Revised Outlook for Higher Ed’s Online Response to COVID-19

In mid March I wrote a post “Covid-19 Migration to Online: Entering the second phase“, arguing that there were three likely phases to the higher education response to COVID-19 in terms of course delivery.

  • Phase 1: The Rush to Zoom – considered as all-hands-on-deck, do whatever you can to have some educational presence for all classes online. Commenters have rightly pointed out that students’ and educators’ health and safety are more important than worrying about quality course design or even equitable access. In the EdTech world, think of this phase as Put everything on Zoom and worry about details later. Substitute Microsoft Teams or Webex or Collaborate for Zoom, as so many instructors opt for the comfort of synchronous video discussions to replace the face-to-face experience.

  • Phase 2: LMS Integration and Addressing Equitable Access – What I believe is happening now is that we are entering the next phase, where it is no longer acceptable to ignore issues of equitable access and course design. In our work with schools we are seeing a significant shift this week in the focus on doing more than just handling the pure emergency delivery. Colleges and universities are starting to more fully address the question of quality of emergency online delivery of courses, as well as true contingency planning.

At the time, I argued that we would then enter a new normal, Phase 3, perhaps as soon as the fall.

What Has Changed

As Kevin has rightly described, we’re in the middle of what can be described as a transition to remote teaching and learning, which is materially different than online education that has been thoughtfully designed. We’re in an emergency mode in Phases 1 and 2.

What has become clear, however, is that it is unlikely that Fall 2020 will be any kind of normal, and there is reasonable likelihood that many schools will remain with online delivery (i.e. no face-to-face courses). Even for the schools that are able to start the fall term with face-to-face courses, I could easily see the need for another rapid transition to online if we hit a second peak of COVID-19 outbreaks. And as Jeanette has privately pointed out to me, we might see hybrid approaches where lower division large introductory lecture courses are offered online while upper division smaller courses are offered face-to-face, as a method to minimize large groups of people in confined spaces. Put another way, schools will need to be prepared for online delivery and be ready to adapt quickly, one way or the other.

But Fall 2020 will be the time where most semester-based institutions face the prospect of fully-online delivery for the enter school, for an entire term. And more importantly, students will view that choice of school and enrollment and appropriate tuition differently than they do with a term interrupted, as we are in today. All of this will occur during a period of financial turmoil for higher education in general, as described by Bryan Alexander.

Four Phases of Higher Ed Response

As such, my current outlook has changed to include four phases in this higher education response.

  • Phase 1 (Feb – Mar 2020): Rapid Transition to Remote Teaching and Learning – Institutions making an all hands on deck movement to remote delivery, often relying on synchronous video, with massive changes in just four weeks.

  • Phase 2 (Apr – Jul 2020): (Re)adding the Basics – Institutions must (re) add basics into emergency course transitions: course navigation, equitable access including lack of reliable computer and broadband, support for students with disabilities, academic integrity.

  • Phase 3 (Aug – Dec 2020): Extended Transition During Continued Turmoil – Institutions must be prepared to support students for a full term, and be prepared for online delivery – even if starting as face-to-face.

  • Phase 4 (2021 and beyond): Emerging New Normal – This will have unknown levels of online learning adoption, but it is likely that it will be higher than pre-COVID-19 days, but Institutions must have new levels of eLearning infrastructure – technology and support – to reliably support students.

There are a lot of unknowns remaining around the COVID-19 pandemic itself and around higher education’s ability to weather the storm – I doubt we’ve ever seen such a dramatic shift in the education landscape in such a short time period. It will be interesting to see how this outlook changes over time.