Insights

A Virtual Internship During a COVID-19 Summer

Vivian Karamitros
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

Every college student yearns for at least one internship during their career; it’s the icing on top of the cake in terms of a job and a degree paying off. However, March came along, and with it came internship cancellations. Seeing more and more internships being canceled in front of my eyes, I couldn't help but feel on the edge. I had an internship secured in September of 2019 for the summer of 2020. Having this taken away from me would have been a dagger to my heart. 

Thankfully, the company that hired me stayed true to their promise of putting people first by shifting my summer to a virtual internship. Of course, I’m treasuring this opportunity. I can’t help but think of the summer I would’ve had in Seattle--traveling cross-country to live with other driven interns. 

I’m one week done with the internship, and I’ve already noticed stark differences between an in-person and virtual internship, to say the least. I sit in my room from 9 am to 5 pm, with a lunch break. It’s difficult to stroll around my 100 square-foot room between meetings, but it’s the only place in my house free of distracting noise. I eat my lunches and breakfasts alone in my room--quite different from an office setting. However, the company and its employees have put a vast amount of effort to ensure the best virtual internship experience ever. Interns have scheduled programming to interact with managers, other interns, and top-level executives with panels, 1-on-1s, and game breaks.  

No one imagines having their first summer internship in her/his room in a virtual form. It’s just another side effect of COVID-19 that has drastically altered my college experience and my professional career, but I’m still grateful for still taking on my role in a unique way.  

One Student's Response to the Carolina Roadmap

Melinda McCabe
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

I’ve been greatly impressed with UNC-Chapel Hill’s communication and problem-solving skills when it comes to getting students back on campus in the fall. Chancellor Guskiewicz regularly sends campus-wide emails with the latest information, and the administration has created the Carolina Roadmap to guide students’and faculty’s return. UNC’s status as a leader in research to combat COVID-19 only adds to my level of comfort.

The rules of engagement are nothing out of the ordinary, at least for those of us who have been following WHO and CDC guidelines for mitigating COVID-19 spread. Masks will be required of all students and faculty at all times, and buildings will become “one-way,” with clearly designated entrances and exits. These small inconveniences seem like a minimal price to pay for the greater good of public health. I’d much rather have my classes in-person or “mask to mask” than alone from my childhood bedroom. To me, some part of UNC is better than no UNC at all. 

I am more concerned, however, with the student body’s collective decision to adhere to social distancing guidelines. While wearing masks may be enforceable, limiting off-campus gatherings will not (without a staunch violation of privacy and norms, a violation that may be warranted given the circumstances). UNC consists largely of undergraduate students who are 18-22, students who are not necessarily known for their fully developed frontal lobes and premier decision-making capabilities. I, and many of my peers, often think of myself as invincible. But this virus has proved that no one is immune, and it will be up to the student body to sacrifice our short-term plans and fun for the long-term common good.

While many undergraduate students may not be at high risk for COVID-19 complications, this is not necessarily the case for elderly faculty, the town of Chapel Hill at large, and immunocompromised students. The actions of undergraduates will impact these vulnerable groups, and I worry about our collective ability to prioritize public health. I believe UNC’s return to campus in the fall will be a great test of our ability to adapt and organize, but I trust the administration to lead the fight.

Navigating the Tsunami

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

In a former life, I co-founded a start-up that grew into a public company. Every day brought fresh uncertainty, trying to navigate changing markets and regulations while taking care of our customers and employees. What got us through those constant travails was time — enough time to make mistakes, learn, and recover. We also had the flexibility to make quick decisions without multiple layers of reporting and accountability, so we could adapt as conditions changed.

I keep flashing back to those intensely stressful years as I think about the environment college presidents are facing right now. The most serious crisis in the history of American higher education is forcing campus leaders to act like start-up CEOs, making huge decisions with limited information and fast-changing conditions. But they’re doing it with all the bureaucratic and regulatory constraints that make universities some of the more rigid institutions in our society. By their very nature, it’s almost impossible for colleges to respond as quickly and decisively as current circumstances require. Universities are not corporations and can’t operate with the same freedom. Holden Thorp and I wrote an entire book on this subject. But until the coronavirus subsides, universities will need new ways of operating that maximize the chance more of them will survive intact.

