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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: Partners, ‘Vultures,’ and Other Dispatches From Higher Ed’s Grand Move Online

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.

Dispatches from higher ed’s grand move online.

Everyone’s busy. Everyone’s stressed. So let’s get to it. Colleges (and the rest of us) are suddenly reliant on technology as a lifeline. Here are four themes I heard from my conversations these past few days with college technology leaders, ed-tech company executives, and professors and librarians in the teaching trenches.

This isn’t a time for colleges to try new things. Millions of students are now, or soon will start, taking courses remotely with a tech infrastructure that’s been cobbled together in a matter of weeks. Thousands of professors are teaching that way, supported by advisers and administrators who also have never worked remotely before. For the immediate future, the biggest needs are for more connectivity and more capacity.

As Sue Workman, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, told me, “This is not the time to make changes in your environment unless you’re sorely behind.” The only significant bit of new technology she’s added is software to allow online proctoring.

Nor is it a time when college leaders have the inclination or the bandwidth to consider offers about new products or even offers of advice.

“We’re relying on existing connections and our existing partnerships,” said Sharon Pitt, chief information officer at the University of Delaware. Even in less-hectic times, people in her position get inundated with pitches and cold calls. Now, especially, patience is running thin. “I’ve never been more clear about what I’m deleting in my inbox,” she told me.

To be sure, there has been an outpouring of offers — so much so that the higher-ed technology organization Educause began a spreadsheet that lists providers offering free, discounted, or expanded services to colleges. It’s sorted by three tabs: open educational resources, technology, and access. Even with curated lists like that, the volume of information and “help” is swamping many college decision makers, several of whom used words like “overwhelming” and “triage” to describe how they are sorting through the information overload. (The irritation is starting to show too, as reflected in some of the pointed comments to be found on social media under the #DearVendor hashtag — and a less-snarky post by the college CIO turned consultant Raechelle Clemmons.)

As for those colleges without extensive IT partnerships, most are turning to peer institutions for help, not vendors they’ve never worked with before, according to Educause’s president, John O’Brien.

In a few months that might change. But until then, vendors, take note. (Or as one person said on Twitter, “read the room.”)

Some have. Fred Singer, chief executive of Echo360, a lecture-capture company, said: “I expect all our customers are besieged, and if you don’t have a prior relationship, nothing is getting through.” He doesn’t think that will change for several months. His marching orders to his employees? “Just go help them.”

College leaders are grateful to the good guys — and pledging to remember the “vultures.” The many companies that have readily expanded licenses and canceled restrictions like time limits on conference calls (God bless Zoom, right?) are earning the gratitude of their customers.

But some weren’t so quick on the draw, and a few CIOs haven’t been shy about calling them out. Pitt, at Delaware, was one of them. Last week she took to Twitter to chide officials at one company as “a bit tone-deaf for our current situation” when they seemed to be demanding tough terms on a tech tool that would allow more students to use lab software remotely. That resolved the problem pretty quickly. “In fact,” she told me, “they came up with an entirely new licensing model in a day.”

On an email list for CIOs, meanwhile, some warned explicitly about price gouging. “When this current crisis passes, we will remember the vendors who were our partners and those who were vultures,” wrote David Harris, vice president for information systems at Loma Linda University. “The partners will survive this.”

Offers of free software and other tools leave many people wary — because they recognize it won’t last. Major textbook and scholarly publishers have been offering free access to their materials, and several companies are doing the same. For the most part, that’s been welcomed. Yet in some cases, librarians and others are a bit hesitant about accepting such offers. On The Chronicle’s new Facebook page, where academics are discussing the coronavirus crisis, one person likened such pitches to an offer of a “free puppy” (which I’m pretty certain wasn’t meant as praise).

Another participant, Carrie Fishner, wrote: “Be careful of the free offers, as many will turn into paid subscription content in a few months.” Fishner, a librarian at the State University of New York at Delhi, told me that she appreciates the generosity but worries that professors might become attached to offerings that “are completely out of our price range” or valuable to only a few people, and so not cost-effective for the institution in the long run.

As the crisis continues, the digital divide won’t hurt just students. It will also exacerbate the gulf between have and have-not institutions. For the rest of this semester, colleges will get by — some a lot better than others. But if campuses can’t reopen this summer, or are still relying heavily on remote education and remote operations by the fall, the institutions lacking a robust tech infrastructure will be at a severe disadvantage. That includes many struggling historically black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and small private colleges.

Credit to Jack Suess, vice president for information technology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, for raising that point in a recent Educause video interview. (BTW, Educause will host a webinar on Thursday focused more directly on teaching and learning challenges; my colleague Beth McMurtrie, who’s been writing extensively on that issue, is one of the guests.)

Meanwhile, many colleges are scrambling right now to get laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other needed devices into the hands of low-income students who don’t have them. “You can do a lot on a smartphone, but you can’t do everything,” said Joe Moreau, CIO of the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District, in California. “Laptops are going to become the new toilet paper any day now.”

Moreau estimates that as many as 20 percent of his colleges’ students don’t have laptops. Extrapolate that out to all 115 of the California Community Colleges, and it adds up to some 400,000 students. “We have not lost sight of the fact that resources are not equitably distributed,” he told me.

Nationally, according to data Educause recently compiled to help institutions respond to the Covid-19 crisis, about 10 percent of community-college students don’t have access to a laptop. Among students at four-year colleges, the figure is about 8 percent.

The nation’s largest college system does, however, have some advantages. California’s two-year colleges have been collaborating on online education since 2013, when the then governor, Jerry Brown, pushed for that. Now, under the auspices of the California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative, which Foothill-DeAnza helps to oversee, the colleges share access to the same learning-management system and other online instructional tools, including proctoring, videoconferencing, student advising, and even professional development for faculty members.

“If we didn’t have that,” Moreau told me, “we would be in a much bigger world of hurt.”

One additional thought — from me. I’ve covered higher-ed policy and business for 32 years, and higher-ed IT since its earliest days. The speed at which colleges have moved to remote learning — and remote management — is head-spinning.

After Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, the Sloan Consortium (forerunner of today’s Online Learning Consortium) coordinated efforts to help thousands of storm-displaced students enroll in online classes offered by other colleges. Stephen Laster, chief product officer at Ellucian and a former Sloan-C board member, reminded me of that effort last week. He called it “as close as we’ve ever gotten to this before.”

But even that isn’t close. That was students in the thousands. This is students in the millions. There’s no precedent for how institutions and organizations, and vendors have been offering up help and resources to one another in the past few weeks. Overwhelming — and at times annoying? For sure. But heartening? Absolutely.

Another personal message.

Many of you appreciated the counsel from my rabbi that I passed along last week, about keeping physically distant but redoubling our “social solidarity” with friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Glad that resonated, and he, too, is grateful for your response.

As we enter Week 2 of our self-quarantining, here’s some more advice — this time from my millennial nephew: “Stay safe and stay sane.” To that I’ll add, “Stay humane.” History has shown us the consequences of doing otherwise.

To see how staying humane translates into the classroom, check out this interview my Teaching newsletter colleague Beckie Supiano just did with a professor of religious studies. And for a poignant taste of serenity — and a reminder of the creativity of people in the arts — check out this clip while you please, please, #StayAtHome.

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.