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Galloway’s Rants or Nuanced Reporting: Take your pick on re-opening narratives

If they gave out a Pulitzer Prize for EdTech media, I’d nominate Jeff Young at EdSurge for his podcast series Pandemic Campus Diaries. But more on that later.

Galloway’s Rants

It’s getting harder to avoid Scott Galloway lately. CNN, WSJ, Yahoo Finance, New York Magazine, Vox Media, you name it. The NYU professor does know how to market himself. Last Thursday he was a keynote speaker at the kickoff and pre-show for ASU/GSV, which is virtual this year. Never one to leave a data chart up long enough to be read and placed in context, it was a whirlwind presentation.

I have to admit that for the first 26 minutes, he mostly had me agreeing. Galloway is excellent at describing where US higher education has gone astray in terms of serving the public. How “Covid-19 may be the long-overdue fist of stone that meets the chin higher education has been sticking out the past several decades”, with elites more focused on scarcity and maintaining high tuition without helping with social mobility.

But then Galloway has to move from diagnosis to prognosis, and for me this is where he loses it. Yes, Galloway has a startup called Prof G, “a team dedicated to making an elite business education more affordable and accessible”, ironically taught by three NYU professors taking advantage of their institutional security while simultaneously touting the virtue of non-university education. And don’t get me started on his view that post-pandemic higher education will be driven by big tech and elite institution partnerships like MIT@Google or iStanford. But those are not my main critiques, at least for today.

During the ASU/GSV talk, Galloway positioned the question of whether colleges and universities should have opened up this fall with any face-to-face options as a matter of evil vs. common sense.

I think the new super spreaders are university presidents and chancellors who have decided that the virus should get the memo around the importance, or the self-importance, of higher ed. And we’ve made a terrible mistake opening universities. I think the history will be written that the super spreaders of this pandemic were red state Republican governors who either refused to close or opened too early, and very blue state university presidents who have decided that their endowment and their compensation takes precedence over the health of their communities and the commonwealth. I think this is reckless and negligent.

In this narrative, reopening is categorically misguided, and online is the future. Both in terms of mitigating the pandemic and in terms of addressing the social mobility issues. No nuance, no issue of balancing competing needs, no acknowledgement of making calculated risks. A binary world where those with whom Galloway disagrees are driven by greed and neglect.

And the Pulitzer Goes To . . .

Thankfully the education media has stepped up recently with some excellent reporting that describes the real world. Reporting that doesn’t get you invited onto CNN but does explore topics in depth.

The first one is Jeff Young and his team’s coverage through the Pandemic Diaries podcast, where “we’ve enlisted professors and students at six colleges, and we’ve asked them to share audio diaries of college life in this unprecedented time.” Where you get to hear real people struggling with real life in all of its complexity, with multiple first-hand perspectives.

Marjorie Blen is a junior at San Francisco State University. From the show notes:

Blen is a first-generation college student who just transferred from City College of San Francisco. She’s juggling raising two young kids and going to college. Her university is teaching only online this semester.

In episode 3, Marjorie describes just how painful this semester has been, and it is heartbreaking [lightly edited for clarity].

Every day, the more we go into the semester the more I miss school, the buildings, the hallways. This is my first year there, and I don’t get to see, to experience any of that. The cafeteria, the peer groups, the events. [snip] And it’s just been a depressing thing to think about.

It took me ten years to go back to school. It took me two years to transfer, to go to community college. And now I feel like, “you did all this and you went to school?” Yeah, school’s great to get a job, a career, whatever. But it’s no secret that you don’t have to have a college degree in order to make a lot of money, depending on what field you’re on. But school’s more than that. It’s an experience, it’s an accomplishment, a goal, a change in mindset, and I feel robbed from that experience.

I think about that every day. Being in class, I could have sat next to someone, met someone. That person could have become my friend for life. And I don’t get that. And the first year, and I’m paying this insane amount of tuition, but I don’t get . . . it’s just not the thing. No matter that virtually the university tries to make you feel like a college student, a university student. It is not. The social component is so important, important in order to have that college experience. Nothing can replace it.

And I have nothing against online learning. I’ve done online learning before the pandemic. I took hybrid classes. But we still need that social component of being in the institution physically, with the teachers, and the students, and the groups, and the events. Everything that makes college worth going and paying for.

This is not a simple choice without real costs on both sides of the reopening question. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of schools across the US that have been struggling with how to serve the Marjories of the world during a novel pandemic. Institutional viability is of course part of the equation, but it’s not the only variable.

Don’t tell me that every university president made the decision to reopen purely out of greed. The planning committees involved had real tradeoffs to make, to try and provide value to these students (the stuff Galloway described in the first half of his keynote).

Some Win, Some Lose

Some institutions made good choices, not just in how to reopen but in what precautions to take, and some made bad decisions. At Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer reviews the Covid data from several sources, including county-level data and from an NBER pre-reviewed paper.

County-level data reveal a varying picture that sometimes challenges the idea of colleges as COVID-19 hot spots — but often reinforces it.

There’s no definitive proof in that article, but it does show how there is no clear data equating college reopening with super spreader events.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Vasquez describing institutions who have thus far been successful in their ability to reopen while keep ing Covid under control.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign began the fall semester as a shining example of higher education’s can-do spirit: It reopened its doors for in-person instruction with an ambitious plan to test more than 40,000 students, twice a week.

It was an enormous effort, made possible by a quick, inexpensive saliva test that the university’s own scientists invented. The system worked well — until a few students kept partying even after testing positive.

As a result, infections spiked at the end of August. The New York Times highlighted Illinois as an example of how “even the most comprehensive approaches to limiting the virus’s spread can break down.” [snip]

Administrators at the university responded to the surge in cases by imposing a mandatory two-week lockdown for undergraduates. Students equated it to being “grounded,” but the emergency measure brought case numbers back down, and the situation appears to have stabilized.

On Tuesday, Illinois tested more than 11,000 people, with about 60 positive results, representing roughly one-half of 1 percent. The university’s comprehensive testing apparatus has been identifying problems quickly, before they spiral out of control.

“We see the whole iceberg,” said Nigel Goldenfeld, a physics professor at Illinois who is one of the main architects of the university’s reopening. “Everybody else sees the tip of the iceberg.”

The article then draws some initial lessons learned from schools that appear to have the virus under reasonable control.

At the campuses where Covid is relatively under control, common themes emerge: a commitment to testing asymptomatic students, an effective “we’re in this together” pitch to the campus, and a location where viral spread in the surrounding cities and counties is low.

“Massive testing, massive testing,” is how Cornell University’s president, Martha E. Pollack, explained her institution’s low Covid rates. “Followed up with very careful contract tracing and then supported isolation and quarantine.” Cornell’s most recent weekly positivity rate is 0.02 percent.

Rants or Nuance

None of this is to argue that reopening face-to-face is the right decision. Far from it. The last thing we should do is think that there are simple answers to this pandemic, and there certainly have been misguided reopening decisions and faulty assumptions at many universities, minimizing the time and effort available to improve virtual education options. My point is that it is refreshing to see such valuable coverage from education media recently that shows the complex situation we’re in, and that shows various sides of the story. In the spirit of nuance, I’ll choose to listen to Galloway in his critique of the status quo, but I’ll turn to other sources when it comes time to figure out what to do next.