfires or another pandemic.


Recognizing T&L Expertise

Many have observed that traditional academics are professional researchers (or have been drawn from careers in industry), but are ultimately amateur teachers – aside from faculty in teachers’ colleges of course. Prior to the pandemic, few tenured faculty spent much time refining their pedagogy, inviting peer critique of their teaching, or appealing to campus centres for teaching and learning to get support from professional curriculum designers, assessment experts or learning technologists. Over the past year, as 100% of instructors have been tossed into the deep end, everyone is more conscious of pedagogy, and institutions have been scrambling to ramp up supports for faculty to enhance the student experience in virtual classrooms. The pandemic has pushed us closer to accepting what Harvard’s graduate school of education has called “learning engineers.”


Ultimately, digital is inevitable and will enhance the personalized, responsive experience students receive at our institutions. It will also heighten our appreciation for the precious time we spend together in meetings or classrooms, and help to ensure that we use the time productively to engage with each other, rather than merely deliver information. The pandemic has broadened the range of tools available, accelerated adoption, overcome resistance and enhanced the skills of our faculty and staff. It overcomes time and space to level the playing field and allow our institutions to become virtual, global, and interconnected.



Heightened Compassion

There’s nothing like a global crisis to heighten our awareness of the challenges and struggles of others, and higher education has demonstrated more widespread empathy, compassion and flexibility in a range of ways that I hope will persist post-pandemic…


Diverse Needs and UDL

The jury is still out, but there are those who claim that students with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or extreme social anxiety are benefiting from the pivot to remote delivery this year, and the elimination of the stresses and distractions of social interactions in the traditional classroom. Some students with mobility impairments report that online learning has made education more accessible for them, too. And a new study suggests that many students are feeling twice as comfortable sharing opinions in class. Again, the pivot to online this year has highlighted the diversity of student needs and preferences, and raised awareness and adoption of Universal Design for Learning in developing courses to offer students options in resources, engagement and assessment.


Recognizing Inequities

Throughout the past year, social justice movements have raised awareness about racial inequity, and higher ed (particularly access-oriented institutions) has grappled with the many barriers and needs of at-risk students. The gradual trend towards more and more flexible, personalized approaches to learning (whether through prior learning recognition, self-paced programs, competency-based assessment or personalized adaptive learning software) has been reinforced by the growing recognition that the “one size fits all” approach to teaching is far from ideal. And as Brock U president Gervan Fearon has said, the “old normal” was “not OK” for many diverse communities.


“After this, we must resist the gravitational pull to go back to the way it was, thinking it’s OK. The impact of what we had was not OK on so many diverse communities in our society.” – Gervan Fearon, President, Brock U



Wellness a Priority

Although student mental health was a pressing concern for most CdnPSEs prior to the pandemic, in the past year we have seen more declarations by campus leaders than ever before that faculty, staff and students alike need to practice self-care and self-compassion. Naturally there has been a huge upswing in the use of online self-help tools and virtual counselling services. We’re learning to see our students and our colleagues as more complete, holistic human beings, and to be more forgiving of lapses in professionalism as barking dogs or affectionate cats intrude on meetings, or family obligations require the use of sick days or flex time. Many people have told me that, ironically, they feel they have gotten to know their teammates better while working remotely than they did on campus. It can be challenging to create a sense of community without physical proximity, but student services staff have demonstrated real creativity in contriving online engagement opportunities or care packages to be sent to students at home.


Orienting for Success

We’ve known for years that the process of onboarding or orientation for incoming students can significantly improve their preparedness, and that a first-year cohort advising program can improve success and retention. But with the pandemic, institutions pushed forward with more elaborate and even branded programs to help students get off on the right foot in virtual studies – from McMaster’s “Archway” and “Ember” programs, to Western’s “Thriving Foundations.”  Likewise, institutions have looked to best practice at online institutions like Arizona State Online, and realized the vital importance of assigning a student success coach or mentor to help with motivation, goal-setting, proactive outreach and connections to resources.


