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Two out of five US college presidents already considering online options for Fall 2020 term

Update 4/9: See follow-on post by Kevin Kelly with recommendations on how to deal with spring/summer and fall transitions. Traversing the Edge of Chaos: Phase 1 and 2 preparations for post COVID-19 world

The Chronicle of Higher Education described a recent survey from AAC&U and ABC Insights of US college presidents (285 surveyed, 142 responses, held late March) about their institution’s expectations on the impacts of COVID-19. In the survey, a majority of presidents expressed optimism about returning to a ‘new normal’ with face-to-face classes by the Fall 2020 term.

While the majority of respondents, 64 percent, are optimistic that the coronavirus will generally resolve over the summer and that campuses will return to normalcy in the fall, 36 percent of the presidents think that serious disruption awaits us come September. One president went so far as to suggest that he anticipates his campus remaining in virtual-instruction mode for all of fiscal 2021.

Even with the small sample sizes, this finding is quite similar to another survey by Inside Higher Education and Hanover Research of college presidents (172 responses, held March 17-19). In that case 58% of presidents expected to resume in-person classes by Fall 2020, with 41% uncertain when this would occur.

My initial reaction was cynical, saying that three in five of US college presidents are delusional. In my survey this week (1 response, held Tuesday evening) I described a four-phase response of higher education to COVID-19, arguing that the Fall 2020 term would be continued turmoil.

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.

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

Upon reflection, however, I think there is another way to interpret the two survey findings since both were held in late March. The first shelter-in-place order was made in California on March 20th – after the IHE survey – and now most of the country is on some form of lockdown. Initial estimates of these lockdowns were thought to end in early April, but now most estimate the end as the first week of May at the earliest. A lot has changed in just the past two weeks.

Another reason for a different interpretation is that in-person and online education are not binary choices. Individual institutions may resume in-person classes in some cases (e.g. small course sections) but not others (e.g. large lecture classes), or they may start face-to-face and then change to online, or vice virsa. There are several hybrid alternatives possible that might mix a resumption of some in-person classes and a continuation of many remote classes.

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.