Logo for MindWires COVID Transitions podcast

In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss how different the Fall 2020 decision will be for campus decision-makers than was the Spring 2020 move to remote. The recent move was easy, in a way, with a binary choice and little second-guessing. Fall will be different.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly


Phil: Welcome again to the MindWires COVID Transitions podcast, where we discuss the challenging era or were in with educational institutions transitioning to remote learning and online modalities and dealing in general with the COVID-19 induced crisis. And I’m here with my colleagues again, Jeanette Wiseman and Kevin Kelly. And Jeanette, as I’m sure you guys will notice, has received her new microphone. So how are you?

Jeanette: I’m doing much better. Hopefully everyone can hear me a little bit clearer. Hi, guys.

Phil: Oh, yeah. And Kevin, how are you doing? You’ll have your new microphone sometime over the weekend. But through your cheap set up, how are you doing today?

Kevin: I’m a cheap date and I’m doing well. It’s sunny here. And even though I haven’t been outside in days, it looks nice.

Phil: It’s funny as we talk about the microphones. I was surprised just how hard it was to get the basics. It turns out that decent quality microphones for your laptop is somewhere on par with toilet paper, decent paper towels, hand cleaner. Just the things that we found are extremely difficult to find and have to find it from different sources and ship them long distances to find them. So I’m glad we’re getting set up here.

Jeanette: Yeah. What? It’s like getting flour right now. Right now. Yeah.

Phil: And you get excited with some of these basic who? I found a source. I know how to do this. I had that recently with Costco and tissue paper or Kleenex. I was like, oh, I can’t believe I found it. I was so happy.

Jeanette: And now it’s there’s definitely I feel like a channeling my Depression era grandmothers right now and saving things. But I also feel really excited over those little things since we’re making so much at home.

Phil: Well, I hope we can appreciate the good things in life. And that’s why I find what’s good out of this. What we wanted to talk about today was looking at what’s happening in the community. There has been an explosion of conversation over the past week to week and a half in terms of what institutional plans are for the fall semester.

So we’ve all always known this had to happen, and we’ve written about the fact that this is likely going to be high pressure in April and May. But in typical Higher Ed fashion, I think you have a lot of herd behavior. And what’s happened now is so many schools are not just talking about should we go online, should we reopen the campus? Is there something in between?

But they’re starting to talk about this topic in public. But they’re doing it an interesting way. So one of the post I wrote recently, Cal State Fullerton, made news where what came out of NPR and many other media sources, including the L.A. Times. I’ll read from NPR, and this was from last week. “On Monday, California State University Fullerton announced it was planning to begin the fall 2020 semester online, making it one of the first colleges to disclose contingency plans for a prolonged coronaviruses disruptions.” And then they quoted, “our plan is to enter the fall virtually.”

I ended up looking at the detail of that because I felt that was going to be significant news. Here’s a large campus definitively saying we’re going to do the fall semester online or starting online. Once I started looking at it, however, it was not at all clear that this is what they said. So I went to the YouTube video of the town hall to sort of get the source of what was being discussed, particularly by the provost. What’s happened since then, of course, is the video has been taken private. You can no longer find it. But luckily, since we’ve talked about Universal Design for Learning, we had also created a transcript to help out. But what the Provost actually said is “We are assuming that in the fall we will be virtual. We will at least start virtually. And of course, that can change depending on the situation, depending on what happens with COVID-19. But at this point, that’s what we’re thinking.

“So we will start virtual, but we are also making plans for gradually re-entering. And those plans have to be made in such a way that we can ensure adequate physical and social distancing.”

And she goes on.

If you listen to that. That was no announcement of a definitive plan.

There were all kinds of caveats. And as you listened to the entire virtual town hall, it became pretty clear that what they were talking about was publicly sharing their thoughts on what might happen. And so we’re getting in this situation where colleges are starting to talk publicly. But what they’re doing quite often is they’re using this vague language. They intend to, we’re not sure, reassumed this and that. And I’m not sure that’s always a good idea. And in particular, because you have so much of the media looking for a story, here’s who’s doing this, who here’s who is moving online. So it goes well beyond Cal State Fullerton.