Compassionate Policies

In a matter of weeks, academic senates relaxed policies about pass/fail grading, late withdrawal dates, doctor’s note requirements, official transcripts and more. Unable to convene traditional in-person exams, and facing a backlash against online proctoring systems (which have their flaws – more on that another day), many institutions encouraged faculty to replace high-stakes mid-term and final exams with a combination of quizzes, tests, projects or other assessment strategies. The real question is whether we can show similar empathy and compassion for students in the future, when they might personally be enduring a crisis every bit as disruptive as the pandemic, but they are going through it alone.



Remote Work

As staff and faculty have been working from home, in a range of circumstances, we’re developing new ways of working, and of working together, some of which may persist post-pandemic…


Better Places to Work?

According to a McMaster study, almost 70% of university employees actually hope to continue working from home after COVID19, at least part of the time. (Obviously, that hinges on the nature of their home life, as I explored yesterday under “asymmetrical impacts.”) Many love the commuting time that has been freed up during remote work, and introverts especially cherish the newfound opportunity to think in peace and work independently. Based on CdnPSE employees I have polled over the past year, many would like to retain some of 2020’s flexibility of work hours, days, and attire. Some report that management has shifted from a focus on tracking hours to tracking deliverables (not unlike the shift some propose from credit hours to competency-based learning). Managers and senior administrators have observed that the pandemic has allowed them to dispense with needless bureaucracy, empower front-line staff, and streamline what used to be lengthy decision-making processes. Some observe enhanced collaboration across departments and units, now that the “distance” between people has been eliminated. Institutional leaders are working harder at consistent, transparent communications channels to the campus community, and many front-line staff are telling me that they feel more trust from their managers too. Perhaps the top response I’ve heard is that everyone is delighted by having fewer, shorter meetings consume their work days. Colleges and universities have become more empowering, nimble and flexible places to work, and many employees find that an immense improvement.


Ongoing Remote Offices

Big tech companies have already announced that their workforces will be allowed or even encouraged to WFH post-pandemic, and many institutional leaders have started discussing the potential to have their “back office” functions located virtually (such as finance, marketing, IT etc). Aside from the gains for space management, a remote workforce allows institutions to hire talent from anywhere in the world – opening up a wider pool of potential hires for many remote and rural institutions.



Rising Above

So, considering the downsides, asymmetric and upside impacts of the COVID19 pandemic, what can we hope for? Hopefully, that this can be a time of transformation, and not merely trial, for higher education…


Consider the Black Death

As Edmund Adam pointed out in University Affairs last April, academia has endured deadly pandemics before. In the mid-14th century, the plague closed medieval universities and sent scholars and students scattering. Campuses remained largely deserted for years, enrollment slumped for decades, and yes, about 15% of institutions closed for good. But 3x as many new institutions eventually arose in their place, and higher ed in that post-plague period shifted to vernacular instruction (the “blended delivery” of its day?) and greater recognition of student rights (the “flexibility” or “universal design” discussed above?). The pandemic was incredibly painful – more than 100M people died, after all – but ultimately institutions emerged transformed and improved in some fundamental ways. (No doubt many classicists of the day lamented the loss of Latin and Greek instruction, just as we worry today about the disappearance of library print collections or lecture classes.)


Rising Above Ourselves

In his 1947 novel, La Peste, Albert Camus said (to translate) “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps [people] rise above themselves.” A crisis on this scale disrupts our daily obsession with social frills and mindless routine, instead prompting reflection and insight into our own humanity, and that of others.


“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps [people] rise above themselves.” Albert Camus, La Peste (1947)



With any luck, higher education can do the same: rise above the disruption of the pandemic, and discover new and enhanced ways of supporting our staff and serving our students, more nimbly and proactively, with more flexibility and compassion. Perhaps the experience of the past year has helped some of us become more comfortable with ongoing uncertainty, ambiguity and turbulence.




As always, thanks for reading! And while I’ve got absolutely no shortage of topics for future issues, let me know if there’s something you would particularly like me to tackle!

Have an excellent weekend!  I’ll be back with my usual pandemic précis on Monday. Meanwhile, stay safe!


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