Planning for Resilience, Not Resistance

The following is a joint post written with Stephanie Moore from the University of Virginia. While this submission was not approved to be shared at Inside Higher Ed, we think it is timely and relevant for college decision-makers.

Recently, Inside Higher Education published an op-ed article on “How to Responsibly Reopen Colleges in the Fall.” In this article the authors have noble intentions yet base their arguments on gross misunderstandings of the modalities on online and face-to-face and blended education. In the first three paragraphs they set up a misinformed strawman based on a false dichotomy.

“Continuing with virtual learning threatens the entire concept of the college experience. Higher education, like K-12, depends on proximity to real people, not squares on a screen. Educators at all levels have dedicated themselves to teaching students during the pandemic, but they know that they’re offering thin pedagogical gruel.

The main reason why the ‘distance learning revolution’ didn’t replace the traditional model is that online learning just isn’t as good. And because of that, it can’t be offered at full price.”

Because decision makers are likely to turn to articles like this as a guide for their planning, the many faults and factual inaccuracies in that op-ed require a response so we can better inform responsible decision making. Without any support for the claims made, what the IHE article really does is engage in confirmation bias that has unfortunate potential to unnecessarily constrain strategic planning and resilient system architecture that’s necessary for weathering the crisis.

Faulty Premises

Let’s start with the argument made in the piece that online learning isn’t as good as classroom-based learning. This is factually incorrect. One has to not be aware of or intentionally ignore a large body – hundreds of studies – of research in order to assert this position. One thing we should all be concerned about now is grounding our policies and decision making in facts and the evidence that research has to offer. There are many studies comparing face-to-face learning to online learning – so many that there are now three major meta-analyses of the work: Bernard, Abrami, Lou, Borokhovski, Wade, Wozney, Wallet, Fiset & Wong (2004); Zhao, Lei, Yan, Lai & Tan (2005); and U.S. Department of Education (2009). These are known in the field of educational technology as media comparison studies. What these studies show, time and again, is no significant difference. In fact, this has been labeled the “no significant difference phenomenon” with a website and book by Thomas Russell (2001) dedicated to documenting the studies and the trend. More recent analyses by the MIT Online Education Policy Initiative (2016) and the Public Policy in California (2015) also show the potential of online education as part of the mix of modalities that can improve traditional higher education.

What we have learned from such a large research effort is that no one medium is better than another – because it’s not the medium itself that accounts for differences. What makes a difference is the design – specifically the application of an intentional instructional design process and the implementation of effective instructional methods or strategies. The design process and effective instructional methods and strategies can be employed in any medium (or not). Classroom instruction can be very ineffective or even detrimental and demotivating – so can online. They also can both be very effective and motivating. And there are a myriad of design decisions that come into play, all of which have varying degrees of impact on effectiveness (see Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, and Bond, 2020, for a quick discussion on this). A key strategy for institutions to adopt right now, if they haven’t already, is to engage someone or a team of individuals who understand the evidence of what works in online learning and plan for an investment in infrastructure, personnel support, etc., accordingly.

Let’s also take a look at the rhetoric of “replacement” (other times “displacement” is used). New developments in communications technologies have never replaced or displaced educators or any other medium of delivery. Instead, what we are doing is building a very rich – and therefore resilient – ecosystem over time. When print was introduced into the academy as a new “techne,” Plato argued against it in Phaedrus, fearing it would degrade learning and the quality of relationships between instructors and students. Writing and print, of course, occupy an integral part of the academy now and facilitate learning and the teacher-student relationship. Similarly, television, radio, and other developments didn’t replace or displace. They filled in to address the gaps that place-based education cannot. Online learning isn’t a boogeyman out to take over classroom-based learning. It’s an option in your problem solving tool set. Different kinds of problems require different types of solutions. In fact, for a good model of this sort of strategic institutional planning, we can hearken back to Quintilian in his Institutes of Oratory, specifically Book X where he talks about writing and its role in the academy. He explores what writing is really good for, what its limitations are (as an instructional strategy), and therefore what place it has (and does not have) in the curriculum.

