Mar 2020

Coronavirus Forces $600 Billion Higher Education Industry Online

As the pandemic shutters campuses, schools scramble to provide distance education

By John Hechinger and Janet Lorin

Analisa Packham, an economist who studies health and education, would seem ideally suited for teaching in the age of Covid-19. Yet last weekend the 30-year-old assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville realized she had a lot to learn—about technology.

Packham taught herself two popular software programs for videoconferencing, Zoom and Kaltura. She plans to hold office hours via Skype and produce TikTok videos to explain the importance of food stamps in the current economic crisis. She’s already recorded a video lecture for her 41 students, but is far from satisfied with it. “If I was a student, I would not want to watch this,” she says.

America has 1.5 million faculty members, and, like Packham, 70% have never taught a virtual course before, according to education technology researcher Bay View Analytics. To promote social distancing during the pandemic, universities are sending students home en masse to learn on their laptops. In a matter of weeks, as spring breaks end, the $600 billion-plus higher education industry must suddenly turn to an approach many have long resisted: online education.

Evangelists of distance learning have lauded its promise of expanded access and lower costs. They hope the crisis could spur reluctant institutions to fully sign on to the web, but also fear a potential disaster if things go poorly. “Schools that haven’t historically embraced online education are now being forced into it,” says Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and a higher education consultant. “Rather than becoming a crowning moment for online education, this crisis could provoke a backlash.”


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