What already looked like a perfect storm for higher education has now grown into a tsunami: a pandemic, a major recession, and a long-overdue reckoning on race in America are hitting campuses at the same time. An analyst at Moody’s characterized the situation as “a greater systemic shock” than the financial crisis of 2008 or the terrorist attacks of 2001. I have seen estimates that up to 25% of colleges and universities will go bankrupt in the next year.

And this is only June, where the work is mostly planning. Come August and September, every college campus that has chosen to reopen will be in uncharted territory, engaged in a massive set of experiments where there are more questions than answers. Will new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decrease over the summer, leading to more confidence in a fall reopening? Or will optimistic plans have to be scrapped in favor of another scramble for online-only classes? What happens if there’s a major outbreak traced to a college campus? How serious will the current recession become, and what impact will it have on enrollment, financial aid, and on state and private funding?

On top of all of those concerns, colleges will be wrestling anew with their response to the national call for racial justice. The past few years have already seen major unrest on university campuses, and it seems inevitable that there’s more in store when students return.

With so much unknowable and with so little time to respond, decisions will have to be made quickly and with imperfect information. Yet the structures and traditions that have over time made American higher education great are ill-suited to the current environment. Endowments, grants, and appropriations all come with restrictions and conditions that make them hard to deploy for the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic. As Peter Salovey, the President of Yale, wrote recently: “The endowment is neither a savings account nor a rainy day fund but rather a collection of gifts… usually with restrictions on how the earnings can be spent.” Foundation and government research grants are similarly restricted.

Schools are already looking to loosen these constraints through modifications to endowment gift agreements. Donors might be asked to opt into a program where all constraints on endowment and contributions would be suspended during the pandemic. The broadly expendable funds could flow directly to the school or department that previously received the endowed funds, or it could go to a general fund to be used for the whole institution. The simplicity of the approach would allow schools to mount a broad-based campaign asking donors to opt-in, giving leaders the flexibility to take quicker action at a time when speed and flexibility may be the only things to stave off financial ruin.

The same approach can be applied to foundation grants and government appropriations.  Most grants are already immediately expendable, but an opt-in program for increased flexibility would allow grant funds to help meet emergency expenses during the pandemic. The appeal to grantors should be simple: extraordinary measures are required in the short run in order for the original intent of the grant to be accomplished in the long run. A similar appeal can be made to federal and state funding agencies and legislative bodies. It’s unfair to demand that campus leadership be agile and decisive if they don’t have the tools and discretion to do it.

Trust is a two-way street. If traditional funding constraints are temporarily abandoned, the responsibility falls to campus leadership to build confidence in how the funds will be spent. Ideally, they should have been cultivating that trust long before this moment of crisis. But there are plenty of examples of proactive university presidents reducing planned expenditures, instituting hiring freezes, and being honest about the uncertainty associated with any plans for the months ahead.

On my own campus, a think tank of infectious disease specialists and university administrators has outlined a general plan for reopening the campus, undertaken a series of faculty and student surveys, and promised to be forthcoming with details as they are finalized. Hiring and discretionary spending have been limited and backup plans are being tested. Openness builds trust with alumni and other supporters, opening the door for the kind of flexibility that will be required for colleges and universities to survive the epidemic of uncertainty they now face.

Declaring a Major During a Pandemic

Melinda McCabe
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

There are various schools of thought regarding how college students should decide what to study. Should they devote their four years to advancing the mind in the abstract or conducting pre-professional published research? Declaring a major only furthers the schism between liberal arts and research-based educations, with schools like UNC-Chapel Hill attempting to bridge the divide.
 
