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COVID-ED: Never Let a Crisis go to Waste

Over the last couple of weeks, I started thinking about how the push to move classes online, as a response to COVID-19, might impact Higher Ed. With the closure of UW and Stanford, over the weekend, the problem began to appear more urgent. (Though it may not be complete, here is a list of institutions that have been closed, that is being updated by volunteers: )

On Saturday, I composed a piece that summarized a few of my thoughts about the long-term impact of rushed online implementations to provide continuity when campuses were forced to close. The full piece can be found here: However, the thesis is a relatively simple one: in the rush to put courses online, quality will suffer dramatically, which will result in negative impressions of online learning, thereby erasing hard-fought gains that have been made in the field over the last 25+ years.

In writing that thought piece, I engaged in one of the most dangerous practices possible – forecasting the future. Let me assure you that my intent was not to do so; I learned my lesson in that respect when I authored a book chapter on the future of EdTech about a decade ago. Miraculously, about 20% of what I wrote about actually came to pass, however, the 80% that I got wrong is what I still get questions about today – from all 30 people who actually read the chapter. That said, my intent was not to try to game out what would happen in the current crisis, but rather ask some critical questions about how decisions that are currently being made might impact the direction of Higher Ed moving forward.

Though I posted the piece on a Saturday, the response rate was much higher than I ever anticipated. Across LinkedIn and Facebook, there were more than 60 responses, with some additional, abbreviated chatter on Twitter. However, it was the private messages and emails that surprised me – there were approximately 100, with a few more trickling in this morning. Categorically, they ranged from thank you notes, to outright, hostile criticism, with the overarching theme being, “What can we realistically be expected to do about it?” This was then followed up by some disclaimer, such as, “This was a Black Swan event that no one could have seen coming.”

Having had some time to reflect, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I wrote was somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction, based on two factors. First, like many others reading this I have spent a good portion of my life in Higher Ed, working in areas a diverse as grounded theory, ed tech, and learning analytics. Further, I have had to good fortune to be in on the ground-floor in all of these areas and had to opportunity to work with some tremendous people and organizations, to make meaningful contributions to the field. Thus, looking at, what I deemed to be the most plausible outcome of the rush to move online, I felt like a proud parent who was about to be told that their baby was ugly.

Second, I would argue that the rise of COVID-19 was far from a Black Swan event. Sure, the specifics of the virus might not have been predictable, but we all knew that a pandemic was possible. Though there may have been earlier instances, in 1994, Luarie Garrett wrote the “Coming Plague” (, which placed the issue of pandemics squarely in the public domain. Subsequent events such as the SARS and Ebola outbreaks reinforced her thesis that we live in a world that is so interconnected that there will inevitably be pandemics of varying degrees of severity. However, we tend to want to store the possibility of such events in the dark recesses of our minds, along with nuclear war, runaway global warming, and an assortment of other not so pleasant thoughts.

Flash forward to today and we find university administrators blowing the dust off of emergency preparedness and contingency plans, in which the originals were produced on manual typewriters and reproduced on mimeograph machines. Granted, there are some institutions, such as those in disaster prone areas (e.g. areas likely to be hit by hurricanes), that undoubtedly have very robust contingency plans that could be adapted to the current situation, however, they are in the minority. As a result of this lack of planning, we are now seeing a rush to create quick fixes that range from palatable to the absurd. Without naming names, one of the most horrifying plans I have heard goes something like this, “We will be perfectly fine. We have (a significant number) of instructional designers. It is our estimate that each of these ID’s can convert a class to online every thirty minutes. Based on this assumption, we feel that we will be able to convert (a staggering number) of courses and sections, within 48 hours, should we need to close down our campus.” I’m certain that will work out just fine and produce stellar results.

With respect to the later, there is nothing that can be done about it now. We are truly in the midst of a crisis and steps have to be taken to provide continuity, both in terms of institutional operation and student learning. With respect to the former, I was guilty of ignoring the fact that change is constant and, though dramatic, this is just another manifestation of change.

