In 1985 The Talking Heads released “Road to Nowhere.” That song, and that metaphor, have been on my mind a lot lately as I think about where higher education is going in the fall and beyond.

It’s all too clear that we are going somewhere, but I’m not sure that any of us are very clear about what the ultimate destination is. And the reality is that not all of us have the same destination in mind. Today we’ll examine the journey that public universities appear to be on.

The question top of mind for anyone in higher education is: will institutions have face-to-face instruction in the fall and, if so, what will that look like?

It’s become clear in the last month that the question for public universities isn’t if there will be face-to-face instruction on campus in the fall but how that instruction will be managed. But before we look at how research institutions are preparing for the fall (and hopefully beyond) we need to get one thing out of the way.

On campus activities, including instruction, are physically risky and will continue to be risky until there is either a vaccine or effective treatment for the novel coronavirus. And while many traditional students may not be in at high risk, the faculty and staff necessary for running a university may be in one of those high-risk categories.

Why Return to On-Campus Instruction If It’s Risky?

The desire to resume on-campus operations for so many institutions is driven by psychological, political, and financial reasons.

As a society we are desperate for some sense of normalcy right now; we crave the familiar. Culturally, the start of the fall semester and the traditional academic year conjures up images of fresh-faced students excited to start a new stage in their lives. They will stride across the quad on their way to classes where they will engage in stimulating conversation and inquiry. And even though we know that is not the norm for most students and institutions, those images are culturally powerful. And in this period of deep uncertainty, we, as a society, are craving such reassuring images.

It would also be naïve to not recognize the political pressures that research institutions, especially public universities, are under. Schools in states where there has been intense public and political pressure to resume on-campus instruction will find it difficult to remain fully remote. Public universities reliant on state appropriations are especially at risk if they do not resume on-campus instruction and life. As state legislatures begin to grapple with huge budget deficits and contemplate deep cuts, public universities may not be able to politically afford being perceived as out-of-step with legislators advocating for a re-opening of their state.

But perhaps most significant are the financial pressures for resuming on-campus instruction and life. Many public universities depend upon the revenue generated by on-campus interactions. And although some students may consider the academic reputation and opportunities in their decision to attend, many are focused on the non-academic experiences—attending football games in the fall, going to sorority and fraternity parties, playing intermural sports, and creating lifelong connections with other students. Being physically on a campus, for these students, is the critical part of that experience. Public universities that rely on residential experiences likely cannot afford to lose the fees lost if instruction remains remote. As Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, opined in a New York Times April op-ed,

“Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue. This loss, only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic… It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”

So, if the vast majority of public universities are going to resume some form of on-campus operations for the fall, what should that look like and how can it be done in a way that prepares institutions for the spring term and beyond?

 What Do We Know About the Fall?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is maintaining a searchable database of institutional plans for the fall. Of the 334 public universities that have reported their plans…

  • 76.9% are planning for on-campus instruction,
  • 15.3% are planning for hybrid instruction, and
  • only 7.8% are planning for online instruction.

One should note that even those institutions that are planning for on-campus operations have stated that a larger number of their courses will be online. As a result, they should really be categorized as hybrid but are not self-identifying as such.

Two states offer significant exceptions to the on-campus fall plans—California and the California State University system’s decision for online operations and the University of Maryland system’s decision to operate a hybrid model.

Two systems that have garnered much attention are the Cal State system and Purdue. Cal State made an early decision to remain online while Purdue’s Mitch Daniels has been the most vocal public university leader to advocate for a return to on-campus instruction. Politics goes a long way to explaining the institutions’ very different responses. As an early hotbed of coronavirus cases, California enacted strict shelter in place orders so it should come as no surprise that the mostly urban universities of the Cal State system would choose to prepare for online operation. In announcing the decision to the Cal State Board of Regents, Chancellor Timothy White explained,

“It is wise to plan now and over the next several months, with enriched training and improvement in virtual learning environments, only to pull back a bit in the fall for more in person as circumstances allow. But it would be irresponsible to approach it the other way around and wait until August, to only then scramble and not be prepared for a robust learning environment for our students.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Purdue University led by former Republican governor Mitch Daniels. In late April Daniels announced his intention of students returning to Purdue in the fall explaining that although the closure of the campus in the spring was necessary “it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, those will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance.” While appearing before the US Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Daniels argued that “with 45,000 students waiting and the financial wherewithal to do what’s necessary, failure to take on the job of reopening would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.” Purdue’s return to on-campus teaching will not look like previous terms, though. Large lecture classes will be offered online, classrooms and dormitories will be reconfigured for social distancing, students will be required to wear masks while in class, faculty will potentially teach behind plexiglass, common areas on campus will experience more frequent deep cleaning, the academic calendar will change, and students will be asked to monitor their temperature.

Many public universities appear to be following Daniels’ playbook. Anticipating the arrival of a second wave of infections in late fall, many institutions are either ending the term before the Thanksgiving break or are planning to switch to online delivery of classes after Thanksgiving. And upon closer examination of fall plans, it becomes clear that online delivery will play a greater than normal role as institutions eliminate large lecture courses and attempt to create classroom configurations that adhere to social distancing guidelines. What remains unclear is the extent to which students understand that the fall will bring a continuation of online courses.

