In this essay I want to focus on the positive lasting outcomes of the pandemic for higher education, but first it’s important not to ignore or minimize the very real pain and suffering the past year has caused…
We’ve all seen plenty of tragedy over the past 12 months of pandemic – too much loss of life and of livelihood. Worldwide, there have been >2.5M COVID19 deaths, and the second wave since Nov 2020 has been far worse than the first. In the US, 9.9M people lost their jobs due to the pandemic, 650,000 in the PSE sector alone. Globally, some 225M jobs were lost in 2020, 8.8% of global working hours. “This has been the most severe crisis for the world of work since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” says the chief of UN’s International Labour Organization. Global labour income shrank by $3.7 trillion, a burden borne disproportionately by women, young people, and those less educated.
Some sectors have been hit far harder than others. Worldwide, travel and tourism GDP dropped between $3.5 and $5.5 trillion. In Canada, tourism employment fell 60% within months. THRC reports 466,000 displacedCanadian tourism workers, who accounted for 75% of all year-over-year job losses in the country by Nov 2020. (Likewise, international education has been hit hardest of all PSE sectors.)
Boutique and department store retailers alike have suffered through extensive lockdowns, with thousands – including some large chains – going bankrupt. It’s been called a retail “apocalypse” – but e-commerce, on the other hand, has been booming, with Amazon hiring 100,000 more workers and building 2 new distribution warehouses in Canada. Multinationals with sophisticated online platforms and distribution hubs have a growing advantage in cost and convenience. (And we’re likewise seeing students gravitate away from smaller institutions and towards the biggest brands and most experienced at online delivery.)
“COVID-19 is accelerating the pace of an ecosystem-wide postsecondary reckoning.” Joshua Kim, Director of Strategy, Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning
A year of pandemic has certainly had a substantive impact on our collective psyches, and it remains to be seen how long-lasting the effects will be. A cohort of teens has missed out on rites of passage like senior prom, graduation, and convocation and more. People of all ages have suffered unprecedented social isolation, and many have developed a subconscious aversion to crowds and even a suspicion of strangers. Many have spent a year in anxiety and depression, helpless in the face of relentless uncertainty and ambiguity – which neuroscientist Henning Beck points out is the one thing that “really drives us up the wall.” (Our brains are hard-wired to seek certainty instead of ambiguity, whether that means leaping to prejudice or conspiracy theories to provide a false sense of control.) Rather than embracing innovations and technologies with enthusiasm, sadly many people have simply surrendered in frustration to the changes imposed by the new normal.
Midway between upsides and down, plenty of the pandemic’s effects have been unevenly distributed, paradoxical or seemingly contradictory. If nothing else, it has made obvious and inescapable the diversity of our students and staff, and the necessity to engage with them more flexibly and personally…
The pandemic has pressure-tested our society, and exposed far too many cracks and gaps. It has shone a light on social injustice and racial inequity, on the risks assumed by essential front-line workers, and on the precarity far too many others. An astounding 58% of US students were experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or both. We’ve seen all too clearly the digital divide, that dramatically demonstrates how many students cannot access reliable internet to study at home. (The poster child is 21-year-old Alexei Dudoladov, a college student in Siberia who has to climb a 26-foot tree to get a cellular signal in order to attend his classes.) Online learning has always been an extra challenge for disadvantaged students: a 2014 study of 1M California community college students found that online courses disadvantaged minority students by 16% or even more. Remote work also has an asymmetrical impact on faculty and staff based on their life circumstances: those in crowded apartments or with young children at home experience WFH quite differently from those with a spacious home office, plentiful broadband, and lots of peace and quiet. (WFH also benefits introverts far more than extroverts, and those who work independently more than those who work in teams.)