Here it is important to recall two axioms. First, though there are variants dating back to at least 1934, in a 2008 WSJ interview, Rahm Emanual said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Second, Sam Walton once said, “I’ve always thought of problems as challenges.”

So, given the fact that we are about to see some seriously ugly babies being born, what challenges / opportunities present themselves and what can be salvaged?

To answer this, it is informative to understand what is likely to take place. To set the stage, last Thursday, the Department of Education, issued guidance on how institutions may implement stop-gap measures to address the current situation ( ).

A synopsis of the guidance was published on EducationDive ( ), including this key sentence, “Broadly, the department is allowing institutions to use online learning technologies to add or expand some online classes to accommodate students without having to go through the department's regular approval process.” If we dig a little deeper into the DoE guidance, we find this, “In other words, an instructor could use email to provide instructional materials to students enrolled in his or her class, use chat features to communicate with students, set up conference calls to facilitate group conversations, engage in email exchanges or require students to submit work electronically that the instructor will evaluate.”

In other words, the DoE is giving institutions a tremendous amount of latitude to take whatever measures necessary to ensure continuity. Through conversations, reading various forums, following the Higher Ed press, and social media streams I am convinced that what we are about to see, in the vast majority of cases, is what purists would define as an online hybrid / blended format. In other words, class resources, assignments, and assessments will be aggregated either in an LMS or some other repository. These will be considered ancillary to synchronous class lectures, which will likely be recorded for subsequent viewing by students who could not attend the live session. The literature is replete with studies demonstrating why, in the vast majority of cases, this is a terrible idea and how it will result in reduced cognitive gain, as well as poor satisfaction on the part of faculty and students. That said, it is the only viable short-term solution that we have.

Why this is the only viable, short-term, solutions is related to finances and the inexorably intertwined shortage of instructional designers. There is an old saying that there are three ways to do things: good, fast, and cheap, but only two can be had at once. With respect to Higher Ed, my friend, Bryan Alexander has chronicled the plight of financially strapped colleges and universities as they deal with closures and queen sacrifices. Here is one excellent blog posting he has written on the topic .

Today, the financial condition of institutions comes into focus again as they are forced to consider if they want fast and good or fast and cheap to manifest in their rush to put courses online. The people who put the “good” into courses are instructional designers, who at many institutions have been severely marginalized over the years. Please note that I say MANY, as there are institutions that put a very high value on ID and have built high quality programs through systematic implementation of best practices in design and pedagogy, using these individuals. Sadly though, there are more institutions that have a few token ID’s to offer assistance, but only when faculty believe they need help. As I pointed out in my previous post, these are the individuals that must be relied upon to achieve a “good and fast” outcome at this point in time.

However, they are in short supply, at least in relative terms. A series of replies to the original article, via a Facebook thread, sums up the situation:

FRIEND 1: The only implausible part of this is the 2-3 instructional designers in the obscure building: they were laid-off in the last downturn. Now the institution contracts any such work (and their contractors are suddenly so swamped that they're not answering comms). The few lucky institutions with ID degree programs or certification are probably trying to figure out right now if first-semester students know enough yet to be useful....

FRIEND 2: Friend 1 lots of independent qualified contracts out there to assist.

FRIEND 1: Check back with me on availability when the number of US students suddenly transferred to online reaches 2-3 million....

Note, that as of this morning (March 10), about 600,000 students, in the US, have been impacted by closures, with more certain to follow. Though the above comment was offered somewhat facetiously, I suspect those numbers will be achieved sooner than later. Thus, the ubiquitous uptake of the online hybrid / blended seems all but inevitable. Given this reality, how can academia keep this crisis from going to waste? And what opportunities can be found in the challenges that we face? What follows are three broad categories, which I believe offer Higher Ed to engage in a once in a lifetime set of opportunities.

