Don’t be like Oxford.
It’s not every day one advises colleges and universities to avoid acting like one of the world’s premier higher education institutions, but Oxford’s inaction in the aftermath of the Black Death is a rare case where such advice is justified.
The Black Death and higher education
The Black Death was a bacterial pandemic that swept across Eurasia in the 1340s and 1350s, wiping out approximately one-third of Europe’s population. It was a profoundly destructive event that contributed to massive social and economic change; higher education was not immune. Much of this will sound familiar to observers of contemporary higher education.
Population decline led to decreased enrollment.
Decreased enrollment led to financial devastation for many institutions, some of which closed or temporarily suspended operations.
A decline in elite patronage of students and institutions made it harder for many students to afford to attend.
Temporary declines in locally-available primary education led to a smaller university-eligible population.
Over time, changing patterns of student interest led to faculty shortages in newly popular areas and faculty surpluses in less popular ones.
Scholarship on how universities responded to this crisis is sparse, but we know a thing or two about how two English institutions, Oxford and Cambridge, managed the aftermath.
Inaction vs. strategic investment
Today, Oxford and Cambridge are world-class universities. Although neck-and-neck in today’s world university rankings, medieval Oxford was the clear leader in English higher education. Cambridge’s reaction to the Black Death changed that.
Medieval higher education was heavily geared towards training clergy for service in the Catholic Church. Some evidence suggests that clergy, especially in the lower and middle ranks of the Church, were killed off at higher rates than the general population during the Black Death, which caused major shortages of trained personnel for those positions. Cambridge recognized that and took advantage.
Cambridge founded three new colleges in the late 1340s and early 1350s as a direct consequence of the Black Death, which expanded the university’s capacity to admit and support students. It prospered as a result. Only after 10 years and a second attack of the plague did Oxford finally follow Cambridge’s lead. While it would be a stretch to claim that Cambridge’s current position is a direct result of its reaction to the Black Death, the episode can’t be discounted as an important contributor to the university’s rise to modern prominence. The universities of today could learn a thing or two about successful adaptation in the midst of a pandemic.
Pre-existing crisis in modern higher education
COVID-19 has accelerated, intensified, and added to a number of pre-existing challenges, including declining enrollments, financial difficulties, and shifting trends in student majors. Some institutions are better positioned to withstand them, but none are immune and all must strategize for them. There is one area, however, where the pandemic has undoubtedly and dramatically altered the landscape: online education.
Online education prior to COVID-19
Since emerging in the 1990s, online education has steadily gained in enrollment and acceptance. The number of U.S. students enrolled in at least one online course increased from 1.6 million in 2002 (~ 10% of total enrollment) to 6.9 million in 2018 (~ 35% of total enrollment). From 2013 to 2018, the number of faculty members who taught an online course rose from 30% to 46%. In the same period, the percentage of faculty members who believed that online classes were at least as good as face-to-face classes in achieving student outcomes rose from 21% to 38%. In other words, online education was already a hugely important higher education sub-sector prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the increasing prominence of online education prior to 2020, much work remained to be done to increase its effectiveness and ensure equitable online student outcomes. For example, research suggests that taking courses online increases the probability that students will drop out; traditionally-aged and lower-income students are particularly susceptible to harm. Further, high-quality online and blended instruction requires extensive support for students and faculty. Academic advising for online students presents unique challenges. Prior to COVID, some institutions excelled at online student and faculty support, but many did not. The crisis has made plain that those maladies can no longer go untreated.
The COVID Effect
For a brief moment in the spring 2020 semester, and perhaps for the first/last time in history, virtually all U.S. higher education courses went online. That mass transition, and the still-rippling shock waves that resulted from it, will have far-reaching consequences for higher education. While it’s still too early to know exactly how COVID-19 will permanently change the landscape of online higher education, it’s fair to say that it is accelerating trends that began prior to the crisis. It’s also created some new trends of its own.
Predictions are perhaps a fool’s game, but I’m comfortable putting forth three predictions that I think will have a major impact on higher education for the foreseeable future. These predictions will be most evident in the rising population of traditionally-aged college students (18–22 year-olds), but no student sub-group will be immune.
People will want to get out and be around other people.
Humans are social animals and people are tired of quarantine. When the pandemic ends, people will flock to social experiences and interaction. Like prior generations indelibly marked by depression and war, the experience of living through COVID will leave scars that will never entirely disappear. Quarantine fatigue and craving for social interaction will drive high demand for in-person education for the foreseeable future.
Demand for educational technology will be higher than ever.