But how does this question change in the midst of a pandemic? Unemployment claims are growing exponentially, not unlike the rate of their causal COVID-19 curve. Entry-level workers are being laid off in almost every industry; not to mention 2020 graduates, forced to enter one of the most abysmal job markets in the last 100 years. It’s not just that the competition is as fierce as ever--no one is hiring.
 
Once idealistic college students have been faced with a dismal reality: the lack of strong employment prospects for college graduates post-pandemic. I chose a double major in public policy and business because I enjoy public policy--discerning the best policies for the greater good. Just a year ago, business seemed like a complementary addition for a versatile degree with an array of employment opportunities. Now, it seems like an essential choice for any hope of employment. Scores of college students made a similar decision in the wake of the Great Recession, leading to an uptick in “career-oriented subjects like health sciences or engineering.”
 
I can’t help but wonder how the pandemic will influence the two most pertinent fields at the moment: healthcare and policy. I have lots of friends who are decidedly “pre-med,” but many of them remain aghast at the treatment of health professionals during the pandemic. Essential workers have become almost disposable, sacrificial--what does that tell the students who want to one day join their ranks? And we need strong policymakers and leaders more than ever, but I speak for myself when I say I’m exhausted. It seems like none of the norms of policy analysis are being followed, and nothing anyone can do would help. So why sacrifice my sanity and quality of life for seemingly fruitless ends?

Increased Screen Time During the Pandemic

Vivian Karamitros
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

As students in the 21st century, we don’t know a world where we advance our education without technology. For most of us, we learned keyboarding in middle school, created powerpoints all throughout high school, and have our laptops propped open during college lectures. Technology is a part of our daily lives, but now it seems as if the pandemic has enclosed us in our homes and made it difficult to go a day without constantly staring at your laptop and phone.
 
For a student like me, that has become my reality. In-person classes gave me the option of looking at my laptop screen while the professor lectured or staring at the chalkboard behind him/her writing out mathematical equations. My eyes weren’t strained trying to learn. Now, it seems that Zoom sessions for my economics lectures and countless hours trying to learn the material on my laptop change the situation. I’m accustomed to spending a few hours a day on my laptop cranking out papers, submitting my MyMathLab homework, and sending countless emails and LinkedIn requests to make sure I network as much as I can.
 
I’ve become concerned with my increased screen time during these past two months of quarantine, and so have optometrists. Students this past semester who have attended colleges and universities have to worry about the shock that comes with different learning environments and with that comes constant eye strain. From my personal experience, I spent about 5-6 hours on my laptop and phone for educational purposes. Now, I recorded about 10-11 hours staring at my laptop screen trying to complete homework and studying for exams. Printing out isn’t an option since textbooks aren’t exactly known for a low page count.
 
Compromising my eye health during this quarantine is not an effect I’ve wanted to experience, but it’s inevitable for me as a college student.

Universities Must Lead in a Post-COVID World

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Like the rest of the world, colleges are formulating their fall plans with imperfect information. But the set schedule of campus life, with students readying for classes in the late summer or fall, means they have a firmer deadline than most big institutions when it comes to figuring out how to navigate the pandemic era. Just as research universities are supplying global leadership in the development of treatments and vaccines, they must lead the way when it comes to basic operations in the new reality. The choices they make and the mistakes they inevitably suffer will help guide governments and businesses of all kinds in restarting our economy safely, effectively, and ethically.

My own campus is a great case in point. The University of North Carolina system is led by Dr. William Roper, a distinguished physician and former head of the CDC. Our Chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, is a scientist and a MacArthur Award winner. Our Gillings School of Public Health is internationally respected, and multiple schools and departments at the university are engaged in intensive research on virus treatment. A UNC lab did much of the foundational work on Remdesivir, one of the few drugs that have shown real promise in COVID treatment.