But we’re entering in this era where schools are going to need to say what their plans are so that students can make decisions about who’s going to what college and how they’re handling it. But it’s a really difficult situation in many aspects, in many dimensions that we’re dealing with. So to start out with are there are other examples that you guys are seeing of sort of these vague statements where you almost have to go back to the source material to find out what’s going on. And you just wish that there was a little bit more clarity, even if the clarity is this is not a plan. But here’s what we’re thinking. Even just basics. So have you seen other areas where you’re getting a lot of vague answers from schools?

Kevin: Yes. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a form that colleges can share their college’s plans. And if you look at that, American University is planning for an in-person learning in the fall, but “because of health and safety considerations, university officials must prepare for a variety of different scenarios” then just go down the list. Baylor University.”We intend to safely resume and so on.”

So it’s speaks to the fact that nobody really knows what’s going to happen. And on the flip side, we can talk about this later, the faculty development crews are creating strategies to address that uncertainty, and they’re framing it as planning your course with resilience as opposed to the negative sounding.

Planning your course despite uncertainty. Very interesting.

Phil: Jeanette, what have you been observing when you look at the news coming out, particularly over the past week to week and a half, about what school plans are?

Jeanette: I mean, I think I’m looking at everybody else, but it seems like it’s all over the place. I think just the country as a whole, there’s different ideas and different plans on how people think reopening is going to be the safe and effective way to move forward. And with schools, I think depending on the type of institution you have, there’s a lot of things to take into consideration. We were looking at an L.A. Times article this week where they really focused on small liberal arts, residential colleges and how important that entire community aspect is to the college experience, which is going to really differ from a commuter community college by comparison. And I think that the students all really want to go back to school. The ones that were residential, the ones that they’re they’re craving the connection and their friends and their professors and just all the other things that you find on a college campus. And so I think everybody’s hoping that’s going to happen, but no one can be for sure. And I think there was a great quotes where I think Paul LeBlanc said at where it’s there’s not a better situation where you could spread Coronavirus than on a college campus. And so I think the administrators are really trying to figure out what the right way to go is. And no one knows. And that’s the hard part.

Phil: No one knows. And uncertainty seems to be the themes. And one thing that struck me was just how fundamentally different the Fall 2020 decision is from the Spring 2020 decision. We look back at spring and the mass transition where schools within a four week time period, five week max in the United States, all transition to remote learning and all campuses shut down or virtually all of them.

And we look at that and think, okay, that was extraordinarily difficult to do.

But one in one aspect, it was very easy to do, particularly in higher education where you have wo much of a herd mentality of following others. Nobody has questioned, or almost nobody is questioning, that decision about closing down campus operations and transitioning to remote.

Right now, if you’re a college leader and you made that decision in the March timeframe, you’re not getting second guessed right now. You could certainly argue the University of Washington, Stanford and Seattle University, they were the ones who stuck their not necks out and made the initial decisions and put a flag in the ground, said we’re shutting down the campus. But once that happened, en masse everything changed. So one of the aspects from a decision making and a public relations standpoint is that was easy. There was no binary choice of what to do other than maybe we’re going to leave a few weeks for a transition to develop courses. But essentially, you’re choosing to shut down and migrate.

So it’s a fairly simple decision and nobody second guesses you. If you look into the fall.

Listen to what we’re talking about. We’re talking about unknowns and uncertainty. And I don’t think that that’s going to change between now and what, say, July. We’re going to continue to have uncertain situations. We don’t know what’s going to happen. So think about what that means for our campus leadership. They have to make a decision about how they’re going to approach Fall 2020. They’re going to be getting a lot of pushback, whatever they choose, if they choose to say we’re reopening. We’re going online. We’re doing some hybrid approach. They will face pushback. And there’s going to be some basis to that pushback. And it’s also going to change over time. We don’t know if this decision makes sense now, but once we get in October, it’s going to change back. So to me, it’s just a completely different type of decision that we’re facing right now. And that’s part of the reason these schools are having difficulty on how to communicate that to the community and how to be be as clear as you can be. And I think you two are both pointing out from the faculty, for parents, students, there is demand for some clarity. It’s almost like people are saying we need you to make choices, but in uncertain times.

