Three Stages of Higher Education's COVID-19 Journey

by Dr. Scott Moore | April 10, 2020

Estimated time to read: minutes

Extension Engine helps higher education, nonprofits, and learning businesses create online learning experiences. Over the last seven years, we have focused on creating remarkable custom learning experiences. These are designed intentionally, over time, with an eye to differentiation and competing successfully in the client's chosen marketplace. As our salesman, my job is to find an organizational fit between a prospect and Extension Engine.

Changes in the world around us have affected the conversations that I am having. Over the last three weeks, I have discussed three different situations in the context of online learning:
  1. hanging on to a broken piece of wood as a hurricane roils the surrounding ocean;
  2. setting up a village of huts on an uninhabited island;
  3. building a new planned community.

In the following, I am creating a historical record of the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic put, and that I predict will put, on higher education. While doing so, I also describe how Extension Engine has been and can help higher education leaders navigate these difficult times.

Table of Contents


1. Remote teaching versus online learning

Before describing the three situations, I need to distinguish two concepts:

  • Online learning: This is the result of a thoughtful design process. The design team considers the initial situation, desired final state, desired pedagogies, current technology, budget, organizational strategy, staffing, and more. In-course experiences are integrated with out-of-course experiences, and technology is used to enable pedagogies that are appropriate for online or, even, only possible online.
  • Remote teaching: This is a short-term approach in which an online course is taught in essentially the same manner as the original face-to-face course with the exception that it is done over the Internet. No thoughtful redesign is undertaken that takes advantage of the affordances of an online experience.

At times it is only possible to create remote teaching (e.g., because of time pressure such as that created by the COVID pandemic).


2. Hanging on to a broken piece of wood

The first stage is one that basically everyone found themselves in during March 2020. All residential schools had a nearly immediate long-term evacuation from their campuses with no known plans to return before graduation… oh, and how and when are the schools going to handle graduation? No one had even a moment to think about this.

The goal for this stage was survival, making it to the end of the semester. And, in this case, survival is literal in two different ways:

  1. First, leaders all wanted employees and students to survive. This was and is the #1 priority. All other decisions are made secondary to this need.
  2. Second, leaders all wanted their schools to survive, jobs to survive, and all to not receive too much damage.


Keeping one's head above water

During this stage (which is still going on as I write this), all of academia is working to keep their (figurative) heads above water:

  • How to be a professor: How can they teach from home? How can they do their research? How can they communicate with colleagues?
  • How to be a student: How can they learn away from campus (home, if they have one)? How can they feed themselves? How can they communicate with their peers, with faculty, with administrators, and with any counselors?
  • How to be safe: This is an underlying worry, with new information coming available from every possible source. What is the current local health information? What are the best practices for survival? How long will this last?
  • How to eat: How can each person safely acquire food? What needs to be done to safely prepare it? If a person does not have a kitchen or food storage available, where can he/she go to get the food?
  • How to maintain the campus (labs, facility): Some facilities will degrade if they are not maintained, and some labs have living animals or plants in them. How can the facilities be taken care of? Can some be ignored safely? How can people get in and out of those labs safely? Are alternatives available?

Funds are not widely available in higher education, so spending is usually done according to a well-conceived, vetted, shared, and conservative plan. Larger investments are normally looked at in the context of the school's strategy. Little time exists for such niceties, such luxuries, during this phase.


How Extension Engine has helped

For the most part, Extension Engine made its people available to schools and organizations who simply needed someone to talk to, someone to provide an informed reaction to rapidly-thrown-together plans that schools were changing every day. Further, we tried to put together some guidance in writing as well. As a company that has been running mostly virtually for many years, we put together a guide on how to run remote meetings. We also tried to help all of those faculty who are now trying to think of how they might provide feedback via technology.

This was simply a time to hold on and hope for the best.


