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.
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.
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…
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.
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