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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly look back at 2020, identifying lessons learned, and look forward to 2021. Are there positive developments to expect?


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly


Phil: Welcome to the last COVID Transitions podcast episode of the year. It’s been a very interesting year for us and I have enjoyed exploring the podcast area and working with you two. I’m Phil Hill and I’m here with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wiseman.

I guess the good news for listeners of the podcast, thanks to the pandemic, there is going to be more in 2021. Turns out this is not just a 2020 subject. The bad news is this is going to go at least until 2021, not the podcast, but the pandemic that we need to worry about. It’s great to talk to you two. Are you guys looking forward to the holidays?

Kevin and Jeanette: Yes.

Phil: Good.

With the year end, I wanted to do not quite one of the typical blog post year-in-review top 10. We’re not going to do that. I think it would be worthwhile that if we take a look back [00:01:00] at the year 2020, Covid and how it’s affected primarily higher education, but also K-12, and what we think we’re going to be looking for in 2021. What should we expect? This is somewhat of a retrospective look ahead podcast episode.

Let me get started with the question of as we look back at the full year, all the data we’ve reviewed about learning, about how to adapt, about enrollment, everything that we’ve covered and looked at. Let’s start with this. What strikes you as the biggest negative impact of COVID-19 on education, in general? We’ll start out negative because the pandemic is negative. Jeanette, if you just have to look back and say what’s the most negative thing, impact of Covid, what would you say it is?

Jeanette: I would say that the leaving behind [00:02:00] of students of need, either from an economic standpoint, from students of color, any child that had any kind of learning disability or challenge were not really served at all during the Covid transition to online, or not served as well I think.

Phil: One thing I would add to that is it seems to be a little bit different between K-12 and higher ed. In K-12, we’re getting much more of a learning loss type of view. That even if they’re in school underrepresented groups are having learning loss. Whereas in higher ed, it’s not quite as clear. It almost seems to be as much enrollment or I can’t participate in class at all. I don’t know if there’s a precise way to do it, but it seems like it varies depending on which level the students are on, how big the impact is.

Kevin: I would say that’s only [00:03:00] because the K-12 environment does formal testing and regular intervals. That’s something that you can gauge that learning loss pretty easily, whereas higher ed needs to wait for the end of term grades to come in. In the next couple of weeks we will actually be able to tell. The research that I’m doing with different community colleges and universities, we are collecting that data for the same issue that Jeanette raised, is the one that I would pick that equity issues that have been amplified by the pandemic are the the biggest takeaway for 2020.

With the oxymoron that you presented, a retrospective look ahead, Phil, we really need to think about how do we address those more comprehensively. We’ve already got the Cal State system talking about going face to face in fall. A lot of people’s energy is going to be starting to think about how do you make safe environments and stuff like that. We’re not done making [00:04:00] the online experience palatable and not just accessible, but usable for online students in the spring. I think we need to help institutions think about that now as opposed to already planning for fall of 2021. We need to deal with spring.

Phil: Yes.

I will take a variation because obviously this is one of the most consistent findings we see, is the disparate impact of the pandemic. I’ll do a slightly different one to capture it. It’s a big unknown. Enrollment issues for first time students and higher education, that is going to have a huge negative impact moving forward.

One thing that we’ve seen overall, if you aggregate all enrollment, it wasn’t catastrophic. The way a lot of people looked at it was down four percent for four year [00:05:00] schools, but then you start breaking down the data. Community colleges were much worse and they have a different student population. The thing that jumps out from the data that I don’t know that people predicted, and I don’t think we fully understand how all it’s going to affect us, is that loss of first year students.

I think you’ve seen it anywhere around 20 percent of freshmen just didn’t enter higher education this year. Particularly when you look at community college and disadvantaged students, there’s a lot of questions about whether they will ever get back into college. We’re not just talking about a gap year. I’ll add that one is highly negative, problematic impact of the pandemic.

Kevin: I would say the Venn diagram overlap with the equity challenges based on what you just said about it’s a much bigger issue for community colleges [00:06:00] than for four year private colleges where people have the money to pay, then, yeah, I would say that they’re directly related.

Phil: Yeah, that one’s easy to understand. What’s not as easy to understand is first year versus second year, for example, even within community colleges. Why do we have so much bigger of an enrollment drop for first year students than we did for second year students? That one I don’t think we fully understand.

Kevin: Well, if I were to guess, I would say that’s an increase of the barriers to entry. If you’re already in and you’ve invested a year into your academic goals, that will hopefully help you increase your social mobility and all that, then perhaps that’s what you need to carry you through the next phase of this marathon. If you’re looking at the starting tape and the starter’s pistol goes off but you don’t [00:07:00] feel ready for whatever reason, then maybe you just don’t run the race.

Jeanette: I read a couple of things, more student voices this week saying that. This makes sense for me, I think just a common sense perspective. Some students who had such a really horrible experience when there was an immediate emergency transition to online in the spring felt like they couldn’t learn online. Those graduating seniors have decided to not go back to an online environment for their first year of college because they did so poorly during that transition and felt like they couldn’t learn online, which might have some role play. I don’t know how large. You will see if they decide to go back, if it was just really a gap year for them. I think the fear is that for a lot of those students, trying to start again after taking a break is just that much more of a hurdle for them to overcome.

