A Missed Opportunity

Effective planning involves planning for three aspects: the best case scenario, the worst case scenario and the most likely scenario. This is not, though, the order in which resources should be dedicated. The most resources should be dedicated first to the most likely scenario, followed by the worst case and lastly the best case.

During this crisis, America’s colleges –– and to a large extent, all schools in America –– did exactly the opposite. Our colleges are filled with many of the world’s best scientists and thinkers. Their warnings echoed comments my heart surgeon provided about my aortic aneurysm: “We know two things for certain: it will definitely not get better, and it will definitely get worse.”

The most likely result of this pandemic for college students would be online or, at best, hybrid learning. Yet virtually all the planning and resources were dedicated to the best case scenarios, namely live instruction with a contained and controlled virus. 

On May 6th, Temple University, where my son is a student, laid out details of their “return team,” which focused on live instruction, security, athletics, dining, dorm life, support staff, and medical care. No mention was made of training teachers in online instruction or developing a robust online instruction plan. Temple opened on August 24th and went fully online less than two weeks later, September 3rd.

My son’s experience was almost identical to those he heard about from friends at colleges across the country. There was virtually no change in instruction when the colleges went online. “Many, if not most of my friends turn the camera on and the sound off during class,” he told me. “It is so boring!”

It was like what is said about our military: we are great at making war but really terrible at making peace, for the latter has no clear, definable end or blueprint. Most colleges put planning the management of live instruction way ahead of planning for robust, engaging and effective online instruction. We could read about all the plexiglass installed, tents built, ventilation systems put in place, athletic bubbles created, quarantine and testing plans implemented, carry-out meals prepared, PPE for staff and students, and on and on. But little is written about planning for developing or improving what was the most likely outcome, fully online instruction.

In an age where there are so many resources to make online learning interesting, how did we fail so miserably at it this fall? We had, from mid-April to late-August, time to develop a Marshall Plan for developing and implementing an online design and training teachers in how to engage students effectively online.

There were certainly many models to choose from. Video game creators are creating content that is interesting and motivational. Tapping their knowledge, innovation and creativity could have helped. Literally millions of students are taking online courses, many exclusively. Gathering those who study and create effective online courses should have been vital to this plan. Many schools and colleges have done effective blended instruction for years and also should have been part of the planning. Those who were most conversant with existing adaptive and interactive learning programs and platforms should have been consulted.

But, like planning for peace, planning for the unknown is not something we do well. It is much easier to put up plexiglass barriers and install HEPA filtration systems than to get teachers to teach differently than they have ever taught before.

Why did we not follow this simple maxim: plan most for the most likely outcome? I would posit that looking at the bottom line does not work well in a crisis, and cognitive dissonance prevented focusing on what was right in front of us. Cristina Paxson, the President of Brown University, wrote in an April 26th op-ed piece in the NY Times:

“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, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic.”

Thus we planned for what we most desired and needed, at the expense of what epidemiologists and public health professionals told us was the most likely outcome. College leaders dedicated the vast majority of their resources to the management aspect of this pandemic and scant resources to the educational aspects.

The results could have been exciting. The best aspects of virtual instruction, visual excitement, interactive content, adaptive learning and blended teaching could have been put in place. Video game designers know how to keep students engaged and motivated. They know how to get students to maintain their attention and learn from their mistakes. Great teachers know how to utilize online resources to improve instruction rather than distract from effectiveness. Instead of utilizing their experience, we pretended that we could merely flip the switch to online instruction.

Our failure of imagination, resources and planning for virtually universal online instruction resulted in a lost year for many students in schools across the country. That the greatest failure is occurring in our colleges and universities, hailed across the world as leaders in creativity and imagination, is nothing short of a tragedy.


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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