What Challenges Should Institutions Address?

Those institutions resuming on-campus courses in the fall must grapple with a variety of challenges ranging from reconfiguring physical spaces to grappling with the pedagogical impact of a socially distanced campus. In addition to the physical and logistical challenges of encouraging and enforcing social distancing and significantly increasing cleaning across campus, schools are also struggling with inadequate testing capabilities, determining procedures for contact tracing, and ensuring that isolation facilities exist for any residential students who become infected with the novel coronavirus. Chief among all of these challenges, though, are the myriad pedagogical challenges that a return on-campus instruction brings.

Socially Distanced Classrooms

Among the pedagogical questions that instructors must grapple with is: what does a socially distanced classroom look like? and how might that impact active learning Determining what to do with large lecture courses is perhaps the easiest challenge to solve. Obviously, it is no longer tenable to pack students into large lecture halls like sardines. Of course, we’ve known for a long time that little active learning and even less meaningful faculty and student interaction takes place in large lectures. One of the ironies of online learning is that those courses are required to adhere to Department of Education standards around regular and substantive interaction while one could argue that little such interaction occurs in many introductory level lecture courses. How might these courses be redesigned for the fall and what role should technology play in that redesign? One of the most straightforward redesigns would be leveraging the flipped course model where content normally delivered via a lecture is delivered online for the part of the week while students meet in smaller groups for face-to-face interaction. But even though this is probably the most straightforward redesign, it’s not without challenges. In addition to the more technological challenges around designing and delivering high quality lectures, the facilitation of multiple small groups will require significant staffing. We sometimes forget that large lecture courses have become a mainstay on campuses not because they are the best pedagogical practice but because they are the most efficient and cost-effective delivery modality.

Even smaller face-to-face classes will experience challenges. As Parker Palmer writes in To Know as We Are Known, a critical role of a professor is the creation of hospitable space:

“in which the community of troth can form, the pain of truth’s transformations be borne.”

In this model the classroom becomes the physical place for shared experience and a place where students and professors grapple together to find answers to difficult questions. This type of learning is not passive; both students and faculty are actively engaged. Physical distance, though, often creates social distance. How can faculty create space for grappling with difficult subjects when they are behind literal barriers? How do students work together to explore questions and develop solutions if they are six feet away from each other? Active learning in a socially distanced classroom will be no small feat and, ironically, more difficult and less effective than in an online class.

Even beyond grappling with how to re-imagine teaching in such physical spaces is the challenge of being prepared to again quickly pivot from face-to-face to remote instruction since it is not a question of if a new wave of infections hits but when such a wave will hit. For some institutions this means that faculty are being asked to prepare different versions of their courses—one for on-campus delivery and one for digital delivery. That they are being asked to do twice as much work in preparing for the fall has not been lost on most faculty, especially those whose experience with remote instruction in the spring was less than pleasant. These faculty may now understand the fundamentals of teaching online such as how to use the learning management system, setting up a (hopefully) secure Zoom session, or holding online “office” hours. But many still do not have training on the pedagogical best practices for online instruction.

How Should the Fall Inform Next Spring and Beyond?

Given continued uncertainty around what the next several months will bring, it’s tempting to focus on getting through the fall term only. But doing so is a grave disservice to ourselves and our students. It’s not an exaggeration to say that higher education has been irrevocably changed because of the last four months. Just as the pandemic has shaken our society, so to has it shaken academia. Those of us in online learning have long known that digital learning is here to stay, but the last several months have made that clear even to our non-digital colleagues. As institutions grapple to safely and effectively educate more students, online education will play an increasingly important role in preparing students for an ever more digital work life. Practically this means thinking creatively about how we construct community and addressing four key areas. We must:

  1. think more creatively about constructing interactions.
  2. think more creatively about experiential learning.
  3. reevaluate what support looks like for both students and faculty.
  4. address inequity.
the four items we must address from the text above with a magnifying glass.

1. We must think more creatively about constructing interactions

One of the pervasive criticisms of online learning is that digital interactions are less meaningful and less powerful than face-to-face interactions. And in many cases that is a fair and valid criticism. Even when we are not aware of it, we are constantly reading and interpreting body language, expressions, tone, and other non-verbal and verbal cues some of which can get lost in a digital environment. The richness of learning often comes from the meaningful connections we make with each other, and that doesn’t translate easily into the virtual world. We talk over each other in Zoom meetings. It’s easy to disengage and multitask when you aren’t sitting in the same room. Subtle non-verbal and verbal cues get lost in spotty internet connections, and it’s easy to forget someone’s humanity when you aren’t looking into their eyes and see the immediate effect your words or deeds have on them. Now is the time to admit that online learning has not always done a good job building human connection. We should use this as a chance to think more deeply about how we can create meaningful digital communities that enhance relationships based on a common understanding of our humanity.