First, as outlined above, the predominant means of moving online quickly involves heavy use of video conferencing tools, through which faculty will deliver lectures in an attempt to replicate the on-ground environment. While the merits of this approach are questionable at best, it provides a golden opportunity for knowledge capture; I doubt we will ever see another opportunity to capture every lecture by every instructor. This is highly significant, as there is an immense amount of content knowledge that face-to-face faculty have contained entirely in their memory, that exists nowhere else. Likewise, these same faculty have a wealth of tacit knowledge, developed over years of teaching, that has never been captured. Instructional designers who may be reading this will immediately say, “Well of course that’s the case. Extracting those types of knowledge is what we do on a daily basis.” While this is true, the concept is likely completely alien to many others within the university. Thus, what we have is the opportunity to capture centuries worth of knowledge over one small point in time.

Keeping the above in mind, it is therefore imperative that each and every lecture that is being delivered be captured and archived for future analysis. At this point I can already hear the objection that we are talking about so much content that it will never be sorted. However, there are now cognitive search and machine learning tools that will quickly analyze video for content, emotion, key themes, and embedded images. This can in tern be used to later create chunked video content that has been correlated with significant cognitive gain and repurposed as learning objects. Additionally, output from such analysis can be used to form robust taxonomies that help define both new and existing content by subject area.

From a logistical perspective though, it is important to make sure that the right solutions are being used. While there are dozens of options available, not all are designed for enterprise level use.

GoToMeeting and Zoom are solutions that likely resonate with many in academia and as far as I am aware, all are making efforts to help institutions get through this trying time. However, if you are looking for solutions that have robust enterprise offerings, that will also allow for substantive post-hoc data analysis, as described above it is worth looking at three of my favorites, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect, and Google Hangouts. Teams has the benefit of native integration with Office 365, including little known applications such as OneNote, as well as the ability to federate associated resources in SharePoint. Connect has a long history of offering features associated with Rapid eLearning and realtime quizzing / polling options.

Like Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts offers integration with other Google Classroom and productivity tools, such as Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc. On the enterprise side, Cisco is also making WebEx is another solid option, and as with the three previous vendors are making their solution available to institutions as a response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Second, closely aligned with lecture delivery and capture, is federation of learning assets. While ensuring that all course assets are in one place is the norm for online learning, it is frequently not the case with on-ground classes.

Even though an institution may have an LMS and generate shells for every section of every course, it is not uncommon for instructors to not take advantage of this offering for one reason of the other. Now, we have a situation where all content must be federated to make it available to students. Whether this is done in the LMS or through another repository, such as Sharepoint, the fact is that institutions will have all course content aggregated; for many for the first time in their history. Having this amount of federated content is the stuff, that instructional designers and librarians salivate over, however, as with the aforementioned lectures, the amount of material is likely to be staggering. As with lectures it is also a perfect use case for large scale cognitive mining and data categorization; one that is likely not going to be occur again in the near future.

Third, as institutions work with faculty and staff to rapidly deploy courses online, there will be a wealth of process information generated. Emails, memos, meeting notes, planning documents, and a host of other related data will be generated. While perhaps of limited utility initially, these materials should be archived, along with post-event interviews, for knowledge mining. In other words, the formal and informal procedures, along with all of the tacit knowledge that is applied to creating solutions can be cognitively mined and made explicit and correlated with outcomes to create a working body of knowledge than can be applied to future contingency planning.

Though it is difficult to look beyond the horizon when events of this magnitude impact operations, Higher Ed could forever be positively impacted by these tragic events if even a small amount of resources are dedicated to the preservation of the data that will be generated. While in the near term outcomes from the rushed delivery of courses may be less than desirable, and potentially damaging to the field of online learning, this crisis also presents us with an opportunity to positively impact the future – if we dedicate even a small amount of time and effort to being systematic about how we proceed.

Chief Solutions Officer at Analytikus

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Analytikus. From:

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