UNC is far from unique. The country’s research and land grant universities--with their enormous human and scientific resources--are in an advantageous position to develop an operating plan for the fall. Moreover, these schools have a long history of open collaboration, so they’re in touch with one another on a daily basis as they figure out how to protect students, faculty, and staff while reopening their doors. Assuming conditions permit, how should schools in a position to open proceed when there is still so much unknown? The best approach is to think of the fall more as a careful series of tests than a firm plan. A few things to consider:

Disclosure.  Students, faculty, and staff should understand that there are many unknowns associated with the fall semester, and absolutely no guarantee that events will go as planned. Another round of closures and a transition to all online classes is a distinct possibility.
Opt-Out. For some students and their families, the unknowns associated with returning to school are a bridge too far. They should be allowed to opt-out of the fall semester without penalty and continue their studies in the spring or the next fall. Alternatively, they should be allowed to elect an all online 2020 fall semester. Given the regular accommodations that universities make for students with disabilities or family emergencies, providing this assurance for at-risk or simply cautious students is only reasonable.
Student Participation. Surveys suggest that most students want to return to campus. They deserve to know in advance what campus life will be like. What social distancing protocols will be in place, how will living arrangements change, what kinds of activities and services will be put on hold? Will virus tests be widely available? Will officials be tracking student movements, something that a few campuses already do to gather data for academic interventions. Full disclosure will allow students to make an informed decision about whether to return, go online, or take a semester off.
Faculty and Staff.  Accommodations must be made for at-risk faculty and staff. No member of the community should be placed unnecessarily at risk, and different people will make different judgments about that, given all the unknowns. This almost certainly means no classes or other gatherings over 50 people. Large classes should be held online regardless of whether students are in residence or studying remotely.
Research. As worrisome as this sounds, campuses need to approach the fall with all the rigor they’d bring to any other research project. With the right data tracking and analysis, colleges can provide invaluable insight on how to continue operations while containing the virus. Appoint the equivalent of a principal investigator to coordinate the research arm of the endeavor and commit to sharing the findings regularly and publicly. It will build credibility with students and families, and serve as a genuine public service to other organizations as they find their footing.

For most colleges and universities, decisions about the fall are a complex balance of community health and economic survival. For major research universities, canceling the fall semester should not be an option. They have a responsibility to marshal their extraordinary financial and human resources and lead the way on a nation-wide restart premised on fact-based decision-making and continuous improvement. As we take on the greatest challenge in most of our lifetimes, we can do it in a way that lives up to the values of rigor and truth we have so long proclaimed.

In an Existential Crisis What is a College President to Do?

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Last week I heard the CEO of a leading Edtech company predict 25% of US colleges and universities would declare bankruptcy in the next year. At the time I thought that was an exaggeration but in the last five days other higher education leaders confirmed they were hearing the same thing. Unfortunately, universities that are among the most enduring institutions in our society are particularly ill-suited to deal with the immediate and existential crisis. The very structures that make them enduring make rapid changes with imperfect information problematic. Universities are built upon consensus and crisis management is antithetical to deliberate decision making.  

For less than 100 of the most selective and well-endowed colleges and universities in the US, the next three months will be a difficult logistical and financial challenge. Already they are working through alternative scenarios regarding when to start classes, the mix between online and on-campus, guidelines for gap years, the nature of sporting events, and measures to ensure the safety of students and faculty. Hiring freezes, spending cuts, reduced budgets, and in some cases, layoffs have already been put in place. For these schools, the doors will reopen in the Fall, and the changes that have been predicted will all take place at a rapid rate. In a matter of months, these schools will evolve at a rate that would otherwise have taken years or even decades.

For most institutions, the challenges will be more daunting and the stakes much higher. On top of the problems I outlined above, several thousand US colleges and universities will be battling for their very existence. Higher education was in trouble before Covid 19. Declining enrollment, reductions in government funding, burdensome student debt, changing demographics, and new technologies have created a perfect storm. To begin with, half the schools in the country are operating with an unsustainable financial model. As I write this, realistic administrators of traditional four-year institutions expect at least 20% of their student body will not return for the fall semester. In addition, the first-year class will be dramatically smaller than expected and ongoing support from government and income from the endowment will both be reduced. Hopefully, emergency federal funds will be forthcoming to provide some relief, but radical, unpopular measures will be required to keep the doors open for even a year. When the dust clears time will have expired for unsustainable operations.

