COVID-19, academia, and the big push online: an update

How is higher education responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak?

(If you’re new to this blog, I’ve been tracking the virus since it appeared in January, as part of my broader project of studying the future of higher education. You can find all of my posts about the topic here.)

The virus continues to spread. I won’t summarize that here today, because of time, but you can find more from these sources. It’s starting to impact some campuses now. The University of Sydney lost more than one fifth of its students, who are Chinese nationals. Several California and Washington state universities stated that some of their populations have been exposed to the coronavirus. A researcher (not faculty?) at Rice University (Texas) might have COVID-19, so the campus “asked a ‘small group of students and faculty’ to self-quarantine.” The University of Queensland investigated an infected student who may have visited one of its campuses. New Zealand campuses fear students falling behind in their studies, as well as institutional financial stress. Some universities in northern Italy remain closed. ( Japan closed K-12 schools; no impact on higher ed yet.)

Several American campuses announced a suspension of their study abroad and international partnership programs in certain nations: China, Italy, Japan in particular. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) asked all campuses to think about suspending study abroad everywhere:

Given the global outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) institutes of higher education (IHE) should consider postponing or canceling upcoming student foreign exchange programs. IHE should consider asking current program participants to return to their home country. Those overseeing student foreign exchange programs should be aware that students may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad.

IHEs should consider asking students participating in study abroad programs to return to the United States. (repeated boldface in original)

The US Department of Education announced a task force to look into the impact of this disease on schooling.

Academic events are starting to be hit. EDUCAUSE canceled its ELI conference in Washington state. The Asia-Pacific Association for International Education Conference and Exhibition (#APAIE2020) canceled its Vancouver event. The American Physical Society canceled its Colorado meeting.

March Madness basketball games might be played without in-person audiences. No word on canceling games and practices; any news on this score, readers?

A University of Albany student party elicited attention and controversy for having a coronavirus theme:

A since-deleted video of off-campus party, which featured Corona Extra beer, surgical masks and a white sheet decorated with a biohazard symbol, appeared on the Instagram account @BarstoolAlbany last weekend with the caption, “Corona virus isn’t gonna stop anyone from partying.”

Academic research continues worldwide, even dramatically:

What does this all mean?

Campuses may be reacting more quickly than they did a month ago. Karin Fischer notes of the decisions to break off connections with afflicted nations: “The swiftness of those decisions is notable in comparison to deliberations when coronavirus first broke out in China.”

Campus emergency plans and exercises seem to be being updated and tested.

How many members of a given academic community lack sufficient access to health care? Think of faculty, staff, and especially students in the developing world, or in the United States. Should they consider themselves infected, some will not seek testing or medical attention. They may suffer and spread COVID-19 further. In addition, how many people employed by colleges and universities lack sufficient sick leave, and will force themselves to keep working while ill? How will institutions address this?

I wonder if campuses or on-campus projects are planning on asking governments for financial relief as international students drop (short term) and public revenues tighten (medium term). Reuters reports that the Italian government is already working up aid plans to its injured economy.

I would like to draw attention to two big, overlapping, and potential developments: a big push online for colleges and universities and a boost to video. Several American universities rapidly migrated classes online for their Chinese partner campuses, including NYU, Duke, and Fort Hays State. That’s both asynchronous (LMS etc) and synchronous (videoconferencing).

This could simply keep going. Students, faculty, and staff may feel increasingly nervous about being in face to face meetings and will prefer to work and study remotely. We already have access to a lot of the tech, and maintain some of it in house: campus hosted or leased LMS, document hosting (Google Apps, Office 365), email, some video solution (Elluminate, Connect, Shindig, Zoom, etc). Networked hardware is fairly widespread, if unevenly.

Me this morning after voting, back in my office. I may be spending a lot more time here.

Which brings us to challenges. My readers know that the digital divide means unequal access to bandwidth, which can limit use of video and large files. Faculty are not universally schooled, practiced in, and happy about teaching online. Campuses may lack sufficient staff to enable a big, fast online push. This is also happening during the middle of academic terms in many instance, which makes the transition even more difficult.

Video may pose particular challenges. While humanity loves video, most are not skilled and practiced at creating it. Think of awful webinars you’ve been exposed to, for a sample of how low the quality can be. And we still don’t view video as an adequate substitute for in person connection, generally; we may deem rushed online education to be a poor experience.

Student age may play a role here. Let’s assume that the data we have now about age and coronavirus lethality holds true, at least in general perception. The older one is, the more dangerous COVID-19 is, especially after age 70. For example, according to the data aggregated by Worldometer:

If this data bears out — or, more importantly, if most people believe and act upon it — then we could see efforts to enroll senior citizens become more digital. Which can be challenging, given that population’s tendency to be less digitally experienced as well as being likely to have less tech access. What are the best practices here if “[w]e will interact with students in a different way,” as an al-Jazeera video quietly observes?

There’s a broader context for this discussion. Such an online migration is buttressed by a similar, larger move across society. As people increasingly find face-to-face contact problematic, they will likely shift more functions and experienced into the digital realm. Shopping in stores, where COVID-infected folks will be coughing? Head to Amazon and Etsy. Health care, where crucial workers are overexposed? Anticipate a rise in various forms of telemedicine. Want to see a movie or live concert? The digital world offers plentiful riches. 2020 may well see the past generation’s digital migration accelerate, both in the world at large and within academia in particular.

I will blog more about this potential/unfolding migration as I can.

(thanks to Jay Sieling for one fine link; thanks to my Patreon supporters for thinking through this with me)

Originally published at on March 3, 2020.

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.