2. We must think more creatively about experiential learning

We’ve long known that experiential learning opportunities, especially internships and practica, are powerful tools. After all, we don’t send teachers out into the classroom or doctors into our hospitals without first practicing their craft under careful supervision. Yet not all of our students have enjoyed the same access to such rich learning experiences. Many students are unable to participate in face-to-face internships. In some of these cases, students may be place bound with few internship opportunities in their communities. In other cases, circumstances may make traditional internships difficult as students struggle to balance education, family, and employment. We need to use the current crisis as an opportunity to explore what digital internships and field experiences can look like.

3. We must reevaluate what support looks like for both students and faculty

The rapid pivot to remote learning last spring made the importance of support services abundantly clear. Effective online teaching and learning is hard, and we must make sure there are adequate resources if we expect people to effectively do it. For students this means ensuring that everyone has access to the digital tools they need whether that be advising, tutoring, mental health, or career services. Some of these services are easier to offer digitally than others but finding ways to effectively offer them online expands access to all students. And it will be critical to improve communication among all of these different offices in order to make sure that students do not inadvertently fall through the cracks.

And we must rethink what faculty development looks like in an expanded digital world. The spring taught us that most institutions still face significant faculty development challenges that are pervasive and difficult to address. Although most of our faculty now are versed in the basics of teaching online—how to use a learning management system, how to hold virtual office hours— deeper pedagogical training and intentional design for online education is needed. We still face a massive faculty development challenge that institutions by themselves are likely unable to meet, especially in an age of deep institutional budget cuts. Now is the time for institutions to collaborate in creating and sharing faculty development tools so no one wastes resources reinventing the proverbial wheel.

Even more critical is the challenge of leveraging limited instructional design resources. Under the best of circumstances most faculty are untrained in pedagogical and assessment practices. Deliberate instructional design, once an afterthought, must be front and center. Few, if any, institutions have adequate instructional design resources with teams of designers assisting faculty in designing and developing effective online courses and assessments. And in an age of budget cuts, it’s unlikely that institutions will be able to afford the number of instructional designers they need to effectively develop new online courses and programs. Yet we know from the spring just how critical good instructional design is. Institutions will need to develop creative ways to meet their exploding instructional design needs. For some schools this might mean finding ways to share instructional designers or even courses. At other schools it might mean developing a cadre of faculty mentors who can guide their peers in designing effective online courses. It could even mean leveraging students to assist in designing courses.

4. We must address inequity

The last few months laid bare the vast inequities in the United States in ways that can no longer be ignored. As institutions turned to remote instruction faculty discovered that many students had inadequate access to the hardware and bandwidth they needed to complete their courses. Institutions scrambled to get laptops into students’ hands so they would not be forced to complete courses on smartphones and tablets, often struggling to even find the hardware as laptop and webcam shortages took hold. Many students struggled to find adequate broadband access to complete their courses. Where once they could rely on open networks on campuses, in libraries, or even local coffee shops, students were forced to sit in their cars in campus parking lots in order to access broadband. And as unemployment skyrocketed to its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the food and housing insecurity that already plagued many students could no longer be ignored.

As larger numbers of students face food and housing insecurity, campuses will see even greater retention challenges. Analysis of FAFSA renewals by the National College Attainment Network already indicates there is a 7.2% decrease in FAFSA renewals among the lowest-income college students—over 239,000 fewer renewals among students with a less than $25,000 income level than this time last year. We face an unprecedented summer melt as students struggle to regain their financial footing. In order to staunch this melt, institutions will need to help many students navigate changing financial aid needs and proactively reach out to students as well as change how we advise and work with those students during the academic term. Faculty and advisors should be trained in trauma informed advising and teaching practices, so they are better positioned to treat students holistically and help them navigate these immensely difficult challenges. For faculty used to operating first and foremost as subject matter experts, this may be a significant shift and require more professional development at a point when they have little time or capacity. And it will also require institutions to think more seriously about the types of emotional and mental supports they are providing already exhausted and overwhelmed faculty and staff.

Is It Really “A Road to Nowhere”?

If you haven’t watch The Talking Heads’ music video for On the Road to Nowhere lately, go ahead and give it a quick watch.


Having grown up in the emptiness of west Texas I’ve spent a lot of time driving what seemed like roads to nowhere—flat, desolate, straight stretches of road that are impossibly empty. But I learned a few things driving those roads that seem especially applicable these days. If you’ve ever driven down a rural Texas highway you’ll be familiar with the two finger wave every oncoming pickup or car give each other. It’s a subtle gesture—just two fingers lifted off the steering wheel—but it conveys more than just a quick hello. It’s really a moment of acknowledgement that despite the emptiness of the road someone sees you and that you are not alone. I also learned that all of those roads, no matter how rural or isolated or desolate or rough, are going somewhere. There is always a destination. Sometimes I didn’t like the destination, or I got lost along the way and ended up in the wrong place, but I always ended up somewhere. It may feel like we are on a road to nowhere right now, but we aren’t. In the words of David Bryne:

a long road
We're on a road to nowhere

Come on inside

Taking that ride to nowhere

We'll take that ride

I'm feeling okay this morning

And you know

We're on the road to paradise

Here we go, here we go.

Van Davis

Chief Strategy Officer, WCET

LinkedIn Profile

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