What is a college president and its Board of Trustees to do when faced with the unthinkable? First, let me say God bless you. You did not sign up to lead in such dire times and, no matter what you do, you may not succeed. You may even successfully chart a path through the land mines and still lose your job. What follows are some suggestions for navigating the next few months and beyond.

A Return to the Status Quo is Not an Option. Your job is not to map a return to a BC (before COVID-19) world. BC will not return and, chances are, BC wasn’t working even before COVID-19. Take business as usual off the table and begin planning for AD (after disease). This is a challenge but also an opportunity to reimagine an institution that can best achieve its mission for the remainder of the 21st century.
 
An Imperfect Plan is Better Than No Plan at All. The impact of COVID-19 on virtually every aspect of American life has been more profound than any of us could have imagined, and we are far from done. There is no “right” plan. Every institution is different and so is every leader. What is important is to develop a plan that bravely faces reality and creates a sustainable competitive advantage. Merely copying larger and better-endowed institutions will not work anymore.

Get Started Now. Most colleges have already started the process of planning for reopening on some basis in the fall and under normal circumstances that would fill the plate of any leadership team. Unfortunately, that is not good enough. By the beginning of the fall semester, a plan for life in an AD world must be in place largely because your plans for fall will be shaped by your vision of the future. Do not wait for better information. We are all flying blind. Your plan can be revised as conditions change.  

Build a Small High-Performing Team to Help You. This is not a time for committees or endless discussions. What is required is a diverse and highly motivated team that is empowered to be bold without regard to the short-term internal and external politics. It is the job of the President in consultation with the Board of Trustees to provide vision and strong leadership and to sell the plan once it has been developed.  Empower your Deans and other leaders to implement the plan with the knowledge that they have your support in making decisions that will inevitably be criticized.

Make Hard Decisions. Difficult decisions do not get made by consensus or by a team.  Even your most able team members should not be called upon to bet their careers on a plan that can make or break an institution. That is the job of the President. At the end of the day, you must have the courage to do what you think is right whatever the consequences. No good turn will go unpunished.

Tell the Truth and Over Communicate. This is the most difficult challenge you face. You must balance realism and optimism so that the magnitude of the problem is understood but there is a belief that the community can get through it. If you downplay the gravity of the situation it will be hard to sell the measures that are required. If you are too pessimistic, faculty and students will become disheartened and may look elsewhere. Rely on your leadership team to help with small discussions and one on one conversations with key influencers. Do not neglect to pick up the phone and talk to people directly.

Some of the suggestions I have made may seem antithetical to principals of shared governance and academic freedom that make colleges and universities unique. Negotiating the balance between the ideals these concepts embody and the realities higher education currently faces is yet another challenge to leadership in these perilous times. No matter how good your intentions and careful planning, not all institutions will survive, and any realistic plan will come under heavy and often unfair criticism. But the more realistic you are about the threat and the bolder you are in your planning the more likely it is that your institution will come through this crisis in a way that will make your students, faculty, and alumni proud.

Kenan-Flagler’s Tone-Deaf Summer Grading Policy

Melinda McCabe
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

I’m deeply disappointed by Kenan-Flagler’s decision to reinstate a letter grading policy for the summer term notwithstanding the pass/fail policy adopted by the other schools on campus. I’m even more frustrated by the rationale given for this decision.

Kenan-Flagler followed the guidance of the rest of the university of the spring semester, moving all classes online and giving students the option to pass/fail classes within the professional school. I have appreciated the Undergraduate Business Program’s (UBP) willingness to communicate directly with students throughout the semester, until I received the following email from April 22nd. 

The email explained that Kenan-Flagler stands by its decision to reinstate a letter grading system for the summer term. The UBP leadership explained, “hearing from both professors and students, we understand that this disruption has led to a lack of motivation” followed by, “returning to the traditional grading system for summer classes...will help ensure that the limited seats in summer courses are allocated to those who truly need these courses and are making the effort necessary to master the material.”

