The Pivot in Higher Education
Courtesy of David Platt, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin
“Pivot” is not a word often associated with higher education, but it’s exactly what happened in response to this spring’s COVID-19 epidemic. Schools closed their campuses with almost no advance notice and faculty and students, who had heretofore embraced in-person instruction as a cornerstone of the research university experience, were thrust unceremoniously into remote teaching and learning. It was a “ready or not” effort that showed the cracks that might be expected but, for the most part, met its limited goal of delivering the remaining course content in some form so that students could credibly receive credit for the classes they had already half completed.
As we move into online teaching in the summer and plan for a hoped-for socially-distanced return to campus in the fall, we need to raise our sights much higher than that limited spring goal. With the benefit of more time and some helpful hindsight, we are working feverishly to make the lemons of online necessity into the lemonade of a reinvented educational model. At the same time, we are trying to make sure we are sensitive to health and safety needs of all of our communities and the stresses in their lives (lost family income, technology challenges at home, health crises, and so on), while also grappling with our own economic challenges of cancelled programs, facilities closures, refunds, lost revenue opportunities, and incremental response costs. International students have even greater challenges, with visa uncertainty, time zone differences, financial issues due to COVID and the strong dollar ($1.09 to the Euro as I write this!), and on and on.
There are longer-term concerns, yes, but also but also longer-term opportunities. The aforementioned embrace of in-person instruction was also sometimes a barrier to adoption of instructional technology and practices that can raise the quality of instruction. To be sure, there were faculty practicing these techniques previously, but diffusion was slow, if persistent. Today, it is commonplace to hear, “We are going to do in the next six months what would have taken six years.” Probably so, but not without significant challenges. The unknown of socially-distanced education may lead to student attrition and lowered tuition revenues. Public universities are likely to have to share in the financial pain experienced by their governments. And massive losses in auxiliary revenue (from dormitories, athletics programs, research facilities, parking, theater programming, etc.) and increased costs (for instance, extra millions in learning technology expenditures) will cause layoffs and retrenchment in programs. Endowments may suffer from a prolonged stock market downturn and, in UT’s case, from low oil proceeds. The economic consequences of limited operations could be severe.
Institutions with strong online programs before the pandemic were well positioned for this scenario. Most institutions were not, and some (looking at you, research universities) were passively resistant to online teaching. Change won’t be easy, but as they say, never let a good crisis go to waste!
But the big unknown is COVID 2.0. Everyone who is planning to reopen with at least a degree of in-person classes and activities is also making contingency plans for a second surge. The goal is not to be caught short like we were in spring and to be ready to flip the switch seamlessly to quality online education if necessary.
While some institutions had a strong online presence, most are struggling to adjust, and not all student populations have computers and internet access. The greatest risks fall to the most financially vulnerable students, and colleges and universities are rallying to help. UT friends and alumni have donated over $1.3 million to date that was directly funneled to students for emergency aid, much of it to help students achieve the computing resources they needed for participating remotely in their classes. The most financially vulnerable schools are also in trouble: those with operating deficits, small endowments, high tuitions, and that depend on large subsidization programs to attract students from around the country — when a lot of students are choosing to stay closer to home. Furthermore, second- and third-tier MBA programs were already struggling with the shift in demand for the MBA degree and this won’t help.
Finally, I should note we are building this bridge as we cross it, and it is exhilarating and exhausting. But the embrace of change here at UT and beyond, and seeing my colleagues rise passionately to the challenges day after day after day, reminds me why I am so proud to be part of this educational community. We will reach the end of this bridge — only to find another chasm waiting. That is the nature of the change that has been set in motion. But having crossed one we will be (more) ready next time.