Not the Time for Short-Sighted Dichotomies

Technology studies across disciplines – educational technology, history of technology, socio-technical systems, and so on – repeatedly demonstrate that the dichotomous choice of yes or no, on or off, adopt or reject is not in reality how technological designs and implementations play out. Technology is not devoid of the social, it is embedded in it and shaped by it – shaped by us. The actual story of innovation and technological development – as told to by research and analysis like Carlson’s seven volumes of Technology in World History, Rheingold’s Look Who’s Talking looking at the Amish implementation of cell phones, and Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations exploration of characteristics of innovations and their consequences – is that we shape technology based on our vision (or lack thereof) and our cultural values. Rheingold uses the term of “adaptive techno-selective” in his piece – indeed that is a more useful and practical approach to technology. How can we be selective based on needs, affordances, goals and objectives, and our vision for our institutions? And how can we be adaptive – not merely accepting what’s presented to us as options but bending and arcing them in the direction we want for our institutions? This may be implementing a technology differently than others or as a vendor suggests but in a way better suited to your institution’s goals and culture, or it may be working with vendors to adapt their offerings. But a false dichotomy robs us of options and agency.

The strategic short-sightedness in the modality bias evidenced in the Laporte and Cassuto piece and elsewhere is potentially the greatest threat to institutional resilience. Rather than thinking about the rich ecosystem of possibilities that can be leveraged – and indeed have been leveraged in other places in other times of crisis – this approach dramatically and falsely limits options. Despite any vendor sales pitch, these modalities are not competing options. They have different affordances (and costs). Online and blended learning can be very effective system-level strategies for increasing access to education while – as we established earlier – maintaining quality or even while affording learning opportunities that aren’t possible with location-bound education. It is more useful to think about them in terms of pros and cons, what they each afford that the others do not, and how best to leverage the full range of options to meet not a single problem or need but multi-faceted, dynamic problems and needs.

In fact, what we are seeing emerge as the most likely re-opening strategies by governments is a phased relaxation of restrictions. Allow gatherings of up to 10 people but not greater, allow gatherings initially when physical barriers can minimize contact, etc. And when and if viral infections flare up, be prepared to reimpose some restrictions. All of this argues for a flexible and blended approach – the opposite of one informed by short-sighted modality bias.


In her book Thinking in Systems, Meadows explores when systems work well and when they do not work well. One common characteristic of systems that work well is resilience. She argues that the system goal is not stability but rather is resilience and relates a fable of Aesop, The Tree and the Reed. What allows the willow to survive the howling winds of a violent storm or hurricane (depending on which version you read) is that the willow was flexible and could bend in the winds whereas the oak’s only option was to stand firm and resist. Resilience is characterized first and foremost by a rich structure. It may be helpful to think about this in terms of an ecological ecosystem: the more ecodiversity there is, the more resilient that ecosystem is. If it loses some of that richness, such as species disappearing from it, the system becomes more fragile and brittle – less able to adapt to or emerge from disasters. Meadows also explains that even stronger systems have structure and feedback loops that support restoring and rebuilding, and the strongest systems are able to learn, create, design, and evolve through their resilient responses to challenges.

As but one example, consider the response to COVID-19 by the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Rather than assuming high-interaction and quality in online to be impossible (and thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy), they made it an explicit goal to retain their small-group problem-based learning (PBL) method as they moved online during the crisis. In addition to discovering they could implement PBL as a strategy just as effectively online as in face-to-face, they are also taking notes on what works well in PBL online to translate these insights back into practice in their in-person PBL when campuses return to that. Rather than resisting the changes, there are opportunities here to be embraced that can support institutional ability to learn, grow, and adapt.

At the systems level, having online as an option alongside blended and face-to-face instruction is a form of educational ecodiversity. Willingly giving up a layer of options in your systems reduces its resilience and increases its fragility and brittleness. What we want to do right now is keep a rich structure in place and in fact invest further in it – not in preparation for replacement or displacement but as a form of flexibility and adaptability.

Let us also quickly dispense with the “thin pedagogical gruel.” This is simply a failure to recognize how important context is. Right now, what instructors are being asked to do is not robust education – not because of the modality but because of the emergency. There is a big difference between dashing and taking what you can as the fire spreads in the moment versus adjusting to the new reality after the fire has spread. Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, and Bond dealt directly with this critical misconception, arguing that what is taking place at the moment is emergency remote teaching, not online education – and these distinctions are important for planning and evaluation.

At the PhilOnEdTech blog, this process of multiple phases of COVID response has been described, showing the migration from reaction to proactive planning. The planning we need now is for Phase 3, and we must be prepared, without limiting our options.