With some possible exceptions, the days of college courses being conducted entirely in-person and on paper are over. The courses of the future will need to have both human and technological components, giving students more autonomy over how they engage with course content, instructors, and peers. They will demand options. Students who want to sit in a classroom will be able to do so, but students who would rather watch a live stream or a recorded video of the class session will have that option as well. Even in-person students will demand extensive use of learning management systems, access to web-conferencing tools, on-demand instructional video, and virtual advising and office hours.
Incoming students will be sophisticated consumers of educational technology.
For at least the next 10–15 years, incoming students will have more experience with online education than any generation prior. There will be few tools or technologies they haven’t used and they are likely to have strong opinions about many of them. In addition to demanding preferred technologies and craving social interaction, they will have little patience for outdated teaching methods and ineffective technologies.
Investing for the future
A Chinese proverb says that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time to plant a tree is now. Similarly, the best time for colleges and universities to invest in online education was three months, one year, or 20 years ago. Failing that, now is the time for careful, realistic, and strategic investments.
I am not advocating that every higher education institution go “all-in” on online education. In today’s resource-constrained environment, such a strategy would be risky and likely to fail. Instead, investments should be targeted as much as possible towards institutions’ pre-COVID strengths, just as Cambridge’s strategic expansion in the aftermath of the Black Death leveraged the university’s pre-pandemic strength in training clergy.
Where to invest?
The good news is that there are many areas where institutions can shore up their online education infrastructure. Attention to any or all these areas is likely to lead to measurable improvement in an institution’s online education programming.
Expand faculty support and advocate for team-based instructional design. Historically, faculty members designed and taught their courses as individuals — they design the course, write the syllabus, deliver the content, and evaluate students on their own. This model worked well enough when most classes were conducted in-person, but it is not a great model for online education, even with talented and dedicated faculty members. It’s even worse when the faculty member is a time- and resource-strapped adjunct instructor.
Despite being subject matter experts in their fields, few faculty members have training or expertise in instructional design, educational data analysis, or information technology. When designing an online course for the first time, faculty members might spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to use their learning management system or other learning technologies. Those systems may generate data that speak to student success, but the faculty member may not know how to access or use it. They may be wholly ignorant of potentially useful tools because they don’t spend their time keeping up with the latest trends in educational technology. The inefficiencies and disadvantages to this approach are immense.
On the other hand, experts have known for some time that a team-based approach to online course design is superior to the individualistic approach. In the universe of design, higher education might be the only major industry where the individual approach is still the norm — designers, major technology firms, and K-12 educators all work in teams. Institutions and leaders need to advocate for team-based course design for students’ sake. Doing so will increase quality and promote student success.
Expand and customize online student support services so they intentionally integrate online students with campus, including orientation, advising, tutoring, success coaching, library services, and career services. Research has long established a strong correlation between student engagement and student success, but online students are more prone to feelings of isolation that leave them less likely to succeed. They often need more support than traditional residential students. Institutions must take these concerns seriously by centralizing support services (for the sake of efficiency and consistent messaging to students) and providing targeted training to support staff for handling online student concerns.
Centralize data and IT infrastructure and establish clear governance procedures. The Online Learning Consortium’s Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Programs indicates that “a centralized technology system provides support for building and maintaining the online education infrastructure.” From procurement to information security to tech support to faculty/staff development, institutions are better off leveraging economies of scale to ensure that faculty, staff, and students use the same systems across campus. This reduces confusion, cuts down on redundancy, and provides for uniformity of data. Clear governance procedures guarantee that data is accessible to those with a justifiable need for it.
Expand data analytics capacity and encourage responsible use of it. With more students than ever before using learning management systems and other forms of educational technology, the potential for institutions to gather more and richer data on students is virtually limitless. On the other hand, data must be handled carefully in order to prevent misuse. A further application of the team-based approach is the answer in this case.
Instructional design and data analytics teams must include staff that understand students’ lived experiences, both inside and outside the classroom. This is crucial not only for the sake of effective instructional design, but also for effective data analysis. For example, an institution may gather data about the types of devices that students use to access technology services. Faculty members or IT staff may not understand or be equipped to act on data indicating that a sub-group uses mobile devices, for example, at disproportionate rates compared to the general student population. Including data experts and staff members who know and understand students on analytics teams is a key component for using data to solve problems.
Where to now?
In a perfect world, institutions would have the resources and wherewithal to address all these areas. That may not be possible in many cases, but leaders would be well-advised to pick one or several of them for resource investment in the months and years to come. Although we do not know the degree to which COVID-19 will change higher education in the long-term, it is safe to assume that online education will be an even more important piece of the puzzle.
Cambridge took advantage of Oxford’s inaction in the years during and after the Black Death to increase its strength. Obviously Oxford survived, but many colleges and universities will not be so lucky when faced with the crisis of our times. The ones that survive and thrive will be the institutions that strategize intelligently in the face of the crisis and direct resources to critical areas that heighten opportunities for student success.