3. Setting up a village

The second stage is one that many leaders have started in the last couple of days. Think of the person, who just recently was hanging on to the board floating through the ocean, washing up on the shore of a deserted island. This is where schools are right now. Students, faculty, and staff are for the most part off-campus by now. Classes have resumed in a “remote teaching” form. The panic has, for the most part, subsided. Leaders need to learn to operate in a whole new environment and plan for some difficult months, but still figure out how to set up the school to thrive as best as it can. The environment for Fall 2020 and the whole 2020-21 school year is basically unknown. Whole companies have existed for more than a decade to address the questions related to how to teach online. A similar situation does not exist related to the following:

  • What should be done about yield events (either in the spring or summer) that schools use to convince students to enroll in the fall?
  • What should be done about orientations that help students succeed in the fall (and help their families feel comfortable about dropping their kids off)?
  • What can schools do to plan for a severe drop in tuition for the whole school year? How can schools minimize the odds of this happening? What can schools do if it happens anyway?
  • How can a school convert every single one of its face-to-face residential courses to online delivery within four months?
  • How can a school plan to feed its campus if it doesn't know if people are going to have access to the campus?

The goal for this stage is still survival and planning for the worst, but now some time is available to be a bit more proactive about the future. Too many balls are in the air and too much is unknown to believe that a school can do everything perfectly and foresee every eventuality. Now is the time for making plans, separating responsibilities, defining roles, and getting all-hands-on-deck participation to ensure the continued future of the school.


Scenario planning

Before discussing the questions, I need to address scenario planning. This is a structured decision process for considering, and coming up with, a wide range of possibilities. Its strength is highlighted by the current pandemic—who among us wouldn’t have scoffed at the assumptions that travel would be stopped, people would only rarely leave their homes, all sporting events would be canceled, restaurants would all be closed, and so on? 

Well, now we have a new set of uncertainties in front of us, but these now are much more plausible and visceral. School leadership needs to define a set of scenarios that encompass what it thinks is plausible. A beginning set of these would probably include the following:

  • Same as before: By the fall, students, faculty, and staff will all be back on campus. 
  • Fully online: By the fall, and throughout the 2020–21 school year, all students, faculty, and staff will be operating online. 
  • Partial year: During the fall, everything will be online; beginning in January 2021, everything will be back on campus. 
  • Some hybrid model: The school determines which programs would most benefit from being on campus, with a limit of 30% of the usual capacity (measured by dorm rooms, classrooms, or other measures). These would be brought on campus in fall 2020 with the rest of the programs being delivered online. 

The above are very thin descriptions of what is actually done in scenario planning; however, the first step is to come up with outcomes that might occur—only at that point can you begin formulating your school’s response. What other scenarios would you add to this list?


Questions to address

Here are a few of the questions that need to be addressed, all of them for each scenario that you are considering:

  • Operating online: How can the school get better at operating online for administration, staff, and faculty? What does the school need to do and what does it want to do? What tools does it already have in place that it hasn't been using? What tools can be adapted to online usage?
  • Student success: How can the school support student success? How can staff receive information on which students are having difficulty? How can students reach out to the staff? How can students know which staff to communicate with?
  • Economic survival: How will the school survive economically during the upcoming year? Are funds from the endowment available? Are donors available to bridge any gaps? What shape is the balance sheet in? How are admissions decisions being handled? What types of additional efforts are being given for convincing students to matriculate? 
  • Provide care: It is quite likely that an effective vaccine will not yet be widely available for the next school year. It is more likely, but still not a certainty, that a quick, effective test will be widely available. Further, it is possible that secondary, rebound waves of infections could occur during the fall and then again in the winter. Given all of this, how will the school provide care to students, faculty, and staff both for their physical health but also their mental health?
  • Succeed: How will the school succeed in the new higher education market that is much more aware of online delivery? In this medium-term, it is likely that investments made for the long-term will not have come to fruition; however, that is not to say that efforts made for the medium-term should ignore the long-term. The more that medium-term efforts can be in tune with long-term efforts, the more effective (and, likely, less expensive) both efforts in total will be. Trade-offs will have to be made, but they should be done so explicitly. 



While those questions seem difficult to answer, some challenges, more difficult than the usual ones, have reared their heads:

  • Long-term efforts will be needed: Just as the school had to attend to the medium-term time horizon as it was struggling with the short-term panic, during this phase the school should be attending to long-term issues while it is working on medium-term decisions. 
  • Time is what is most needed: Given the complexity of the situation (and the wide range of outcomes as highlighted by scenario planning), time is what is most needed. However, the school year traditionally starts in September. And it’s currently April. Compromises will have to be made and difficult, nearly unprecedented, decisions will be brought to the table. Could the school year start in January? Could the school, as early as May, simply declare that it will be only online for the fall so as to simplify preparations for the fall? There is much to consider, and only a short amount of time. 
  • Coordination is challenging: All of this would be difficult enough if we had optimal work environments set up and established processes in place. Of course, neither of those are anywhere close to being true. Almost everyone is still getting used to working remotely. Online tools for collaboration are nowhere near being deployed widely or used as effectively as a whiteboard and post-it notes. We also aren’t bumping into each other in the hallways and having those serendipitous exchanges of information that can expose unexpected problems and/or synergies. 
  • Operating as a distributed non-campus-based organization that is focused on building a community spirit: An important and possibly defining characteristic of a residential college is the sense of community that is created and lives over time, even after the students leave the campus and start their careers. I’m guessing that any group of college leaders could come up with a list of 25 things that make their college special, highlights their distinctiveness, and that brings them together as a community. Graduation ceremonies, orientations, student fairs, student unions, football games...the list goes on. The questions here are 1) How can we bring some of these online?, and 2) What new traditions can we create that would serve the same spirit-building purpose?


How Extension Engine is helping

Extension Engine is talking with several institutions about different ways to help as they move forward relative to the above. Here are just a few examples:

  • Moving ExecEd online: I have spoken with many leaders of executive education about the challenges they are facing as the market for their services has been put on hold. In response to this, I wrote this piece about how to succeed in the new executive education market
  • Quick transition to online: We are working with a non-profit organization that helps disadvantaged youths succeed in STEM in college and in their careers. This organization usually puts on two separate 6-week residential summer programs. We will soon be helping them design and create a short-term solution to deliver these programs exclusively online with the idea that we will be following up with them about creating a hybrid (or exclusively online) approach for future summers. 
  • Online for the fall: We are also in talks with a few schools that want our help in defining an approach for teaching all online courses next fall. We do not have the manpower to move hundreds of courses online but we do have the experience and expertise to design templates and an approach for doing so effectively. 


4. New planned community

The third stage is one that higher education leaders are not thinking about these days (and who can blame them?). Think of the person who has made it through a full year on a formerly deserted island, one who now feels more confident in her ability to survive. She would now begin to plan for the long term, to think about how she might thrive in her new environment. This is where some schools are just arriving, and others will continue to arrive in the coming weeks. Full dedication to this will probably not be possible for any school until the end of this school year (May or early June for most schools). The timeline that must be addressed in this situation for higher education is for Fall 2021 and beyond. 


Questions to address

It is not clear to me that now is the time for higher education leaders to go through a full scenario planning exercise for Fall 2021; this type of work should be focused on the medium-term time horizon. At this point, for the long-term, bigger questions should be addressed, the answers to which will be helpful no matter what position the school finds itself in. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Strategy: Every institution should have a well-defined and meaningful strategy that guides its decision-making. I provide more detailed information on each of the following in my white paper, Defining a strategy for an institution of higher education, but here are the five dimensions of a strategy that a higher education institution should have defined positions on:
    • Arenas: Where will the institution be active, and what is the relative importance of each area? Answers here can specify degree or non-degree programs (or related groups of the same), target clusters, geographical areas, underlying technologies, and pedagogies or learning experiences. 
    • Vehicles: How will the institution get there? Will it be through online program managers (OPMs), internal development, fee-for-service external vendors, joint ventures, licensing, or acquisition?
    • Differentiators: How will the institution win? Will it be by image, customization, price, specific learning pedagogies, technologies (or combinations of technologies) that uniquely support the institution, community building, career services, etc.?
    • Staging: What will be the speed and sequence of moves? Which programs will be built, and in what order? Will non-degree certificate programs roll out after the degree programs? What will be the rate of these moves? Will the focus be on one school at a time or rotate among several? 
    • Economic logic: Why and how will the institution obtain sufficient returns to undertake this effort? Will it be through scale advantages (either per program or investments that pay back across multiple programs) that are going to lead to lower costs? Will it be through premium prices due to a difficult-to-match learning experience (via technology, pedagogical approaches, community building, student service provision, etc.)? Will it be through superior marketing strategy and insights (and appropriate execution) that allow the institution to significantly affect the value profiles of prospects? 
  • Learning experience: Schools must come up with an inspiring, holistic vision for online programs: engaging in-class learning experiences, appropriate learning take-aways, opportunities to engage with and learn from peers, an attractive and informative pre-program experience, an engaging post-program experience, etc. An excellent and unified learning experience can be a significant differentiator. What would such an experience look like at your school?
  • Platforms: Everything in an online program happens within an electronic platform. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) such as Canvas are one type of platform. LMSs coordinate (and limit) all in-class learning activities. These platforms also structure some other parts of the learning experience (listed above). Commercial LMSs provide the most limited and difficult-to-modify platforms; custom platforms lift these restrictions. Online learning also requires platforms for sales & marketing, the program catalog, admissions, e-commerce, alumni engagement, and more. In residential programs, trained and experienced personnel provide the integration and customized service. Thoughtfully designed platforms and systems integration will improve the online learner's experience.
  • Success metrics: Before moving online, school leadership and faculty should agree on success metrics. Will it be revenue? Course reviews? Net promoter scores? Enrollment? Positive cash flow? Or some combination of these? Further, this group should also set initial goals for each. Dozens of people will build the school’s online programs, and they will make hundreds of decisions. Having these goals and metrics agreed-upon beforehand will make those decisions more impactful.


