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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Using Research to Build Resilient, Student-Focused Institutions

We're in a crisis, but with some sound research and data collection, we can navigate through it.

April 7, 2020

Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

-- “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell

We’re only going to get one shot at this.

It is likely that institutions will be disrupted by the coronavirus in the fall (and possibly beyond). They must be prepared for some extended period of distance learning that does not commodify the experience, because once institutions allow their instruction to be commodified, we are looking at an inevitable race to the cheapest, likely online, credential.[1]

We are going to hear over and over that “we” cannot “afford” college as it is or has been. The people who are going to be pushing this narrative are going to have something in mind like this article from Harvard Business Review, which explicitly argues for a shift to some kind of two year of online gen ed before shifting to residential instruction as an alternative.

I want to help prevent this course of events. The tools I have are this blog, which, let’s face it, seems to be pretty ineffectual in the grand scheme of things, and my employment with Willow Research, a well-regarded (if I do say so myself) market research firm with experience in higher education-related research.

The present situation presents a clear need for the benefits of research. I’m going to keep banging on about things I think matter in this blog space, too, but mostly, we need the research.

I am the last to argue that higher education is a paradise. As Jonathan Wilson remarked to me on Twitter, for the last few decades, higher ed has been primarily focused on marketing itself as a private good for the upper middle class “while relying on fading memories of its older role in class mobility to sustain itself.”

You know how we’re blown away that states are outbidding each other for lifesaving supplies? This has been the situation for colleges for the last 20-plus years as they compete for students, often spending resources on things that do not enhance the educational mission. The cost of this competition has left the vast majority of institutions living hand to mouth with little cushion for sharp downturns in revenue.[2]

While it may not be a paradise, the postsecondary sector is more than worth keeping around, and if done right, we can emerge with institutions more resilient and responsive than before the crisis.

The case for aiding institutions through this period must be made to a public that will be dealing with its own more immediate crises and that has become increasingly skeptical about the worth of postsecondary institutions and the contributions of those who work inside them.[3]

This is why the narrative must position higher education not as something that needs rescuing, but as one of the future rescuers. This is already abundantly true with the COVID-19-releated research that is going on at dozens of institutions across the country, but it should also be true of the mission of undergraduate instruction itself.

Big picture, we need to know what students and faculty are experiencing during this period of emergency distance instruction and how we can better prepare to meet these needs in the fall. This is how schools prove that they are both responsive to public needs and vital institutions worth preserving through this crisis.

For example, this open letter from students at SUNY New Paltz to faculty shows us the kinds of concerns that students need their faculty and institutions to address. Using a combination of qualitative focus groups and quantitative survey research, we can collect the data that will provide guidance for how to support students through the distance learning process.

Even better, this research will point the way for postpandemic support of students.

We need to know about the challenges of using technology and of completing class work amid other life demands. We need to know what percentage are dealing directly with COVID-19-related impacts. We need to know how their employment and financial outlook have been impacted by the virus.

We need to know if they’re planning on coming back to school, and if not, why? We need to know how they would view another disruption. We need to know what they believe they need to succeed postgraduation in a postpandemic (or ongoing-pandemic) world.

The more I think about it, the more things I believe we need to know.

Thankfully, we can research them. It’s not even a particularly complicated project, relatively speaking. All of this research can be conducted online. In fact, based on our current experience at Willow, the stay-at-home orders across the country have made data collection easier than ever before. We could have it done in time to guide decisions for fall.

By identifying the barriers students are facing while trying to learn during the pandemic and then structuring our instruction at the institutional, department and class level around those needs, we can deliver on the promise of higher education being more than a commodifiable credential.

The alternative is to watch our institutions wither.[4]

Why do I suddenly have the voiceover from the intro to The Six-Million Dollar Man playing in my head: "We can rebuild [them]. We have the technology. We have the capability …"

The research could be done for individual institutions, or to my mind, even better, a consortium of institutions sharing the cost. Ideally the findings (or some portion of them) could be shared publicly for all institutions to benefit, and without resulting in duplicative efforts at the individual institutional level.

Think of the marketing budget and how investing in becoming a pandemic-resilient institution makes for a great peg to hang one’s reputation on. Seems like it might be worth some investment from that pile. When you need to navigate a crisis, you want as much information as possible. This feels like a crisis.

So, let’s do this like our survival depends on it, because it does.

Who’s in?


[1] There will be the Harvards of the world and the SNHUs, and those institutions already have a lock on their relative positions.

[2] Some of you are thinking that this sounds familiar and lots of individuals and businesses are experiencing something identical right now, which is evidence that we are looking at a broad systemic problem. We are. That systemic problem needs tackling, but we’re not going to get to it in the next four months.

[3] I’m working on a follow-up post about how I think research can aid in achieving this goal as well, but first things first.

[4] Or continue to wither, as regular readers know I’ve been cataloging for quite some time.

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