Phil: I would point [00:08:00] out before we turn this a little bit more positive, that there are additional issues in K-12. I think it’s much more clear cut that we did not handle this well as a society and primarily in the U.S. That’s where we have a lot of our data. 

In K-12, I think there’s a lot more damage to student learning and student morale and all the other factors than there is in higher education. It’s not trying to minimize higher education, but when I read the K through 12 news, it’s universally bad for me.

Kevin: I keep coming back to, we prepared the teachers to the extent we could, but we didn’t prepare the students. How do you prepare a kindergarten student to sit online all day? That’s crazy.

Phil: Yes, that is crazy.

Kevin: I taught preschool and I know how much energy those kids have. To have them sitting in view of a camera for however many hours, even if they’re engaged with their colleagues [00:09:00] and the little things going by on the screen, even even up to eighth grade where their hormones are kicking in and they just need to move around. I don’t know that we’ve done a good job, as you point out, preparing those students to be successful in an online learning situation.

Phil: Well, I don’t want to turn this, what’s unfortunately become political as opposed to public health and decisions. I think there’s other conclusions. It’s not just how do you prepare them online. It raises the question about who should be online. Clearly to me at least, and many of the places I’ve read, the strongest argument for saying we need to get people back in the classroom physically is K through 6. It’s not just how do we do it online? There’s a huge question there.

Let’s try to keep things away from the politics too much and let’s put [00:10:00] away angry Kevin, even though we don’t have angry Kevin today. We really want to go for positive Kevin ad positive Jeanette. Every change has a positive and negative impacts.

As we look back still on the retrospective part, what is going to be that we’ll look back and we’ll say, oh, this is the biggest positive impact of the Covid pandemic and how education has responded to it. We’ll start with you. Happy Kevin, what’s the biggest positive impact? 

Kevin: I would say it’s the focus on pedagogy, the fact that so many faculty members engaged, whether it was willingly or unwillingly in improving their craft, addressing the needs of students.

The three part cycle that I bring up a lot that’s becoming aware of something, taking action and then assessing whether or not it worked properly. I think that [00:11:00] more and more people engaged in that process than ever. You characterize it as we’ve reached the mainstream in that crossing the chasm image on the MindWires website. I would say to me the most positive takeaway is that we’ve engaged people in a process that they either avoided, no pun intended, like the plague or they avoided because they just didn’t have time.

Either way, I think that’s something that can carry over to 2021.

Phil: There’s got to be a blog out there somewhere with “avoid it like the plague” title.

Jeanette, from your perspective, what do you think is going to be the biggest positive?

Jeanette: I have to agree. I mean, I think that faculty and teachers need to be celebrated in ways that I don’t know if they really are. That they moved so quickly to try to teach online to reach their students. The heroics that [00:12:00] I have seen from administrators, from faculty, from the I.T. groups to try to make sure that everyone is learning still and they’re reaching them. Social workers, everyone, I feel like there is such a community that’s been built around education now and to try to further education just kind of sometimes in impossible situations. I feel like that’s the most positive thing I’ve seen come out of this.

Phil: I would have to emphasize that point, something we’ve written about. We’re not just talking about a reaction over the past six to eight months. In particular, who would have predicted that you could shift the entire U.S. education system online in a matter of roughly three to four weeks with so few disasters?

I mean, the long term learning, the enrollment, you were dealing with that, but just the the flexibility [00:13:00] of people to be able to handle that was remarkable.

Kevin and Jeanette: Agreed. Absolutely.

Phil: One thing I would add to major positive impact, and it’s the same issue, but it’s slightly different take, is I think that we have stripped education down much more to the essentials and the essentials of teaching and learning.

Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m arguing for unbundling of education. I’m not trying to get into that trendy thing. It’s not just that more faculty got into pedagogical issues. It’s not just how well they did as a community. I would add to it the fact that we’re so much more focused on teaching and learning as a core mission is a net positive.

I know it makes it difficult with research and scholarly work, but quite honestly, this was a balance between [00:14:00] the three that needed to be adjusted. I think that we have much more focus now on teaching and learning. I think that will have a long range positive impact that might not be positive for people working on research or scholarship, but I think it’s positive overall.

Kevin: Or for some students who are claiming that instructors, because they’re not familiar with online teaching, are increasing the workload beyond what is reasonable, because it’s kind of a knee jerk reaction to, OK, we’re going to be online, that I’m going to make sure you’re earning your grade.

Phil: Yeah.

All right. Now we’ll do the oxymoron application of the retrospective look forward, which Kevin already started. Clearly, we’re still in the pandemic. I mean, we’re spiking higher now, in number of cases, not a number of deaths in the U.S., than we had before, areas of Europe, Korea, so across the world, we’re in a serious phase.

