Eric Hiller examines Covid 19 effect on higher education

Posted on May 19 2020 8:51 AM

"Eric Hiller examines Covid 19 effect on higher education"

With the advent of our unfriendly visitor from Wuhan, the COVID-19 virus, a lot of things have changed.  Higher education has been particularly hard hit.  I could not find a complete list of colleges and universities in the USA that were closed, but one can get a pretty good qualitative sense of the effect, for example:

  • Unesco shows an excellent map of school closures. Many countries have shut down schools nationwide! “According to UNESCO monitoring, over 100 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over half of world’s student population.” Only the USA, Canada, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia seem to have localized closures, although some countries do have universities open.
  • Anecdotally, some of the most prestigious Ivy Leaguers, such as Harvard and Princeton have closed campuses, and other powerful state schools, such UC Berkeley, have campus technically open, but all instruction is online.
  • Local lists of closed colleges and universities overflow.

The dire state of higher ed and short-term effect of COVID-19

The short-term effect of the Chinese Corona Virus on colleges could be devastating, i.e. this could be the coop de grace that forces schools on the bubble into the grave.  For example, recently deceased Harvard Business School professorial legend, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn made the following prediction in 2013 in Forbes:

 “a host of struggling colleges and universities—the bottom 25 percent of every tier, we predict—will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.

It seems that the actual number of colleges that are closing is not that dire, according to a recent Higher Education Today article, but the structural problems in with higher education (especially small private schools) are still present:

  • Discount rates on tuition are far too high
  • The percent of revenue from tuition continues to go up
  • Demographics of student who are going to college are not favorable
  • Students are starting to question the massive debts they are accruing the value of their college degrees
  • State and national funding continues to go down

So, universities and colleges are hanging on, but are they working their way out of their paycheck (tuition check) to paycheck existence?

There could also be a long-term effect of COVID-19 on higher ed

What about the long-term effect of COVID-19 on higher ed?  What if brick & mortar, or even live online instruction is not even perceived as needed any longer?   This is a point mused over not only by people in higher ed, but it is attracting attention from stars at the upper echelons of the media.  In a recent episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host discusses the long-term effect of the Chinese Corona Virus on the academic guild.  He concludes by saying:

“Reform is essential. This is a good and needed thing. In fact, it is one of the bright spots in an otherwise dark moment." -- Tucker Carlson

Carlson’s segment made me realize the blinding flash of the obvious that many people have not yet internalize:  the Corona pandemic is forcing students and universities into an almost universal pilot of online education.  Before Corona, the online delivery channel was more of a choice, but now it is mandatory to try it out.

Online education may work well in undergraduate in more fields that you might, initially, think it would

The question I wondered was what classes or majors would work almost as well, or better with an online delivery model.   My first inclination was that online only works in certain majors, for example liberal Arts.  For example, I loved history and other liberal arts courses, but quite frankly, although I found many of the professors entertaining and enjoyed learning that way, I probably could have learned just as well from books.

Conversely, being a recovering engineer, my first reaction was, although online might work well for liberal arts, surely it would not work for delivery of a highly demanding major delivered by one of the elite schools in the field, e.g. the bachelors in mechanical engineering I pursued at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign many moons ago.  [We all like to think that we are special snowflakes perhaps, when maybe none of us are!] So, I started to think more carefully and systematically about it, based on four basic tools used for learning:

  1. Lectures
  2. Written materials / books
  3. Problem sets
  4. Office hours / interaction with instructors


I thought back and remembered how bad a lot of my professors were at a top research school (especially in the engineering gen-ed, such as calculus, physics, etc.).   Some professors hated teaching undergrads and were terrible instructors, which made sense, given the real currency at a R1 research school is… research, not teaching.  Others of my profs were excellent and really worked hard to be great instructors.  It is harder to control which type of professor one is getting in a live class.   However, with online lectures, specifically recorded ones, schools with gravitate over time to using only the best instructors, who were both engaging and had excellent abilities to explain material with clarity. 

It is true that students would sacrifice the immediate opportunity to ask questions, but they would gain the ability to rewind content.  There are many times, especially in STEM classes, where a professor is working through a complex problem equation to equation, and the student cannot keep up or misses an important connection.   In a live class, you have the ability to stop and question.  But, let’s be honest, we have all been in that position where we feel too self-conscious to interrupt the lecture, thinking that we are wasting other students’ time.  We assume (likely wrongly) that others probably understand what we missed.  That is not a problem with an on-demand recorded lecture.  A lot of these questions are answered when the student can re-watch that critical calculation or point several times. 