“In the most painful way, pandemics show us what we need to fix in our world. The stress they cause reveals all those parts that most need repair… Festering economic, health and social disparities… are the fissures through which pandemics, climate change and other threats to our health course through.” – Aaron Bernstein, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Likewise, there has been asymmetry in how the pandemic has impacted people’s intellectual lives. Those laid off and living on emergency support (like CERB) have found all sorts of spare time to bake sourdough bread, take up hobbies, learn a language or read some classic novels. But the vast majority, judging by subscription sales, have signed up for Netflix or Disney+ and binge-watched Tiger King or The Queen’s Gambit. And those juggling family responsibilities with work, or working several precarious part-time jobs, have had time for neither, of course.
Early in the pandemic, it looked like the high public profile of epidemiologists and virologists might just enhance public respect for science and scientists – and apparently it did for some, like the students who are increasingly applying for nursing and public health degree programs. Yet paradoxically, we’ve seen a surge of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories dominating social media and far too much public discourse.
In 2020 the world saw an abrupt decrease in pollution caused by air travel, commuting, and busy manufacturing plants – although perhaps a smaller and shorter-lived decrease than environmentalists would like to see. Many consumers decreased their spending on everything from Starbucks’ lattes and restaurant meals to fast fashion, gasoline and cosmetics. As those sectors struggled, consumer savings rose substantially – which is arguably a good thing. Interest in electric vehicles may or may not be accelerating as we reconsider our relationship with geography and office commutes. (Certainly I’m getting by without a vehicle at all this year, as I travel the world virtually.)
Under stay-at-home orders or quarantines, as most of us stayed away from family for their own safety, our society has had an unprecedented opportunity for contemplation, to turn inward and ponder what really matters to us. For many, the imminent threat of an invisible killer prompts thoughts about the meaning of life. It has been observed (and even quantified) that in times of crisis, people must recognize their interdependenceand the importance of social safety nets and cooperation – but perhaps that is only true of Canadians, and left-leaning ones at that! Paradoxically, it also seems to be true that a pandemic and recession has prompted preppers and survivalists to adopt a far less altruistic mindset, one rooted in scarcity and selfishness. (You can see that in wealthy folks jetting up to remote villages to “jump the queue” and get their vaccinations.)
“Catastrophe compassion is widespread and consistent; it follows earthquakes, war, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and tsunamis, and — now — a pandemic.” – Jamil Zaki, Psychologist, Stanford U
So, without a doubt the pandemic of 2020-21 has had plenty of negative effects, and perhaps even more asymmetric or paradoxical ones. It has certainly ensured that more people than ever before are aware of the systemic inequities that we need to address, during a pandemic but also beyond.
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…
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
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.
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.
Streamlining Student Services
In a recent podcast, 2 EAB analysts suggest that the pandemic has inspired higher ed to modernize “antiquated” processes and streamline student services for registration, advising appointments, and other common tasks. They observe the benefits of virtual advising and more compassionate bursar policies, and hope some of these improvements might outlast the pandemic. EAB
Replicating Services Online
As higher ed adapts to the pandemic, the pivot to remote instruction is just the beginning. Campus IT needs to support the student experience, by replicating online activities and services like advising, physical and mental health, career services, internships, emergency aid, and much more. This spring, 66% of institutions reported that students had difficulty accessing internships, and 37% mental health services. Just 16% reported challenges for students accessing advising services – perhaps in part because institutions have spent a decade implementing online early alert, degree planning, and advising services. Predictive models can overlook or reinforce equity gaps, so it is critical to examine behavioural data for specific student subsets. Ed Tech
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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
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
Granted, the word “pivot” (like “unprecedented” and “uncertain”) has been seriously overused during the pandemic. (It’s probably just the alliteration.) But most businesses, organizations and institutions have had to make abrupt changes in strategic direction, products, services, or at least processes, during the past 15 months. Management studies have found that the right decisions in a time of crisis can set your organization on a path to greater success afterwards…