So to me, this is a hugely different situation that we’re facing. And it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens over the next two months or so.

Jeanette: What I think I’ve seen this last spring is there’s a sense of solidarity. We all made this decision were, quarantine or staying in place. There’s a sense of solidarity across the entire world. And that includes the students. That includes the class of 2020 who are going to have this amazing experience. And one of resilience probably that they were not given some of the key touchstones that students that are graduating do. What I see happening in Fall, though, is perhaps not a solidarity. I think that the campus leadership. May one may make one decision and one 20 miles down the road, it’s gonna make another. And I think that’s going to really be more difficult for education as a whole.

Phil: Sort of mirrors what we talked about in a previous episode where students tolerance of teaching approaches in the spring is characterized by there’s a lot of acceptance. We know this is difficult. We’re not too upset. But once you hit the fall, students are going to have a different set of expectations of what they’re paying for and what they’re going to tolerate.

Phil: What I’m hearing you describe is sort of the same thing. But on the campus being open standpoint, understanding a different set of expectations in the fall.

Kevin, what have you been hearing, including from a lot of faculty development circles, as you said?

Kevin: Yeah, I gave the teaser earlier that at least on the Professional and Organizational Development Network listserv, they’ve had a lot of ideas around developing pivotal pedagogy, references to blended and HyFlex that we talked about in a previous podcast, and the concept of workshops to help faculty build a course with resilience in mind that supports students personal, academic and professional growth, regardless of the format and where the world is at at that time. And I think that’s a smart play. And it’s and as some people have recognized, there was an article in Inside Higher Ed that went through, I think 15 different possibilities and things like hybrid flexible were noted as providing the greatest avenue for supporting whatever happens. But also it puts a heavy burden on the instructor in terms of setting up a course that has multiple pathways to reach different goals and multiple pathways to review content. So in that same article, had some interesting feedback from parents that said if it’s not going to be in person, you may see a big lack of support, as Jeanette referred to before.

Jeanette: So that article was really interesting was Joshua Kim’s article? It was called 15 Fall Scenarios on Inside Higher Ed. And again, it kind of broke down those 15 scenarios that we’ve seen in other places. But if you do take the time to read the comments, I mean, the comments were from professors and parents. And I think also there’s a few students in there. And there are parents that are really concerned about the return on investment for their college institutions. There’s a lot of discussion about if I’m going to be going to this college in pain. One hundred and sixty thousand dollars. Why doesn’t my son just go ahead and take some courses off of Coursera like it’s the same thing and maybe Coursera is even going to be better. And $160,000 obviously is for high level. They were mentioning Harvard in the comments. I think there was also parents that were really upset that the students were sent home this spring to potentially more dangerous situations than staying on campus. And then students there are just like, please let me get back to my classroom and to my friends and to the environment where I learned the best. And I think all of those voices are what campus leadership is looking at right now. And it’s those aren’t easy, easy decisions to make for fall.

Phil: No, they’re definitely not. And like, if you look at it, I doubt that there’s in my view, I doubt there’s anybody who’s mentally weighing saying I’m gonna get the same education from Coursera that I would from Harvard. No offense intended there. But it was I think that part of what we’re seeing is people are frustrated and lashing out.

So some of the comments that you’re seeing in the pushback are probably overstated or they represent a very small group and that’s the nature of the Internet. We get quite a bit of that. But two things I would note on that. Number one, there’s a lot of PR pushback on the schools based on what they’re doing. And campus leadership has to feel that even if a lot of it is overstated. And then the second point is, even if somebody overstates it, it doesn’t mean that that sentiment isn’t true to some degree. And there are real, real tough decisions that have to be made.

I was just helping out – I can’t mention the name right now – but with regional private university where the president put together this group trying to think through what they can do in the fall.

And the president mentioned one of his association meetings where every single school that is a small private university was saying the same thing.

