Friday, August 7, 2020

When Colleges Went to Online Instruction: Some Patterns

Almost all the US colleges and universities closed down their in-person operations and went to online education in March and April. But they didn't all do so at exactly the same time, nor do they all have the same plans for this fall.  In "Tracking Campus Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic," Christopher R. Marsicano, Kathleen M. Felten, Luis S. Toledo, and Madeline M. Buitendorp (Davidson College Educational Studies Working Paper No. 1,  April 2020) look at the shutdown pattern. They have also set up a College Crisis Initiative website that, among other tasks, keeps track of plans of colleges and universities for next fall. 

These maps from the working paper show the transition to online instruction in March 2020. Yellow dots mean that a college announced a transition to online instruction; purple dots mean the transition was implemented. 

What's the overall pattern? From the abstract: "Between March 1st and April 4th, over 1,400 colleges and universities closed their doors and transitioned to online instruction. This paper uses a novel dataset and draws upon theories of institutional isomorphism to descriptively examine the trends in how higher education institutions responded to the Coronavirus pandemic. It finds little difference in institutional response based on campus infrastructure including, residence hall capacity, hospital affiliation, and medical degree offerings. There is some suggestive evidence, however, that institutions may have responded to external coercive isomorphic pressures from state governments and may have relied on a heuristic of peer institution closures to inform their decisions." 

In other words, the timing by which schools moved to online education seems to have been affected in some cases by pressure from state government or because they were following peer institutions. One suspects that similar dynamics--a mixture of evidence, political pressure, and following the crowd--will govern the move back from online education as well.  Here are the current plans for fall, updated through Friday, August 7, at the "Dashboard" website of the College Crisis Initiative

What's especially interesting to me is how different the plans are across institutions, even though students have actually started moving into dormitories at some institutions and are packing their bags for a move in the next week or two at other places. California is primarily green--that is, primarily or fully online. The middle of the country has a lot of pink, for primarily or fully in person. I'm sure colleges and universities are watching each other closely, both for whether there will be a widespread on-campus outbreak of COVID-19, and also the willingness of students to deal with in-person restrictions or online learning.