Written materials / books

I remember one professor at Illinois telling me that there are two types of books: 

  1. Books written at the student’s level to teach students in the simplest and clearest way possible. 
  2. Books written to impress the professor’s colleagues, which are often quite esoteric and include material that probably should be moved to the next class in the series or a graduate degree.  These books often frustrate and confuse students more than they help. 

This professor was honest and wise.  For example, I remember learning to program in the language C directly from a book, with very little instruction from a professor, and it did not feel that hard.  That is the power of an excellent instructional book.  Sadly, many of the books I remembered were from group two.  In an online model, the ability and temptation to impress colleagues with the advanced Byzantine nuances of the text from which a professor teaches, tend to vaporize.  

However, we still have the problem of the monetary incentive, i.e. professors want to teach from their own books, because they get royalties from their sales.    An online delivery model may help change that, too.  Students, and everyone else, have been Pavlovianly conditioned to pay attention to 1 to 5-star ratings for everything in their lives.  Students will rate these online classes, too.   With a recorded online course, student will start demanding an on-demand choice.  A great professor using a mediocre book (that he may have written) may only get 3.5 stars, driving less subscription than a great professor using a great book that someone else wrote who gets 4.8 stars.  If professors are getting a slice of the subscription revenue, they may relent from pushing their own materials, in favor of the best materials.

Problem sets

The online world, in general, causes a greater challenge for academic integrity.  We are not in the world of Animal House’s dittoed copies of problem sets and tests, and legends of moldering files of such things in the bottom of fraternity basements.  Now problem sets and test questions can be catalogued and curated on google docs and a plethora of other online storage facilities.  On the other hand, professors may be able to collaborate across schools to increase the pool of problem set questions.

Regardless, in the online world, instructors can provide elaborate answer keys that aid the student’s learning.  Instead of only a paper answer key, the professor can easily record himself working through a problem on the virtual whiteboard, and make the recording available to all students, as soon as the time to turn in the assignment is over.

Office hours / interaction with instructors

Certainly, face-to-face interaction is always better.  However, availability is nice too.   The student can be given access not only to his own instructor or TAs, but a learning network to which universities subscribe and to which they provide their problem sets and answers.  The service provides access to live video office hours with a virtual whiteboard throughout the day and night (or overnight). 

This would be a great way for graduate students to make money on a per hour basis, while honing their pedagogical skills themselves.  It would be kind of an academic Uber / Lyft model.  Do you need some money for a date or a few craft beers with your lab mates?  No problem!  Turn on your “Virtual Professor” account for the subjects / classes for which you are certified, and help some undergrads for an hour or two.

In summary, I think online instruction remotely would work for far more classes than people think, once the right infrastructure is in place.   Let's face it, in most disciplines, including engineering and sciences, what the undergrad is learning not new or novel.   Ninety percent of what the undergrad is learning is the basics of physics and other engineering disciplines.  Bleeding edge material is something one delves into in grad school.  Therefore, once a school invests in having excellent recorded video instruction from the best professors, excellent student-centric books, great problem sets with in-depth answer key explanations, and live on-demand TAs, it theoretically does not need that many teachers or professors to do this. 

Where does this model not work?

There are some disciplines and/or classes that would be challenging in this model. 

  • Classes that require performance with others or where an instructor is required for complex feedback in 1:1 instruction, such as performing arts (music, dance, theater)
  • Classes that require debate and interaction with other students, such as case study discussions in law schools and business schools
  • Classes with wet labs
  • Classes with project teams, specifically custom projects (e.g. senior engineering design projects) -- although a lot of the instruction could still be online, even though the teams need to meet and later present results to professors

Why COVID-19 is a long-term higher ed forcing function

As Tucker Carlson says in his segment above, there are elite institutions and top state-funded schools, such as Harvard, that will survive Corona with barely a little cough.   But, for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-tier private schools and even lower-level state-funded schools, the Chinese Corona pandemic could be a disease that shortens their lives, if it does not kill them immediately.  

This is not about new educational technology.  Affordable and quality technology to deliver good online education has been for 10-15 years, although it has gotten better and better.   Online education has grown a lot, but it is mostly an augmentation, not a replacement, for undergrad at most schools. 

The effect of the Corona pandemic in forcing most schools and most students to go fully online in a cold-turkey manner is possibly game-changing.   It forces the breaking an ideological barrier – like the 4-minute mile.  It was impossible until someone did it… and then lots of people did it.  It is about a de-stigmatizing online education.  The current situation may change the image of online class delivery from a digital junior college or correspondent course that is second rate to the preferred pedagogical method that is BETTER then 80% of live classes and costs students less than 20% as much.