While it can be tempting to focus on stabilization, the aftermath of a crisis also provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at your organization, its people, and the surrounding landscape, to reinvent the institution and make it more resilient for the future. Leaders have to “call time,” to signal the end of a crisis and a gradual return to normalcy (while acknowledging sacrifices, loss, and the work that remains). De-escalate the crisis and find time to decompress, to ensure your leadership team focuses its energy on strategic priorities. Monitor weak signals and develop strategic foresight. Consult widely to identify lessons learned during the crisis, and then act on them – particularly if there are “immediate, no-regret actions” you can take. And find ways to develop “a more human organization,” with greater emphasis on EDI, holistic wellness, and workloads, to build a “reservoir of trust.” Harvard Business Review
Pedal to the Metal
Right now, PSE leaders should be feeling increased urgency to make long-term strategic decisions to position your institutions for stronger enrolment and revenue in the wake of the pandemic. Strategic planning should focus on the substance of your student experience, engage stakeholders broadly, and gather data for solid decision-making. uChicago, for example, responded to the 2008 recession by innovating in academics, co-curriculars and student life (and investing in enrolment and marketing) to transform its reputation, boost its ranking to the top 5, and double applications in just 4 years. Providence College (RI) counter-intuitively raised its tuition fees substantially in the wake of the recession, allowing it to invest in faculty and infrastructure while competitors were cutting costs. Liberal arts colleges have responded to crisis by reinventing their curriculum. “Making the right strategic moves today… can position a college or university for sustained success once the current storm has passed.” Inside Higher Ed
Maybe Don’t Pivot
Strategic agility has been much hyped during the pandemic: in times of crisis, organizations are told to make decisive cuts and pivot quickly to new markets and business models. But if by chance your strategy is already optimized for your evolving circumstances, staying the course can provide stability, and could lead to long-term success. During the pandemic, some ecommerce and IT companies (even in the hard-hit travel sector) were well positioned, and instead of pivoting they slowed down, reaffirmed their strategies, listened to stakeholders, trimmed “fat, not muscle,” watched data closely, and tested for weaknesses in advance. They “downshifted” to conserve resources in case new initiatives were necessary. Harvard Business Review
“Nobody ever regrets making fast and decisive adjustments to changing circumstances.” – Leadership Team, Sequoia Capital
In times of ambiguity and turbulence, deeply-held assumptions are questioned and the previously unthinkable starts to seem possible. To identify strategic opportunities while emerging from crisis, an organization needs to be vigilant about environmental scanning and data-gathering in its systems, and future-focused – alert to future scenarios and strategic foresight. (My goal, with Eduvation’s workshops and this Insider newsletter, is to help you do just that.)
It also helps to have some sense of the future scenarios we’re heading towards…
Although some strategic advice for corporations also applies to higher ed institutions, there is no doubt that colleges and universities operate in distinct political, intellectual and social domains. (Although don’t try to tell that to the board at Laurentian U.) Fortunately, higher ed is also filled with reflective leaders and consultants who have written on the challenges of the pandemic…
Too often, PSE leaders focus on tactics rather than strategy, and implement incremental budget cuts or revenue streams as the path of least resistance in challenging times. Many institutions need to consider moving even more programming online, potentially to lower financial barriers for students, reach new geographic markets, or provide flexibility for international exchange or work-integrated learning students. Some may want to modify the traditional departmental model in favour of divisional or interdisciplinary structures. Many have consolidated student services, and could even consider a shared services model with other institutions. Now is the time for institutions to address “systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and other biases,” diversify staff and faculty at all levels, and even “contend with their own histories.” And institutions facing major budget deficits may have to redirect resources to mission-critical areas, and high-enrolment programs, “not changing the nature of the institution, but rather seeking to fund the institution it has become.” Inside Higher Ed
“Flexibility” and “resilience” have been watchwords during the pandemic, and most PSE consultants emphasize the importance of a more flexible post-pandemic university, that can bend without breaking. That flexibility should go beyond hybrid course delivery, to include flexible timetables, formative feedback, self-paced and self-directed study for students, and flexible remote work policies for staff. Wonkhe