‘If we’re not allowed to open up, we could be out of business. We might not ever open up again.’ You’ve got existential challenges. Everything is amped up in terms of emotions that push back how important this is. But it’s all happening when we don’t know a whole lot. And we’re not going to know a whole lot. So people have to make judgment calls and see what happens.

Kevin: Well, and if you look at organizational change literature, the toughest part of any change process is ambiguity. And so your point, Phil, about not having made decisions about the fall yet means that you have this state, the worst possible state for people’s psyche. And we just analyzed the Top Hat survey results of student feelings about online learning this past spring. And some of the written comments provide some of the insight about how they’re thinking about the fall and the same way those presidents want the ability to to make a clear choice. Students are demanding flexibility, especially around ‘Can I pay the tuition over a longer period of time for the fall? Because right now my family’s in dire financial straits due to unemployment or what have you. Where we’re working multiple jobs just to support the family while we’re staying at home.’ And so that in addition to creating a need for some certainty in these times, there is also a need for some flexibility.

Phil: Yes, that’s that’s an excellent point. Some of the things we’ve talked about flexibility and resilience and change management. These aspects are crucial. And part of what that saying is hopefully setting expectations. Nobody should be thinking about making a decision about the fall of 2020 and thinking, I can get that decision right. They need to be thinking much more into whatever we decide. We’re going to have pushback, and we might even have to change. Therefore, we need to make decisions that enhance flexibility and enhance our resilience to change not just for the decision, but as we get into the term itself. And I think that we tend to think more of how do we make the best decision? Once it’s made, we just move on. Such as what happened in the springtime. Maybe there are campus presidents who got fooled by the spring, thinking they could make a similar type of decision for the fall.

It’s just not going to work. And I would call on just some of the articles that we’re seeing online over the past week that back up the same type of observations. Inside Higher Ed had a post called “Certainly Uncertain”, where colleges have released a flurry of statements saying they’ll reopen. Will that plan bear out? Or Education Dive, “Colleges Announced Tentative Plans for Fall 2020”. There’s just so much uncertainty, uncertainty that that that they’re going to have to continue to deal with.

Let’s pull this back to a previous topic that we’ve talked about. In one of our previous episodes, which is about the hybrid model. And I certainly don’t want to imply that we think there’s one answer for schools, but I see a lot of people essentially trying to figure out different hybrid options. We mentioned the Josh Kim article on Inside Higher Ed, where there are 15 different scenarios and some of those talk about first year intensive programs, targeted curriculums. There is also an article in the Los Angeles Times that I think we referred to talking about how it could change college life. It might include takeout, dining, small group dorms, outdoor classes.

I think a lot of these are getting into this hybrid mentality of how much of the face and face environment will be like is possible once we move in to the fall.

What should be online and what should be face to face, and how do we do it to enhance community and engagement of students. This is where I think a lot of the messy planning is taking place right now. It’s no longer just a binary online or face to face choice, but other than the hybrid optional on a course context, what other are you seeing an increase? Are you more impressed with the discussions now about different hybrid options than you were even a week or two ago? Any examples that you guys have seen that were impressive in terms of that’s a way to approach this.

Kevin: I have for one example. They’re encouraging a team approach for multi section, multi instructor, high enrollment courses and not certain whether or not that’s going to be in person or online. The other idea of blended or HyFlex modifications goes in line with making that shift to learner or learning centered methods so that regardless of what format they’re going to be in, it’s meeting the needs of the students.

I would add another one. Workshops for faculty are going to focus on planning course in chunks based on learning goals as opposed to the full course. I think there’s a true concerted effort to embed that flexibility in how they’re helping faculty prepare for the fall.

Jeanette: I don’t know if I would say I’ve seen anything. I think Kevin’s closer to some of the design elements of the course discussions. I have seen interesting discussions around maybe taking large courses online, having them taught by a master instructor and then have smaller sections. One lecture, the TA would manage. That seems interesting. I think all these keep going back to the student and just thinking, the traditional student with parents paying, these students aren’t sure if that’s where they want to go. I think that’s really one of the big questions is are we going to see a real decline in enrollment in the fall? And how is that going to affect some of those smaller schools and just higher ed moving forward?

