Eduvation Blog

Surprise, Surprise?

Good morning, and happy humpday! 

Today is also National Numeracy Day, International Museum Day, and No Dirty Dishes Day – so, time to visit a museum, dine out, and split the bill with your friends!

At one of my (virtual) presentations to faculty and staff this spring, I was asked a deceptively simple question: What surprised me most about the impact of the pandemic on CdnPSE?

It’s a tough question for a futurist, because of course we consider so many potential scenarios that few things arise completely out of left field. What I remember most about the past 2 years is repeatedly writing about the pandemic with a frustrating sense of inevitability, more than surprise.

But I’ve recently finished writing a lengthy report documenting the impacts of COVID19 on Canadian students, and I find my mind keeps revisiting that question. What surprised me? What surprised CdnPSE? Why weren’t there more surprises? What surprises might still be ahead?

I’ll explore those questions, and propose some answers, in the days ahead…


Much about the COVID19 pandemic was entirely predictable – and in fact, had been predicted for a decade or more…

A pandemic was hardly a surprise. Since the Spanish Flu killed ~50M people in 1918-20, habitat destruction and encroachment have been fuelling the rise of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential. Already, 5 coronaviruses have jumped to humans – including fatal outbreaks of SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, in the past 20 years alone. Bill Gates has been just one of at least a dozen voices warning of the disruptive potential of an imminent global pandemic. Intelligence agencies have included novel viral epidemics high among worldwide threat assessments. Mere months before COVID19 emerged in Wuhan, 50 experts war-gamed “Urban Outbreak 2019” at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island. Bryan Alexander even devoted a paragraph to the potential of a pandemic to disrupt campus operations in his future-oriented survey, Academia Next, published in Jan 2020.

“Imagine a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great Influenza.”Bryan Alexander, Academia Next, written in 2018

Shuttered campuses were inevitable. Back in early 2020, as COVID19 reached our shores, PSE leaders were bravely trying to push through the end of Winter term classes and exams. I don’t think any of them were actually surprised to find that they were fighting a losing battle. (Certainly my readers shouldn’t have been.) Isolation, quarantine, and curfews have been fundamental public health responses to disease outbreaks for centuries. The Black Death closed medieval universities circa 1350. Just as the plague closed Shakespeare’s theatre in 1592, modern PHOs were going to close lecture theatres in 2020.

eCommerce exploded. It’s been 40 years since Faith Popcorn coined the term “cocooning” to describe the homebody lifestyle (back when we had to visit Blockbuster Video stores to Netflix and chill). McKinseyobserved that the pandemic doubled the growth of ecommerce in Q1 2020, creating “10 years’ growth in 3 months.” Canadians of all ages quickly got accustomed to online shopping, curbside pickup, mobile banking, and contactless delivery. (Some of the biggest pandemic “winners” included Amazon, Zoom, Shopify, and SkipTheDishes.) Telemedicine rose from 1% of initial consultations to 100%, almost overnight, and online banking from 10% of interactions to 90%.

Academic calendars drive peak contagion. Back-to-school ushers in cold and flu season every year, and travel over Christmas holidays and Spring Break only stir the pot. Although the first, “baby” wave of COVID19 subsided in Jun 2020, a much larger wave was inevitable by Fall – which was my point when I wrote “Schrodinger’s Semester” for University Affairs. Institutions promoting a return to campus for 2020-21 were clearly making promises they couldn’t keep. (And for most CdnPSEs, the same was true for 2021-22.) Studies measuring the devastating impact of residential campuses on their surrounding communities were no surprise, either.

“Presidents can only declare the cat dead: we must plan for online delivery throughout the upcoming academic year [2020-21]. Any other announcement is just wishful thinking and semantics.”Ken Steele, “Schrodinger’s Semester,” in University Affairs

Subsequent waves were driven by new variants. The pattern of many global pandemics has been a small first wave, followed by a massive second wave, and then ripples thereafter: the Spanish Flu hit in 3 waves in 1918-19, the Asian Flu in 2 waves in 1957-58, and the Swine Flu in 2 waves in 2009. (I graphed this in “COVID-101” in Fall 2020.) Real-time genomic tracking has allowed us to understand exactly how evolving variants of COVID19 have driven subsequent waves of infection: the 3rd wave in Apr 2021 (Apha), the 4th in Sept 2021 (Delta), and the 5th in Dec 2021 (Omicron). We’re even seeing subvariants (Omicron BA.4, BA.5, and BA.2.12.1) driving 6th waves as we head into summer. Small wonder Peter Juni says another wave this Fall is “almost baked in” – that’s how respiratory viruses work.

“An expected, but likely different, COVID-19 wave is ‘almost baked in’ for this fall.” – Michael Lee, citing Peter Juni, Ontario Science Advisory Table

Surprising Agility

The novel coronavirus wasn’t surprising, but the speed and scale of responses, by government and higher education, were breathtaking…

Instant, artificial recession. In the first months of 2020, most world nations responded decisively to attempt to contain the spread of COVID19 and “flatten the curve,” to prevent catastrophic overload of healthcare infrastructure. Physical distancing and masking requirements, reduced capacity limits on indoor spaces, border restrictions, curfews and closures immediately shut down whole sectors of the economy, from travel, tourism, and hospitality to accommodation, entertainment, and retail. Quarantine and isolation requirements intermittently shut down manufacturing and food processing plants, courier and postal distribution hubs, wholesale and retail warehouses. Periodic full or partial lockdowns, or brief “circuit-breaker” shutdowns, were recurrent throughout 2020 and 2021 in many jurisdictions. In a single week of March 2020, about 500,000 Canadians applied for employment insurance. US stock markets lost a third of their value, more than $11 trillion. Early forecasts were that one-quarter of the economy would evaporate overnight, and take at least 2 years to recover.