While most colleges and universities were slashing budgets in the face of COVID19, some opted for permanent transformation instead. Unity College (ME) slashed its tuition, committed to hybrid delivery, and switched from 2 traditional semesters to 8 year-round terms of 5 weeks each – with tuition payable by the term, and 5 intakes per year. Metropolitan State U of Denver launched a Skills Lab to retrain displaced workers at no charge. NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts is collaborating with the Parsons School of Design at the New School on short, online survey courses as “try-before-you-buy” introductions to full courses. Other institutions have been sharing back-office staffs, or acquiring struggling competitors to expand their program offerings and consolidate their finances. Hechinger Report
“You’re not going to cut your way through this. You have to transform.” – Melik Peter Khoury, President, Unity College
Reinventing Higher Ed
Most colleges and universities (those without massive endowments) will have to reinvent themselves post-pandemic, either improving their recruitment from existing markets, opening satellite campuses in new markets, or pursuing new niches with new program offerings. They have to differentiate, boldly, and tailor their programs and research to meet the needs of the students and communities they serve. Some US colleges have been acquiring assets, merging or partnering with competitors on joint ventures. Institutions also have to update the skillsets of faculty, staff and administrators to cope with online delivery, personalized supports, and continuous change. In some cases, online offerings should become core, instead of a complement to F2F instruction. And all institutions need to respond to the “cultural demographic shift,” rethink student supports and our measures of student success. Forbes
“For people who are forward-thinking, fast-pivoting, opportunistic visionaries, this is a really exciting time to be in higher ed.” – Nancy Hubbard, Dean, uLynchburg College of Business
“The truth is that it’s time for higher ed to create the new value equation – but it starts with institutions really understanding their students and how their values have shifted during/as a result of Covid19.” – John Farrar, Education industry leader, Google
Bold PSE Strategies
Some forward-looking colleges and universities responded to the COVID19 crisis not only by shifting to remote delivery, but by “radically rethinking their admissions practices, their curriculum, and the student experience.” Some split their semesters into two 7-week halves, allowing students to juggle fewer online courses at once – and hyflex or modularized courses could offer even more flexibility. Some created interdisciplinary courses to tackle “wicked problems,” sometimes with experiential learning components, while others enhanced co-curricular offerings in skills-building, leadership, financial literacy, or mentorship. Learning communities, meta-majors or first-year cohorts could foster community and belonging. During Summer 2020, some colleges offered free or “extremely cheap” courses to keep students on track to graduation – and perhaps we could do more to make summers “an integral part of the academic year.” Institutions should create stronger, integrated systems of academic, personal, career and technical supports that can respond proactively to students – and perhaps emulate the coaches and mentors provided by major online providers. Inside Higher Ed
4 Post-Pandemic Trends
Last Fall, EAB surveyed 122 North American higher ed business and finance leaders, and identified 4 emerging trends in post-pandemic PSE business models. 1) Most were looking to “recalibrate” their business model, rather than pursue radical changes, but most planned immediate changes to remote work policies, IT, automation, space utilization practices and shared services. 2) Respondents no longer view technology as “incremental solutions” or cost centres, but as a “core competency that must be central to their institutional strategy.” Investments in ERP, CRM and LMS systems were priorities, but they also anticipate expanding online enrolment. 3) Many want to “right-size their investments in physical services and infrastructure,” most plan to “reduce” the investment in facilities, and EAB suggests that the “amenities arms race” may well be over at last. And finally, 4) Some CFOs are rethinking “intricate revenue cross-subsidies” to prop up struggling business or academic units with revenues from international students or residence operations. EAB
PSE in a Disruptive World
Last October, KPMG International released a 30-page paper on The Future of Higher Education in a Disruptive World, arguing that “the Golden Age of universities” is passing away, due to converging demographic, financial, political and technological pressures. With the COVID19 pandemic, “the future arrived ahead of schedule, abruptly and without invitation,” and both institutions and higher ed systems will need to be “reimagined” for the new “age of the consumer.” The paper predicts a proliferation of diverse higher ed providers and approaches, experimentation and personalization – and an overall shift towards “digital first” delivery, with a decline in international student mobility. Future PSE will be borderless, unbundled, digital, scalable, experiential, lifelong and part-time. The 4 strategic building blocks for PSEs are reviewing mission and strategy, improving core capabilities, adopting a target operating model, and modernizing technology. Organizations will benefit from data-driven decisions, “experience centricity,” “seamless interactions,” and an “integrated partner and alliance ecosystem.” (Most universities surveyed rated themselves average on a typical bell curve.) KPMG