Decisions that have to be made

To realize their vision for online learning, school leaders have to make four decisions:

Allocate enough funding: How much is the school willing to spend to do this? It will not be insignificant—at least $1m in the short-term with similar amounts each of the next 3-5 years. Note that it will be easier as the years go on because the school will have a requisite increase in tuition coming in to cover the investment. 

Choose the right decision-maker: To speed up decision-making, the school will need to have a small number (one would be a good number) of decision-makers in charge. Time is of the essence. In this situation, good decisions are important, but optimized decisions are not necessary. The decision-maker should understand the school, have good management and project skills, have led a digital innovation project, and have a creative bent.

Demand rule-breaking: Management theory supports the need to break organizational rules when innovating. Explicitly granting permission to break rules would speed the programs to market. The sooner the programs are running, the faster the school gets both revenue and feedback. Both of these would enable improvements through additional funding and refinement.

Choose the right partner: Most schools have not created innovative digital products. Further, they have limited excess manpower in all the specialties needed to do so:

  • Product & project management
  • Learning experience design
  • User experience design
  • Digital media design and creation
  • Full-stack development
  • Quality-assurance

Designing and creating differentiated online learning demands all the above. The easiest and quickest way to access the needed resources is by hiring the right partner. This partner should have the following characteristics:

  • Expertise in all the above areas
  • Experience working in higher education
  • A proven track record delivering successful and innovative digital products

While Extension Engine will not be a fit for every organization, our combination of experience, talent, and mission makes us a strong contender.


How Extension Engine can help

This stage is where Extension Engine has always operated. This is what we do. This is where we excel. For seven years, Extension Engine has designed and delivered remarkable online custom learning experiences for higher education. For that entire time, we have worked with Harvard Business School to create, maintain, and evolve the HBS Online platform. We currently are working with the University of Pennsylvania on a virtual campus for online students. We have also worked with ArtCenter College of Design, Notre Dame, Moravian College, The Smithsonian, and many others.

Extension Engine creates online learning for higher education, non-profit organizations, and learning businesses. We have found that knowledge in each improves our work in the others. We have completed 500,000 hours with 65 clients on 150+ online learning projects. Our focus is on remarkable custom learning experiences—the strategy, marketing, design, and creation of both software platforms and learning modules—that uniquely reflect the value proposition of the client.

Extension Engine has two missions. The combination of the two makes us unique. Mission #1 relates to designing, creating, and delivering custom learning experiences. Mission #2 is our desire to build the capacity of our clients to succeed without us. We want to help them get started, but then we want them to take over the parts of the operation that they want to. This requires an explicit commitment to collaborating with and educating our client, one that we make happily.


5. Conclusion

In this quite long essay, I have taken us through the journey and the challenges that higher education leaders have faced, are facing, and will face during this COVID-19 pandemic. I examined the changing challenges that are facing these leaders, from hanging on to a broken piece of wood while floating in the ocean, to setting up a village of huts on an uninhabited island, to building a new planned community. 

Truly, the description within understates the difficulty and the humanity of the challenges facing higher education leaders. This much is true. Extension Engine is doing what we can to support institutions during these difficult times. Adaptability has never been more important for us as a company or for institutions in higher education. Let’s all support each other and come out on the other side both grateful and healthy.

Schedule a meeting

How will your institution respond?

If this article, or any part of it, resonates with you, let's schedule a time to talk. As a former dean and faculty member, I have a deep understanding of course academics, university administration, and online learning. 


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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