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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

March 11, 2020

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Coronavirus could be the “black swan” moment for higher education as we know it.

Colleges by the dozen are canceling in-person classes and scrambling to create remote-teaching alternatives. Is it crazy to think that a new virus could be more of a catalyst for online education and other ed-tech tools than decades of punditry and self-serving corporate exhortations?

Not in the least. What Hurricane Katrina was to colleges in New Orleans, the reverberations from coronavirus will be to all of American higher education: a reset moment that prompts colleges to rethink how they operate at every level.

Sweeping predictions are dicey, especially considering that higher ed hasn’t even begun to feel the full impact of the coronavirus crisis, or the financial havoc that will follow in its wake.

But consider what’s happened already: campuses shutting down and bringing thousands of study-abroad students back home, education associations calling off major conferences, colleges replacing visits for admitted new students with virtual programming, and alumni leaders talking about ways to remake large-scale reunion gatherings and commencement ceremonies. It seems safe to say that this will be not only enormously disruptive but also paradigm changing. The “black swan,” that unforeseen event that changes everything, is upon us.

I know, I know. We’ve heard these bold assertions before. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, several experts predicted a long fallout in international enrollments, only to see signs of a rebound within a year. And as the Great Recession tightened its grip on the economy, plenty of folks expected colleges to heed the “don’t waste a crisis” advice and radically revamp their cost structures. (I was one of those making that argument, as you can read here.) Ten years later, signs of progress on that front are hard to find.

Still, when you look at how quickly colleges are moving to convert their face-to-face teaching into remote formats — the most immediate visible response — it seems clear that the reaction to this emerging national emergency will be more than a blip, even after the particular risks of Covid-19 have passed.

I say this because once colleges develop the ability to serve their students via technology, there’s little reason for them to abandon it. That doesn’t mean giving up on in-person teaching. But as the ed-tech executive John Katzman suggested to me this week, these events could prompt colleges to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs, and instead just develop programs that could be offered during good times and during crises. “This will push schools to move faster to that model,” said Katzman, “to be truly agile.” Agility is good.

Katzman, let’s be honest, has his own vested interest in this new, more-agile model. His company, Noodle, is in the business of helping colleges put their academic programs online. Over the past week or so, he said, he’s seen not so much an increase in inquiries but a notable “uptick in the urgency” in the ones he’s getting. “People want to get moving much, much faster.”

Still, his assessment makes sense. As he oh-so-delicately said to me: “Only idiots would survive this experience and learn nothing.”

Agility, flexibility, and resiliency aren’t just crucial skills for 21st-century students. They’re also vital skills for 21st-century institutions — especially in an era when disruptive superbugs and superstorms are predicted to become all the more common.

This is not an argument that residential colleges will stop being place-focused. That’s kind of the point of a college, after all: to be a community of teachers and learners.

But just as companies (mine included) prepare for the contingency of “social distancing” as a temporary new normal, colleges that can develop more of the pedagogical and administrative muscles to operate as distributed organizations will probably be stronger for it.

Quote of the week.

“In 1665, Cambridge University closed because of the plague. Issac Newton decided to work from home. He discovered calculus & the laws of motion. Just saying.” — Paddy Cosgrave

Cosgrave, chief executive of Web Summit, in atweetlast week reflecting on the ramifications of coronavirus. The company runs technology conferences around the world.
To be clear, the rush to remote education on the fly isn’t the same as providing students with a thoughtfully designed online course, as my colleagues recently outlined in this story describing what works and what might suffer.

And as Christine Wolff-Eisenberg of Ithaka S+R, a consultancy, recently noted, surveys show that fewer than half of professors even believe that their institutions value the work involved in using digital technologies to improve instruction or provide the training necessary to facilitate it. Until that changes, it will be hard for colleges to make this pivot to online — or to do so in an effective way.

In fact, as the scholar Cathy Davidson warned on Twitter, it could even backfire on companies. “I suspect for-profit edTech thinks this ‘go online overnight’ is a boon,” she wrote. “It may turn out to be a nightmare that shows us how impossible it is: uneven access to bandwidth, enormous infrastructure, crappy learning unless you are experienced and dedicated and know how.”

Still, there’s no denying that momentum is shifting. One data point: Check out the hashtags like #remoteteaching and #instructionalcontinuity on social media and you’ll see dozens of examples of professors and others sharing tips and resources. A stopgap? Sure. But it’s something.

Beyond the classroom, it’s an even more complex story. The next few months (or the next year?) will be a trying time for college leaders. It’ll be an expensive one too, once folks start adding up the costs of canceled semesters, meal plans, and housing contracts, not to mention the uncertainty of enrollments come the fall. And if this hastens a recession, as some economists are already predicting, that certainly won’t help. This “black swan” should be a call to action. Those who don’t heed that call may just end up as sitting ducks.

The fallout for education conferences could be telling too.

As it happens, Katzman’s company Noodle also developed the technology for a social-learning platform that the American Council on Education has been using since April to communicate with the college presidents and others who make up its membership. On Monday, ACE canceled its big annual meeting, which had been slated to begin this week. More than 1,500 would-be attendees won’t be hobnobbing in San Diego, but many of them can still interact with one another online — and even share ideas and resources about the virus that undermined their meeting if they join the “Covid-19 Resources and Guidance” discussion group on the Engage platform. It’s not quite like being there, certainly not for the businesses whose sponsorships have become a key part of the conference game, financially and programatically. But it’ll get the job done.

The majority of the 1,800 users of Engage are ACE members, but it’s open to all higher-education professionals. It’s free now but eventually the association plans to institute a tiered pricing system, with ACE members getting some preferential benefits. If people flock to the platform, could that make it less disruptive for associations that can’t hold their annual meetings this year?

The virtual meetings may not be much fun either. But there could be advantages. I’m testing this out firsthand right now. I’m writing this newsletter from my desk this week, but I was supposed to be in Austin, Tex., attending SXSW EDU and hosting our sixth annual “Shark Tank: Edu Edition.”

SXSW was cancelled last Friday, but with the help of the University Innovation Alliance, we held it anyway, over the internet, with participants logging in from D.C, Iowa City, Menlo Park, New Orleans, New York City, and San Francisco. We broadcast it over YouTube for anyone to see live or later. Here’s a link.

The pitches and reactions ran too late to make the deadline for this week, but I’ll share details in next week’s newsletter. By then, who knows how many people will have watched.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.