“The ability to transform will be the critical one for all education institutions to cultivate, so they can shape and respond to a changing world of education.” – Stephen Parker, Global Lead, Education & Skills, KPMG International
The Post-pandemic University
Vivek Goel, the new president at uWaterloo, observes that higher ed has a “generational opportunity” to address historical inequities and global challenges, and to “breathe fresh relevance into the postsecondary experience.” With accelerating change in the economy, “a university education should not necessarily end after 4 or 5 years,” and traditional institutions must compete with new competitors to meet the lifelong learning needs of the workforce. They must also ensure “every member of our community feels represented and empowered,” through efforts at antiracism and Indigenous reconciliation. The “great reset” is a chance for universities to “rethink how they fit into their communities.” Globe & Mail
“As the world reopens, against a backdrop of accelerated change and exacerbated inequities, universities should grasp this once-in-a-century chance to reset. A successful postpandemic university will be one that sees this moment for what it is: a time to seize technological advances to build on centuries of expertise; to use these technologies as a tool to break down barriers to access; and to understand how these challenges are connected.” – Vivek Goel, President & Vice-Chancellor, uWaterloo
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…
Curing the “Compassion Deficit”
Whether pivoting to remote teaching, or managing health and safety in pandemic times, higher ed institutions would be well served to prioritize humanity and decency. Instructors should consider how they handle issues over deadlines, and be “mindful of their overall manner in talking to their students.” As some surveys are finding record levels of depression and anxiety among PSE students, higher ed leaders are encouraging staff and faculty to exercise compassion and gratitude – habits with benefits that will outlast COVID19. Times Higher Ed
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.)
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.
This week, Times Higher Ed hosted a webinar panel including Jan Palmowski (Secretary-General of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities), Tawana Kupe (Vice-Chancellor of uPretoria, South Africa), and John Fritz (VP Instructional Technology at uMaryland Baltimore County). You can catch the 1-hour video here, but here are the highlights from my notes about some silver linings of the pandemic for PSE. (Yes, there was plenty of discussion about “the dark side” of the cloud, too – but today I’m focusing on the upsides.)
Transcending Geography: Thanks to widespread adoption of teleconferencing software, collaboration between institutions and departments has become easier, guest speakers more available, online meetings more inclusive, and conference attendance more accessible for many people. Plus, we’re all now “hyper-punctual.”
New Internationalization: With global mobility reduced to zero, institutions have had an opportunity to explore new forms of internationalization and collaboration, like co-creating courses. Going virtual could make international experiences accessible to more students than ever before, making it much more genuinely global.
Better Exams: John Fritz shared how Chemistry faculty at UMBC developed a 1,500-question randomized approach to online exams, such that no 2 students got the same questions and time limits prevented most forms of cheating – even without proctoring or surveillance software. They are apparently considering replacing paper-based exams permanently.
Drop-Outs Return: Also at UMBC, online delivery of courses meant that instead of a half-dozen former students returning to take classes, they saw 123 enroll in a single term! Online offerings may be a lasting way to re-engage with drop-outs and stop-outs.
Open Science: Jan Palmowski observes that open reporting of scientific COVID19 results – from Johns Hopkins statistics to preprint journal articles – has accelerated the sense of urgency to share research discoveries openly (always being cautious about potential public confusion or misinformation). In the best case, more widespread scientific literacy could usher in an internet-enabled renaissance in collective knowledge. Tawana Kupe emphasized the need to get away from inward-looking citation metrics and look at the impact of research and scholarship on society and real-world problems. We need to counter the infodemic of fake news by “translating” science for the general public, and should probably embed research communications training in PhD programs.
Work/Life Balance: All 3 panelists agreed that the pandemic has underscored the need for more holistic wellness in academic careers, workplace flexibility and “sensitivity to the humanity of people” instead of the dehumanizing emphasis on “publish or perish.” Says Kupe, it is “time for a recalibration.”