It’s obvious, [00:15:00] even with the remarkable development of vaccines in this time period, that’s not going to have a huge impact on the spring. At least for the next academic term, we’ll still be in a pandemic driven education. We’re reacting to the pandemic and we’re definitely not in a new normal. If we take that is the supposition, which I think it’s pretty easy to do, what are we looking for in the spring as sort of indicators on how well we’re adjusting and improving education? This one I’ll go back to starting with Jeanette. What are you looking for to learn in the spring or most want to understand?

Jeanette: I don’t know what I want to learn about. I think the thing that I’m most concerned about right now, this isn’t really learning, but just the long term effects of the learning gaps that we’re seeing with students with equity issues. That’s [00:16:00] what I’m focused on. I think right now I worry about what’s going to happen to a generation. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to know that by the spring. I think that we can look at enrollment numbers for higher ed, I think especially maybe commitments to freshmen entering college to see what’s potentially bound to happen. I just don’t know if we’re going to know enough. I think it’s going to take years for us to see what the impacts are.

Kevin: Well, I would say that you’re right on there. For myself, I’m interested in seeing what we can learn from these fall results and see if we can apply them in the same rapid transformation methodologies that we used in the spring of last year. Taking those results, making the adjustments, [00:17:00] I’d like to see more on student engagement so that students feel like they’re part of some sort of community of learners as opposed to everybody’s learning alone, just together.

Then I would like to see if we can’t keep the professional development for both the faculty and the students. I guess it wouldn’t be professional for the students, but that cycle hasn’t ended just because we’re doing this for the second full semester in a row.

Phil: If you’d asked me this two months ago, I would say the biggest issue for spring would definitely be retention. Are going to persist from fall into the spring in particular, or students saying, no, I’ve seen it, I’m going to wait it out. I think the more we look at data, it’s a big issue, but it’s not the overwhelming issue.  [00:18:00]

I’ll do two. I’m cheating. One is will we be dealing more effectively with the learning gaps and the disparate impact on student groups, like are we learning we can’t just do synchronous video and then just leave a lot of students who don’t have access leave them behind? Are we going to enrich that capability and specifically deal with students who don’t have the same ability to log in? Or are we going to give greater opportunities for mixed or hybrid or face to face where it’s appropriate?

The second thing I would look for, and it gets to the surveys, will students see a difference and an improvement in the spring from the fall that indicates, yes, faculty, course designers, schools, the support, the whole system is improving how well we’re educating people [00:19:00] moving forward. Some sort of signal from students that things are improving. Those are sort of the two things that I would like to understand moving forward.

Kevin: If we’re going to ask the students how they’re doing and how they feel about things and we have to be able to address them or at least try. The fact that we still have students and some teachers driving to Starbucks and McDonalds so they can use the Internet, download everything they need and go back home to study, that’s not equitable.

Phil: I know, and so the thing I want to do and I’m not quite sure how to verify what the numbers are, what’s the best source, is have we learned that lesson? Will things get materially better from fall to spring? That exact subject, probably the easiest way to measure that is going to be surveys. Have we learned in the fall and are going to make an improvement in the spring? That’s what I think is going to be very important.

Any final [00:20:00] thoughts for the year or any encouragement or what you think should happen? What would you like to see happen is a quick closing thought to this year and to this episode. Kevin, what would you like to leave us with?

Kevin: I’d like to see the concept that Jeanette raised, you did to some extent as well.

I just got off a call with instructors in Grenada who are teaching medicine and veterinary medicine, and they’re coming up with creative ways of having students participate in surgical activities without being in a surgery theater. How do they stop the procedure, ask students questions, and then continue going like ways to make sure that those difficult to teach online topics are still moving forward and students are getting the proficiencies they need.

Underneath all that is we need those teachers to tell their stories about how they’re adapting and we need the students to tell their stories as well.

Phil: Great. J [00:21:00]eanette?

Jeanette: I think I would like to see a commitment and an investment made to help support teachers and faculty and administrators as they try to continue to reach students. The learning gaps that we’re likely to see are going to be addressed by more outreach, addressing equity issues, resources, teachers being really rewarded for the amazing work that they’ve done. That’s what I would like to see.

Phil: That’d be wonderful.

What I’d like to leave is an encouragement. It goes back to the technology adoption curve that we’ve talked about, is definitely the spring was a remarkable reaction and just keeping people’s heads above water and keeping the system going. The fall we really got into the first time people truly taught in a certain way and a huge number of faculty and schools. Just the adoption of EdTech as a primary way [00:22:00] to deliver online or hybrid education.

My big encouragement is that’s been a massive shift. Now we have actual experience under our belt. Now is the time to make improvements. It’s no longer just a matter of I’ve never taught this way and I’m not sure what to do or I don’t think it could work. Now, we’re a matter of almost everybody can say, I have taught this way. I want to make it better and I know how to contribute to making it better.

There are certainly an opportunity for improvement and a lot of it in the power of educators to make changes. I think that will be good in the long run despite the pandemic.

It’s been a wonderful year working with you two again. I’ve really enjoyed doing this podcast, as we’ve learned how to do podcast, and look forward to working with you in the spring.

Kevin: Sounds good.

Phil: OK, [00:23:00] thanks.

Jeanette: Bye bye.