I was upset when I first heard about the policy change, yes, but I was even more disappointed by the rationale behind the decision. Sure, I’m lacking motivation, but it’s not because of a lack of letter grades. It’s because tens of thousands of Americans are dying and the president has suggested that we try injecting ourselves with disinfectant as a result. I live in an unending news vortex of death and triage and minimizing economic impact- or is it lives lost? These uncertain conditions are only compounded by the issues of access and disruption that thousands of students face at a flagship public school designed to educate students from all backgrounds.

I’m luckier than many of my fellow students in that I have a safe, comfortable, home environment in which to work, and no one I know has contracted COVID-19 (yet). Still, I’m overwhelmed by the deaths and depressed about the inability to leave my house. There’s something about my omnipresent fear for the future that makes it a little hard to think about marketing strategy. Our world is in turmoil and the grade I receive in BUSI 406 is the last thing I’m worried about. Kenan-Flagler should reinstate its pass/fail grading for the summer term to demonstrate its willingness to help students from all backgrounds succeed in conditions that seem determined to prevent them from doing so. I’m sure a continued pass/fail grading policy won’t decrease my motivation.

Life as an Exchange Student Returning from Singapore

Vivian Karamitros
UNC-Chapel Hill Student

I knew that studying abroad was supposed to be an experience, but not this kind of experience. I sit here typing this as I finish my two-week self-quarantine after returning from a shortened semester abroad in Singapore. Just getting to this point has been nothing short of a nightmare. In mid-March, I started receiving email after email from my study abroad advisor and the US embassy in Singapore regarding the uncertainty of the global situation. Then, I received the email from my study abroad advisor notifying me that all study abroad programs had been cancelled. However, at the time, Singapore had a much better grip on the virus than the U.S., so I made the decision to stay. However, the next day, when the CDC made all international travel level 4 and more airlines started cancelling flights, I knew I had to return home as soon as possible. Within the next 48 hours, I still had to turn in assignments, take quizzes, pack all my belongings, check out of my dorm, and say my goodbyes. One night before I had to leave, my airlines cancelled all their flights, forcing me to buy another set of tickets while frantically calling my parents at midnight. I finally made it home after much stress. 

 As this global pandemic keeps developing and stay-at-home measures keep me indoors and isolated, I’ve found I am devoting more time than ever to academics and my workload has increased. Exams turned into several papers, and homework assignments turned into additional mandatory readings. 

In addition to more work, the time differences place me in an awkward situation. My exchange university--the National University of Singapore--is 12 hours ahead. So every time I have to attend a recitation, I have to open my laptop and log into Zoom on their time. I’ve had classes at 8 pm, 11 pm, and even 4 am, I’ve had to meet group project members at 10 pm, I’ve been tutored at 11 pm because of conflicting time zones. If you’re wondering if making classes online has turned students into lazy, ungrateful individuals, here’s one that isn’t. 

The Unthinkable Becomes Thinkable

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

A little over a week ago, I wrote that hundreds of thousands of teachers and learners were engaged in online education, most for the first time. In a week, the unthinkable has become thinkable, and 1.5 billion teachers and learners have begun participating in the largest beta test in the history of education. I learned about the actual size of this tectonic shift at an online summit on higher education that included, among others, Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom; Saul Khan, the founder of Khan Academy; and Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education. By the end of the conversation I couldn’t help but wonder: after so many false starts, will digital learning finally begin to fulfill its promise of increased access and lower costs? I took these key data points away from the online summit:

  • Zoom has become, almost overnight, the de facto utility for virtually everything online from K-12 and college classes to fitness sessions and family gatherings. Security and privacy for the platform is a growing issue; Zoom is scrambling to shore things up, but there is no doubt that the innovations yet to come will be done primarily over the Zoom platform. It works for online cocktail parties as well.
  • The COVID 19 crisis has catalyzed massive on-the-fly enhancements and fixes in educational technology. Zoom executives said features and fixes that previously took weeks or months are being implemented in days, and iterations take place continuously thereafter. Saul Khan and his colleagues are developing entire K-12 curricula on the fly and receiving instant feedback from anxious parents who have involuntarily become homeschool teachers.
  • Coursera is making its Coursera for Campus product, involving 2100 courses, available for free. Schools in the US and abroad are using them to temporarily fill holes in their curricula. Stunningly, Coursera usage is up 350% within the last three weeks.
  • Online foreign language platforms have become quite advanced over the past five years. Recently everyone from K-12 schools to colleges and universities has implemented these learning programs to provide for continuity of instruction during the shutdown.

