I am going to comment on two significant news items from yesterday. First, Harvard University announced that a maximum of 40% of their undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will be staying on their campus in the Fall, and confirmed that all courses there will be online courses (six of their graduate and professional schools have also announced they will be entirely online). I think it’s important for those of us working or studying at other universities not to take Harvard as a model. Harvard’s wealth and status puts it in a position to do things that other universities can rightly view as being too costly for them to do. That being said, there are at least three take home lessons here for all of us. The first is summed up nicely in a popular Tweet “If Harvard doesn’t have the resources to make in person education safe in the Fall, do you seriously think anyone else does?” Next, Harvard’s statement says that the 40% figure was based on reasoning by their public health experts concerning health risks, and I think it is sobering to compare that number to the much higher percentage (perhaps 100%, or close to it) many other colleges, such as my own, are trying to tell their university communities is a safe percentage to aim for. The third lesson, I would suggest, is that college students don’t come to campus simply, or even mainly, for in person classes. Amongst other things, they come to be with their peers and establish independence in relation to their families. I’ve been saying this for a month or so (as, I’m sure, have many other people), but Harvard’s policy represents an endorsement of this idea on the part of a leading university, since the students who come to Harvard will be taking all their classes online. We need to bear all these points in mind when considering the policies other universities are adopting or considering adopting.
The second piece of news concerns the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announcement regarding student visas and online courses. Here, I must emphasize that what I will say at this point is speculative. I’m not a lawyer or immigration expert, and students should contact the International Students & Scholars Office (or equivalent) at their college regarding any specific concerns they might have. I am not writing this post to offer advice to students, but rather as part of my continuing efforts to think through university policies and policy options. The announcement begins by indicating, in effect, that the statement is not yet legally binding. This leaves a little room to think that petition signing and lobbying efforts now underfoot may possibly lead to some changes before the regulations become legally binding. On the assumption that no relevant policy changes occur, however, I am inclined to think the following. It appears that whenever colleges offer all courses online only, international students enrolled at these colleges will not be permitted to remain in the US. This means, first, that universities, such as Harvard, that are planning to only be offering courses online will have to either end up reversing their policies, or will be accepting that their international students will only be taking courses from outside of the US. Second, and closer to home, it also means that any college that has adopted a hybrid model* or is planning to hold classes in a face to face mode, and any international student that is contemplating attending such a college, will be very concerned that if the college needs to move online during semester, due to an outbreak of COVID-19, all international students at that college may need to promptly leave the US (unless they are able to go on medical leave, or meet some other excusing condition).
What are the likely implications of this last idea for the policies of colleges following either a hybrid model or holding all classes on campus? Here are two possibilities that are particularly salient to me, although they pull in different directions. First, if we suppose (hypothetically) that some colleges will succeed in attracting many of their overseas students back to campus to attend classes in person, then these colleges will have a new disincentive to provide information regarding infection and hospitalization rates and to declare an emergency of the kind that would require that all classes move online. They already have other disincentives to do this. Russell Powell and I have already called for our own university to set up a thorough, transparent, and independent process for the reporting of all relevant information to the university community and the city where the university resides. Such a move now seems more important than ever. In case any of this talk of disincentives to report information sounds paranoid or conspiratorial, let me be clear: I’m not saying that universities will engage in incomplete or biased reporting; I’m just saying we now need to hear what their information policies are going to be, and we need to think about them carefully.
Second, overseas students who are presently residing overseas will be considering their options now and they are more likely than ever to decide not to return to the US. They are looking at the option of attending college in a country where idiotic public policies and attitudes (let’s not mince words) are ensuring COVID-19 infections are not going to be reduced to small numbers any time soon, and are killing or ruining the lives of a great many people, and where their college may end up moving completely online part way during semester, because of an outbreak, meaning they will need to immediately leave the US. They are comparing this to the option of staying at home for a year, where risk of infection is probably quite a bit lower, and where they can take their courses online and not need to spend money on room and board in the US. Why would such students return to the US? These students are not going to be particularly satisfied with synchronous delivery of courses, such as is required by the Learn from Anywhere model, because of time zone differences. This suggests demand for online only courses will increase. Incidentally, I also expect demand for online only courses will significantly increase once those domestic and international students who do return to campus experience what it is really like to be taught in socially distanced classes by masked teachers (and often using a “platoon” based approach, at least at BU, that involves only some students being allowed to attend each class while other students attend online, due to a shortage of suitable lecture rooms).
There is one good piece of news in the otherwise terrible announcement from ICE that I should now also mention. In schools adopting a hybrid model, students “will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online… [as long as] the student is not taking an entirely online course load.” As I understand it, this frees the relevant colleges up to offer more courses online, as long as they still offer enough face to face (or, let’s be frank, mask to mask) courses to count as following a hybrid model (this is good because the old rule, waived in the Spring, was that only 25% of a course load could be online). BU’s International Students & Scholars office today confirmed this interpretation, saying “Fortunately, this updated guidance appears to continue to allow students to take more online courses than normally allowed by regulation, provided that students continue to take courses in person.” Let us end on this positive note then: online only courses may be thought to be much better options for colleges following a hybrid model to offer from now onwards. Learn from Anywhere/HyFlex may end up dying a natural death.
*Surveys of student preferences generally fail to distinguish between two different hybrid models: (1) some courses are offered online, some are offered in class; (2) all or most courses are offered in class but students may take these classes wholly or partly online, watching and interacting with their teachers from home (the Learn from Anywhere or HyFlex approach). These models are very different in important respects, as teachers at institutions like BU, where the the second model is being forced on us, are only too aware.
[UPDATE, July 8: Legal challenges to the ICE plan have begun, with Harvard and MIT leading the way. Let’s hope they succeed.]