The Unlikeliest Scenario: Fully face-to-face programs in Fall 2020

Due to COVID-19, North American higher education (as in a large part of the world) has had a remarkable transition to remote teaching mode in just a four week time period, as described just over three weeks ago.

Percentage of US Higher Ed Institutions Moving to Fully Online Delivery of Traditional Face-to-face Courses During COVID-19 Crisis

A week and a half ago it was becoming clear that many, if not most, campus presidents were making difficult decisions about the fall term:

What I would describe is that as early as late March, two out of five US college presidents were already considering a scenario where a return of most in-person classes might not be feasible for the Fall 2020 term. It is likely that this number is even higher today, perhaps with most presidents considering remote learning or online education options for their institutions in the fall.

In a flash survey last week from the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) [emphasis added]:

Many enrolled students can expect more online courses than usual; the report indicates that 58 percent of respondents are considering or have already decided to remain fully online for fall 2020; 62 percent are considering decreasing, or have decreased, the number of in-person courses for fall 2020; and 73% are considering increasing, or have increased, the number of online and/or remote courses for fall 2020.

Boston University is even considering the option of just not opening in the fall, and starting their new class in Spring 2021.

We are now facing the reality that of the choices being considered for most institutions, the unlikeliest scenario for higher education in North America is one of offering fully face-to-face programs. There will be some exceptions, but mostly we will see a mix of delays, college closures, fully-online programs, and hybrid offerings that mix limited in-person meetings with significant online activities.

The Waterfall of Online Learning

Why are so many campus leaders already considering or planning to avoid fully face-to-face fall programs, when we are seeing reduced projections on COVID-19 deaths and emerging plans to come out of the lockdown?

One of the main reasons is the different set of dynamics between moving from face-to-face to online (or hybrid) versus the opposite direction. While the last month has been difficult, what we are seeing is that it is much easier to go online than it is to go (back) to face-to-face.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the time to make firm plans for fall residential programs is now, in April and May. There is a multi-month lead time to set tuition, determine enrollment levels, line up room and board, and schedule physical classrooms. Schools cannot afford to simply put off the decision on the fall term until the summer, when we will have a much better idea of how quickly lockdowns end, or to what degree flare ups of the virus occur due to the easing. Institutions are being forced to make a bet based on partial information that is rapidly changing, and in many (most?) cases, fully face-to-face assumptions carry the greatest risk.

There seems to be a consensus that the easing of lockdown rules will not be an event, but rather a staged series of rule changes allowing smaller to larger groups of people to congregate. Outside of large concerts or sporting events, one of the last situations I would expect to be allowed would be the offering of large lecture classes that are common for lower division courses.

Image of large lecture class

The opposite of social distancing

Beyond setting policies and plans at the collegiate or university level, there is also the reality of the student and faculty level. Students studying online can theoretically do so from their dorm, or at home, or wherever – with little time lag. Anywhere anytime education. But it is not theoretically feasible to assume students can move back to campus on a moment’s notice, or even to assume the same for instructors. Alex Usher described this situation quite well as The Re-Opening Conundrum.

But hold on a second, because this is less straightforward than it looks. The idea that you can pivot to face-to-face as quickly as we pivoted away from it last month rests on an assumption that students are actually able to show up on relatively short notice. And that’s an extremely dubious assumption. First of all, you have international students who probably can’t get to the country quickly, and second you have both international and domestic students who do not have permanent addresses in the institution’s immediate vicinity.

I said theoretically above because this ability to move online for all students has turned out to not always be true in reality, especially for economically disadvantaged students without easy, reliable access to computers and broadband internet.

The movement towards online or hybrid education is guided by larger forces, resulting in a sort of waterfall. Some of the water may be lost as it hits rocks on the way down, but the water is getting pulled by gravity. It is possible for water back upstream at higher levels, but that takes more effort and planning – think of pumping stations – than the reverse.

Phase 3 – Fall Coming into Focus

Due to this waterfall effect, there will likely be a large amount of turmoil this fall in what I have described as Phase 3. Many institutions need to get back to offering fully face-to-face programs, for budgeting and branding reasons, not to mention that many students learn better in face-to-face environments. But bets have to be made now, and there is so much we don’t know about future flare ups of the virus, treatment options, vaccine availability, and perhaps as importantly, the fiscal health of institutions.

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

There will be several scenarios in play this fall, but the one that we should not expect is a return to fully face-to-face programs at most institutions.