The sheer number of online teachers and learners, combined with the incredibly low incremental costs associated with serving them, suggests that digital learning might actually increase access and decrease costs up and down the educational continuum. But three weeks out, there are still more questions than answers. Fortunately, best practices for addressing these questions are emerging and, if continued, may lead to profound changes in our society at the very time we need them most.
 
Some of the most interesting questions about digital learning revolve around a troubling development reported on my own campus where virtually all of the courses taught during the spring semester are now online. Kelly Hogan, a nationally recognized leader in the use of technology to create an inclusive classroom, reports that in her large biology class only around 4% of students have not reconnected since she has gone exclusively online. Four percent is a great number but it comes in a class I would expect to lead the pack in terms of student participation. Anecdotally, the expectation is that the average dropout rates in all classes will be closer to 10%. Aggressive efforts are underway to identify and contact these dropouts, but we are all interested in learning more.
 
To begin with, is the dropout number closer to 4% or 10%? Will the dropout number partially correct itself later on in the semester? Is this drop-out rate at UNC aberrational or typical of schools considered peers? Is this level of participation similar for different kinds of schools such as small privates and less select publics? What are the socioeconomic characteristics of those who drop? Are non-participants disproportionately less privileged and caught on the wrong side of the digital divide? Are classes that have clearly defined and graded deliverables due throughout the semester less likely to have low participation and drop rates than those with just one exam at the end of the semester? Are synchronous or asynchronous classes better attended? By the end of the semester, colleges across the country will begin to have answers to these questions.
           
Learning from the involuntary beta test of the spring is more critical than I realized in my last blog, where I predicted the fall semester would involve a process of attempting to return to normal. That is not going to happen. A survey of college presidents taken in late March found that 36% believe there will be serious disruption in the fall. Absent the development of a vaccine in record time, some form of social distancing will be part of campus life for some time to come and some level of online classes will be required.
 
Best practices for online learning on the fly can be characterized in two words: bottom-up. The classes themselves are what innovation professors like me call Minimally Viable Products (MVPs) that are a first iteration designed to get the job done but also to start learning about how to do things better. In most cases, the classes were designed in a week and will evolve over the semester based on real-time experience and feedback.  Such an approach is generally unheard of in academia where course planning often begins a semester or year in advance, and all of the sessions are carefully orchestrated long before they begin. That’s fine for polishing the apple but it doesn’t work when rapid innovation is required. So prototype, listen, test, listen and keep testing and listening is the order of the day as far as course design is concerned.
 
Equally important are the voices at the table when decisions about online learning are being made—and they will be made often in the coming months. It is critical that those on the front lines with deep experience not only participate but assume leadership as institutional policies governing digital learning are being established. By front line, I mean faculty who are experienced Zoom users and those that have employed technology to teach large classes in innovative ways. It is also important to have voices at the table that advocate for students who might otherwise be marginalized or unintentionally disadvantaged by otherwise good-intentioned policies. Innovative teaching is not necessarily the route to top administrative positions at most colleges and universities, so it will take an intentional effort to include the right people if good decisions about online classes are made.
 
Getting this right has never been more critical. If digital learning can, in fact, fulfill the promise of increasing access while decreasing costs, then post-secondary education for a much larger portion of our population can become a reality. My colleague, Eric Johnson and I are exploring the dimensions of that opportunity in light of the groundbreaking new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Stay tuned for more on our work on that subject.

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