‘The Low-Density University’

Authors discuss expansion of their "15 Fall Scenarios" blog post to an ebook.

August 18, 2020
 

When Joshua Kim and Edward J. Maloney wrote a bog post for Inside Higher Ed called "15 Fall Scenarios" on April 22, they didn't know what the reaction would be. As it turned out, people at 355,134 unique addresses read the story. The scenarios of course were about plans for the fall -- and colleges continue to switch scenarios, even as classes have started at some institutions.

Now Kim and Maloney have turned their blog post (as well as subsequent blog posts) into an 80-page ebook, The Low-Density University: 15 Scenarios for Higher Education, from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kim is the director of online programs and strategy at the Dartmouth College Center for the Advancement of Learning and a senior fellow at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Maloney is a professor of English at Georgetown University, where he is executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship and the founding director of the Program in Learning, Design, and Technology. Together, they also wrote Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, also from Hopkins University Press.

They responded to questions via email.

Q: Were you surprised by the intense reaction to your original blog post? What do you make of the reaction?

Josh: That is sort of a funny story. Eddie and I have been writing together for Inside Higher Ed for a while now. And I've been blogging for Inside Higher Ed for years. It was Eddie who originally proposed the idea of writing "15 Fall Scenarios," the piece that kicked this project off.

In my infinite wisdom, I tried to convince Eddie that 15 scenarios were too many. That we should maybe make seven or nine or 11 scenarios. I tried to convince Eddie that nobody would read through all 15 scenarios. But Eddie was firm that we should list the number of potential big permutations we foresaw for the fall of 2020 and not worry about what that number was.

It turns out that that blog post, along with our follow-ups exploring each scenario in some depth, were the most-read things that I’ve ever participated in writing for Inside Higher Ed. There is some lesson in this, although I can’t figure out what it is.

Eddie: Well, I think I might remember the origin story a bit differently. While it is true that I suggested we write a list of possible scenarios, I really only had seven or eight in mind. As we started to draft out possible models, the list quickly grew, though. I think I was ready to stop at 10, but Josh, the consummate blogger and educator, told me an odd number was the way to go. So, 11? Thirteen?

In all seriousness, we were gratified by the reaction to our "15 Scenarios" writing. The reality is that back in April and May, when we were first writing the scenarios, [it] was an absolutely insane time for everyone in higher ed. The scenarios reflected the conversations we were having on our campuses, and that our colleagues were (and are) having on their campuses, to plan for the coming semester. We were trying to engage in that planning under conditions of intense uncertainty, while also managing the ongoing pivot to remote learning in the spring.

Our "15 Scenarios" put some structure and language to the work that many across higher education were engaged, but the intense reaction was less about what we wrote and more about the challenge that everyone was (and is) facing at colleges and universities during the pandemic.

Q: The scenario that seems to be gaining ground right now is abandoning plans to bring back most or all students. Why do you think this is the case?

Josh: We go to pains to point out in the book that the leaders that we interviewed from across higher education consistently placed safety -- of students, faculty, staff and communities -- as the absolute priority. Everyone is extremely mindful of the educational, social, reputational and financial implications of largely forgoing residential learning opportunities.

A shift to remote learning, whether it be a delay in the start of the semester, as some colleges are doing, or the choice to conduct most courses online, is an incredibly difficult decision for academic leaders to make. The reality that many schools are feeling compelled to make this choice reflects, we think, just how poorly the pandemic has been managed by the federal government and is the result of our society’s failures to sustain the proper public health precautions throughout the summer.

Eddie: It makes sense. A theme that runs through The Low-Density University is agility. In an environment of profound uncertainty, colleges and universities have no choice but to be agile, to adapt to the changing health situation. For schools that made the decision in June or even earlier to bring students back, there were always built-in caveats that indicated the decisions were dependent on the health conditions.

As Josh notes above, the poor response to the pandemic from the current administration has left schools with little choice but to rethink their earlier decisions. Colleges, such as my own, [that] have made the more recent decision to shift the fall semester to primarily remote learning did so because of the current public health situation, primarily. The financial impact of full-scale testing, the preparedness of their faculty and the consistency of the choice with the mission of the school no doubt play a role in the decisions.

Q: Who should decide which scenario a college adopts? In many cases where the scenario involves some face-to-face teaching, faculty object. How should colleges resolve these differences?

Josh: Of course, there is wide variation in how each college and university goes about making the decision about which scenario they follow most closely of those we laid out in The Low-Density University. (And to be clear, while we hope the writing was helpful to some in that decision, our contribution if utilized was likely one of many tools and frameworks that schools used.) What was consistent in our conversations with peers in researching the book is that the people involved in these decisions are committed to being data-driven, and to following the advice of the public health community.

Eddie: While we are sure there are exceptions, what we found in talking to peers across a variety of schools in researching The Low-Density University is a high degree of support for faculty choice when it comes to decisions about how to teach. There really did not seem to be an appetite to push faculty to teach in a way that is uncomfortable or worrying to them.

Again, we know from reading news stories (including in Inside Higher Ed) that this is not universal. What we saw may reflect our network, and we did not try to do a representative sample of interviews. Still, in our discussions, it was more often the case that instructors wanted to move online by and large. This was often driven by concerns about personal safety and a recognition that online learning could be more effective than in-person learning with social distancing measures in place.

Before the recent wave of colleges going online, however, we heard from colleagues at other centers for teaching and learning and units responsible for learning technology that a great deal of work went into figuring out the feasibility of this teaching method. (Scenario 13, HyFlex, in the book).

Q: Are there scenarios that haven't been adopted widely that you think could be adopted by more colleges?

Eddie: What is important to keep in mind is that the 15 scenarios that we discuss in The Low-Density University were never meant to be exhaustive or exclusive. The reality is that colleges will mix and match strategies, adding new methods and techniques based on their local needs and the evolving circumstances. What we do try to emphasize in the book is the need for any decision about teaching during COVID-19 to be viewed through the lenses of both safety and equity.

Josh: As we discuss at some length in the book, the pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated the inequalities of opportunities that students must navigate. Students from resource-deprived and financially or health-stressed households have had to manage numerous personal and educational challenges in continuing their college careers during COVID-19.

So while we think that issues of equity, inclusion and social justice are at the forefront of the thinking of academic leaders, we would argue that these concerns should be vocally foregrounded and articulated in the communications of academic plans.

Q: Are there any new scenarios?

Josh: There are always new scenarios for describing how colleges and universities are navigating COVID-19. What Eddie and I are interested in now is trying to understand what comes after a vaccine for higher education. We’ve been talking with our colleagues within and at other schools about what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be for how colleges and universities are organized and run.

Eddie: Certainly the flexible schedule was a major element in the mix-and-match approach Josh mentions. Most colleges quickly rethought their fall calendars when considering bringing students back to campus. The Modified Tutorial model, my personal favorite for its pedagogical value, is being adapted in different ways to create more opportunities for student engagement.

But to Josh’s point, we actually look at the scenarios we write about in The Low-Density University as being relevant once the pandemic has passed. Much of the strategies that underlie the efforts to provide a high-quality educational experience during COVID-19 will apply to when we no longer need to be socially distant. These strategies are built around principles of active learning, student participation in constructing their educational environments and a priority on equity and inclusion.

The emphasis on caring for the whole learner, something that was foregrounded in the academic continuity efforts of colleges during COVID, will (we hope) persist (and expand) once we are past this crisis.

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