Good news from Revenue Canada? OECD nations quickly assured employers and citizens that emergency financial aid would follow quickly in the wake of economic shutdowns, to preserve companies, livelihoods, and entire industry sectors. By April, the government of Canada had rolled out the CERB and mortgage relief for individuals, CEWS wage subsidies and CEBA emergency loans for businesses, and the CESB followed for students in May. Instead of sparking dread of tax audit or reassessment, envelopes from Revenue Canada brought much-appreciated cheques to mailboxes across the country.

Canadians took their savings to the bank. While many small businesses and some entire industries remain anxious about their financial sustainability or business models going forward, emergency aid programs seem to have prevented some of the worst economic damage in the first year of the pandemic. It was a bit surprising to see how much unemployment financially benefited many workers under CERB: relieved of the expenses of business attire, commuting, and cafeteria lunches, many Canadians had more budget room left than ever before. (It also helped that expenditures on travel, dining and socializing were stopped cold.) By Fall 2020, Canadians were paying down credit cards and banking their savings, not losing their homes. (In fact, they paid off $20.6B in debt, while borrowing $100B more in mortgages for bigger homes.) The impacts were particularly helpful for those working minimum-wage jobs, and many were advocating for universal basic income as an idea whose time had finally come.

Doug Ford championed science? Whatever Ontarians may have thought about premier Doug Ford before, it was remarkable to watch his metamorphosis during the pandemic into one of Canada’s most cautious, pro-lockdown politicians. Perhaps it was the surge of cases in Peel Region in Nov 2020, but by Jan 2021 he was imposing responsible public health measures in a way that made us “fall out of our chairs.” Granted, Ford resisted vaccine passports for too long as something that would “split society,” and perversely he ordered outdoor playgrounds closed for 24 hours before changing his mind, but overall his “slow and cautiousreopening” looks much better in hindsight than Jason Kenney’s “best summer ever.” (Not saying much, I confess.) Public opinion polls show a huge shift as of May 2020, when Ford’s approval rating jumped from 23% to 46%, and disapproval fell from 61% to 25%. During the first year of the pandemic, Canada’s premiers closed K-12 schools for anywhere from 8 weeks (in Quebec) to a whopping 20 weeks (in Ontario). It’s hardly enough to make me a Ford “fan,” but he certainly surprised me by overruling the antivaxxers on the fringe of his party.

Faculty embraced the digital pivot? In mere weeks – in many cases, mere days – college and university faculty defied expectations and transformed course delivery almost overnight. PSE appeared to have been propelled a full decade into the future in the adoption of digital resources, online and hybrid pedagogies, virtual simulations and microcredentials. Even once PHOs and administrators had decided it was safe to return to campus classrooms, many faculty associations were lobbying to continue with remote instruction. (Some still are – although many are now raising concerns about autonomy, remote work, IP rights, and workload.) Higher education collectively demonstrated a surprising and unprecedented ability to overturn long-standing traditions and “pivot” on extremely short notice, which was remarkable, and gratifying, to watch.

What was much more surprising, though, was that their students – those “digital natives” we’ve been hearing about for years – were far less ready for this “taste of the future” than their instructors. The pandemic brought some enrolment surprises, and students have emerged with very specific demands for the future.

Stay tuned!




On social media, the pandemic inspired PSE leaders to embrace their humanity, fallibility, and even silliness. Though academics can usually be faulted for taking themselves a bit too seriously, higher ed YouTube channels have lightened up – a lot – and not just in videos starring campus mascots. Here are a couple of recent examples…

VR President

Northeastern U president Joseph Aoun (author of Robot-Proof) is more tech-savvy than he lets on in this 2-min comedy, set to the Benny Hill theme song. As Aoun explores the campus, wearing an Ironman-like VR helmet, Husky mascot Paws must repeatedly rescue his president from traffic, stairs, baseballs, and more. (And the poor mutt winds up taking the brunt of it all, of course.) “Now this is what I call experiential!”  YouTube

Regrettable Choices

U Illinois Urbana-Champaign chancellor Robert Jones shared a :90-sec year-end message this month, based on the premise that “we’ve all made choices that led to some… second thoughts.” After a series of examples of comic errors, and a joke at his own expense, Jones congratulates students on making a “decision that truly matters” to enrol at UIUC.  YouTube

Memorable Year in Review

Memorial U president Vianne Timmons clearly recognizes the humour in celebrating her 2nd anniversary on April Fools’ Day, and the power of punchy graphics to keep viewers’ attention on YouTube. Her 3-min year-in-review celebrates the usual institutional milestones and accomplishments, of course, but Vianne summarizes them at a breathless pace, while an on-screen stopwatch counts down like a game show. It’s a slick, refreshing approach that stands out from the scores of other examples out there. (I would expect no less from the folks who memorably explained last year that MUN’s economic impact, $627M, is “more than the total box office gross of the Avengers movies.” A “cool tidbit” indeed.)  YouTube




As always, thanks for reading!

I’m always on the lookout for innovative ideas about the future of higher ed, so please do drop me a line if you spot something you find thought-provoking, at your institution or anywhere else.

Stay safe and be well!


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