Graphic showing four phases of higher education response to COVID-19 in terms of online learning adoption.

What To Do

One of the bright spots of the COVID crisis is the extent to which the higher education community has pulled together in a collective spirit, with hundreds of sites offering myriad suggestions, almost all available to the general public. This of course provides one of the great challenges: how to help decision-makers figure out what to read, with useful curation and context and opportunity for discussion. We do not intend to contribute another list in this response. Rather, we would like to comment, with resilience in mind, on the recommendations from the original post, as the authors clearly had good intentions and were willing to share provocative ideas to consider. From IHE:

The groups at risk from reopening are: 1) faculty and staff members who are at higher risk due to age or existing conditions that make them vulnerable, 2) merchants and others in surrounding communities who are at risk for the same reasons, and 3) students’ home communities (or other communities outside the college), to which students travel during breaks, possibly seeding infection.

To reopen responsibly, colleges must minimize the risks to those groups.

What follows in the article are ideas that are based primarily on the outdated assumption of a residential institution in a college town, with a later suggestion that “faculty members at risk could be the ones who provide the remote learning”. We would suggest that planning not be based on such outdated views, and instead focus on the diversity of college experiences. As one commenter wrote:

fewer than 20% of college students live on campus, more than 75% have non-traditional characteristics including being older, commuting, parenting, working while in school, attending part-time, etc. — most are self-supporting, do not have mom/dad paying their bills or telling them what to do.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to limit our options by viewing online education modalities with such disdain and relegating the usage to only the last resort. Instead, we should be working aggressively to leverage the opportunities afforded by online and blended models to help manage in this crisis, and beyond.

Engage Your People

One thing institutions can do if they are not already is engage the people in your institution – faculty and staff – who are already teaching online effectively and know how to do this well. For example, here at the Curry School of Educational and Human Development at the University of Virginia, we have a number of faculty who have been teaching online and blended programs for years. These are robust programs, one of which is now ranked #3, with very strong student ratings and satisfaction. This effort is supported by a wonderful staff who have been working tirelessly to help those who weren’t already online. Not tapping into these treasure troves of experience and expertise is like not tapping into medical experts or epidemiologists to come up with a containment and mitigation plan for the virus itself. It would be irresponsible to not do so.

In addition, involve your libraries! Library professionals are real pros in digital communications, flexible infrastructure for remote access, and support for the learning community that is not solely face-to-face. They likely will have a range of solutions already in place as a result of serving diverse needs of your learners that could be leveraged as part of your investment in a more resilient infrastructure. And libraries serve an important social role for universities – getting students engaged with the libraries early before they set foot on campus can be an important part of your transition plan.

By engaging your internal experts, you are strengthening your institution’s ecosystem and keeping your infrastructure rich and flexible. Depleting or ignoring (or furloughing) these resources would instead remove backups and failsafes and introduce more brittleness.

Furthermore, search out the opportunities not just to survive but how your institution can learn, create, design, and evolve. Design is characterized in part by iteration – by seeking to address a problem and meet a need, or a range of needs, developing possible solutions, and then evaluating those efforts in earnest, and folding what you learned right back into a continual process of on-going improvement.

Follow the example of Virginia Tech, and identify teams of people in your institution engaged in creative problem solving during this crisis, and invest in their efforts (through more infrastructure support, direct support, recognition, knowledge sharing, etc.).

It Takes an Ecosystem

Finally, tend to the full ecosystem, not just the teaching and learning. Teaching and learning is but one part of the college experience, and it is crucial that the entire enterprise – advising, career services, financial aid, admissions, first-year / freshman communities, and even student associations, to name a few – work together to address holistic needs. By tapping people from each of these sub-systems in the institution and asking them to develop a plan for how they can be flexible and make themselves available to students, staff, and faculty, you are then weaving flexibility and adaptability throughout the enterprise. And as with the teaching and learning portion, identify the teams – including students – who are generating creative non-instructional solutions and focus on supporting and investing in them.

This approach is much more realistic than funding year-long furloughs or relying on parents and herd immunity. And it will take advantage of the real diversity of higher education reality and build up our resilience. As we move forward, it is imperative that we use all the tools in our workshop and make plans based on today’s education ecosystem and without confirmation or modality biases. It is our resilience, not our resistance, that will pull us through this crisis.