Applied Scholarship During a Pandemic

Conducting research on fall planning.

May 20, 2020

In this post, we want to think a little about the process we’ve been utilizing to inform our thinking about potential scenarios for the start of the 2020-21 academic year. Our goal (maybe a little too loftily) is to both describe our methodology and to explore more broadly what this kind of moment means for critical thinking about higher education. As has no doubt been clear, we have tried over the past few weeks -- at least as much as is possible -- to provide some details about how our higher education community is thinking and planning for an academic year within the context of COVID-19 uncertainties and unknowns. Along the way, we think that there might be some lessons that we can draw about the challenges and benefits of applied scholarship that may be applicable to our community once the pandemic recedes.

Describing how schools are planning for the fall is tricky. A lot depends on decisions that are still, at most schools, very much in process. While it is unclear still how much of a make-or-break moment this is for all of higher education, we know for most every college and university in the United States, the importance of the fall cannot be overstated. We heard this from many of our colleagues who, while unable to delve into the specifics of decisions being made at their institutions, were able to give us insights into the thinking and challenges each of their school faces. For some the financial instabilities are incredibly challenging. For others, the vulnerability of their students to the economic impact of the pandemic may be the most significant concern, especially when their institutions serve as engines of opportunity. And others still are focused primarily on their ability to deliver an educational experience equal to what they have always done.

No matter what the driver may be at any one institution, all of these and many others come into play at all the institutions we are aware of. We conducted a series of interviews and conversations with colleagues who are playing a range of roles at their institutions, from leading committees making key academic decisions to serving as first responders and front-line support for faculty teaching in new and unfamiliar environments.

To understand the challenges each were facing, we shared (or they had already read) the 15 Fall Scenarios we published and asked them a series of questions to help us gain an understanding of how colleges and universities were starting to think about the start of the next academic year. Taken as a whole, the scenarios we developed form a framework in which to examine how colleges and universities can approach planning for academic continuity under conditions of public health uncertainty. As we discussed in our last post, the scenarios are not intended to be either exclusive or exhaustive, as the reality is that every school will mix, match, blend and develop new scenarios to fit their needs. What the list of potential scenarios for the fall provides are a set of ideas and practices in which conversations about the 2020-21 academic year can be anchored. The 15 scenarios for the fall that we created form a baseline in which productive discussions about strategy, planning and institutional trade-offs can proceed.

To help us fill out our understanding of how the fall semester might unfold, we interviewed colleagues from a range of institutions. Prior to conducting these interviews, we developed a three-question instrument (which we modified slightly between interviews) that we used to structure our conversations. The questions include:

  • Q1: What scenarios do you see as likely for your school’s fall semester?
  • Q2: What is your role in this planning?
  • Q3: Do you have thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic will change higher education, and specifically teaching and learning, in the future?

The pace at which the writing for this project progressed drove the methodology. We restricted our structured conversations about how colleges and universities were planning for the start of the 2020-21 academic year to colleagues in our professional network. Our goal was to gather information from peers across as wide a range of institution types that we could manage. We conducted interviews with colleagues at private research-intensive universities, community colleges, public research-intensive universities and small liberal arts institutions.

The roles of the colleagues that we interviewed included presidents, vice presidents for learning and educational technologies, and a range of associate vice presidents responsible for digital learning, academic innovation and learning technologies. We also spoke with directors of centers of teaching and learning, and faculty working to move their courses online in the spring while trying to imagine what the fall would look like.

We’re not journalists, though. We are interested in these questions from a couple of perspectives: first, how sharing this information can help all of us in higher education think about this moment, how the answers to these questions can help us all plan for the fall. And, second, how exploring these questions serve as the foundation for applied scholarship, a critical study of higher education at the moment.

We approach writing about higher education as active participants in the educational and administrative activities of our institutions. We are participant observers to the organizations, and the postsecondary ecosystem, that we are attempting to understand. We think this is crucial in the applied scholarship we are defining, the goal of which is to create knowledge that can be utilized by those in higher education, today and into the future.

During the time when we were publicly writing about the scenarios, we were also (and continue to be) involved in the planning for the start of the 2020-21 academic year at our institutions. The public scholarship in which we are engaged is the other side of the coin of the day-to-day (often very long days) work to contribute to our schools’ efforts to manage the impact of the pandemic. In the case of writing about "The Low-Density University" and the "15 Scenarios for the Fall," the publication of each scenario over 15 continuous days in Inside Higher Ed means that the translation from research to application was taking place more or less in real time.

One of the reasons why we describe the context in which we conducted the research and writing for the scenarios is to impart just how compressed, and intense, the process has been. The velocity of the writing is driven by a desire to get the ideas about the fall semester circulating at the time when their dissemination would be most useful. We think of the scenarios as a set of tools that schools can utilize to help in their decision-making process and planning. It was certainly the case at our institutions that the list of 15 scenarios, as well as the stand-alone pieces in which we explored each scenario in some depth, were utilized for planning.

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