Kevin: Well, what would be interesting is not just the declining enrollment overall, but the same way that Phil’s learning management system market analysis has those circle charts that show the movement from one learning management system to another, it would be interesting to see if we have a similar movement from certain schools to others in response. ‘I prefer this format. The school has chosen to be open. I need that social connection. So I’m going to go there instead.’ It would be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

Phil: I would, for one, would love to see that. And I think that that need for that type of visualization or understanding is going to continue, at least for the next six to nine months. We’ll have to see if we can help with that type of understanding. I agree it would be very important.

One example I would add to this, but I keep thinking back about the Beloit College. What they announced is they were going to break the semester in two.

They essentially took the time dimension and said, ‘in a changing environment where things are already changing, we have uncertainty. But we also know that uncertainty will continue in the fall. Why not move away from the 15 week semester and instead break it up into two modules? That way, our commitment upfront for our initial decision is really for the first seven and a half weeks. Not for 15 weeks.’

It also can give flexibility to students where they might be able to say, I can commit to this for this time period, but I can’t commit to a fall semester because of their safety, because of their economic situation, because of the logistics of getting to campus and back or having a place to live. I would say the taking that time dimension and splitting it in half as a method to increase their ability to be resilient and to manage change.

That one is a very interesting situation. And if you look at this article that was written yesterday [Beloit], they’re saying that they have their provost was saying ‘about two times a day I’m talking to provosts across the nation, asking me how we did it and what the plan was, how it looks.’ So they’re getting a huge amount of interest. ‘Tell us about your plan and what should we learn from it?’

Kevin: I was just going to say Center College from Kentucky is doing something similar to Beloit, they are block scheduling their courses in shorter segments to allow flexibility to shift toward either in person or remote learning. It would be interesting to see how many campuses head in that direction. And really something I’ve pointed out in that Edge of Chaos series of posts taking an opportunity in this change space to rethink education at a more fundamental level. Yes, I could see something like taking three unit courses and breaking them into one unit, stackable courses the way a community college district in Texas did for a nursing education program, made it really flexible for the courses to go online that could. And then the in-person components were fewer and can be spread out with the lab space. They had also provided flexibility for people to construct their programs, to fit their schedules as working professionals, as people with families and things like that. So I could see maybe not moving from semester to quarter, but blowing up the seat time requirements and really heading towards competency based education with smaller chunks so that you’re really looking at micro courses instead of full courses.

Phil: And there was actually an article that came out this morning about the role that competency based education could play during this timeframe. I’ve seen the headlines and the blurb. I haven’t read it, but certainly you’ve got my interest. I need to go read more if they’re capturing the aspects that you’re talking about. And I certainly don’t want to imply that we or anybody else has the answers to what to do if there’s anything to take out of this discussion today. It’s the fact that the nature of the decision on the fall 20 semester from a campus leadership perspective, will we open?

How will we open? When will we open?

What are the constraints? That type that set of decisions is just fundamentally different than what we went through in the spring. We shouldn’t expect to have the same ability to make decisions and the same lack of pushback that we had for the spring. I would also highlight what came out of this conversation is that we really need to be planning for resilience and adaptability and the ability to handle the situation as we move forward. And that’s going to be critical to campus decision-making, particularly over the next two months, but really throughout at least the fall term, if not the Spring 2021 term. So it’s a it’s a challenging time, but that’s where we see a lot of the conversations going and the decision making and what’s going to happen and what you should expect to see in these discussions.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion today.

As Kevin referenced, we were had the opportunity to look at a survey of over 3000 students, current college students that Top Hat did, and it was released today (being Friday, May 1st). We had the opportunity to look at the full set of results and do an independent analysis of what that survey tells us, including at some of these questions that had over 2000 open ended responses, which has a wealth of information you don’t typically find in a survey. We have an initial blog post out of that, but we will likely cover this in an upcoming episode, looking more into what are we seeing students talking about.

What are current college students talking about? Issues such as the importance of engagement inside, but also outside of their classrooms and how to think about that.

We will cover that an upcoming episode. But thank you for your time today and great talking with you, Jeanette and Kevin.