Rapid Change: As Kupe quipped, “like it or not, universities are not radical organizations. The pace of change is slow.” The pandemic demonstrated just how quickly we could transform teaching and learning delivery, but raises the question: “What other areas do we need to reform, at a faster rate than waiting for another pandemic to hit us?” Genomic sequencing of COVID19 variants has underscored that “knowledge is needed far faster than the pace we academics like to use.” The post-pandemic era can provide “a great moment of reimagination” for the world’s universities.
Since my last roundup, I’ve accumulated a dozen other op-eds and articles on the theme of “Silver Linings.”Here are some highlights…
Virtues of Virtual
In response to the pandemic, PSE instructors have “experimented with the academic calendar and rethought physical space, including how to utilize outdoor spaces for learning.” As physical classrooms became quieter spaces with masks, acrylic obstacles and distanced seating, distance education and virtual advising helped overcome the F2F “distance,” allowing faculty to see student faces again, albeit via Zoom. Virtual meetings and conferences became more efficient and better attended. Online discussions increased student engagement and participation, just as virtual office hours attracted more students. Higher education is “a meeting of minds and not necessarily of bodies,” and distance learning tools may in fact improve on some traditional approaches. eCampus News
“What our collective distance experience underscores most forcefully is that higher education is a personal and human experience, a meeting of minds and not necessarily of bodies.” – Lee Ann Dickerson, PhD Candidate, Concordia U
“I’m not a silver-lining kind of guy,” writes Paul Hanstedt of Washington & Lee U, but “nonetheless” the pandemic has transformed education in some positive ways. Instead of the somewhat artificial world of academic majors, punctuated by chapters, timetables and semesters, “the world is a messy place” of “wicked fluidity” and the pandemic has forced PSE to acknowledge it at last. “The walls between academic life and life beyond the academy have crumbled.” Fields and disciplines “not only overlap but also influence and shape and reshape each other.” Students are being forced to “move beyond a mentality of simple answers,” and to recognize that answers are not “something that only the professor holds.” The pandemic has been a learning experience for faculty and administrators as much as for students, and perhaps that struggle has been a good thing, forcing us to realize that attendance policies and bell curves “are not actually what makes real education happen.” Inside Higher Ed
Some US students can see the silver lining in a year of COVID college, despite mourning the loss of innumerable social, extracurricular and work experiences. One felt he “gained in focus but lost in connectedness.” Another says she learned to accept the unpredictable, and that the experience has made her “less scared to face the unknown.” Some felt they applied themselves more to academics without social distractions, that they bonded even more tightly with a small group of friends or roommates, or even that they were “liberated from their carefully planned lives and their focus on getting the approval of others.” The shift to pass/fail grading mitigated some students’ obsession with grades, alleviated perfectionism and anxiety, allowed them to slow down and get more sleep. “I think a little time and distance made me realize how much energy I spend jumping through other people’s hoops.” New York Times
“It’s made me realize that not knowing the next step doesn’t mean my world is going to crumble. I think it made me less scared to face the unknown.” – Madison Alvaro, Duke U grad
“I don’t want to say we are adults now, but we definitely have grown up. No more young, dumb and fun type of lifestyle.” – Xanthe Soter, Temple U junior
New research from uRegina and UBC finds that 77% of highly-stressed North American adults nonetheless reported “moderate to high personal growth” during the pandemic, regarding their appreciation for healthcare workers, life, friends and family, better appreciating each day, and reconsidering priorities about what is important in life. Despite widespread anxiety, and a new disorder called “COVID Stress Syndrome,” post-traumatic growth emerges from “the positive transformational power of suffering.” The bad news, though: for 17% of people, the sense of growth is “illusory” and actually a dysfunctional form of avoidance or defensive coping. uRegina
“Post-traumatic growth or PTG refers to the positive transformative power of suffering, and is essentially finding the silver lining in a stressful situation.” – Gordon Asmundson, uRegina Dept of Psychology
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