The NCAA announced today that March Madness games will be played without spectators in lieu of the coronavirus having been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization this week. As universities and schools begin closing in an almost domino-like fashion, the hype, hysteria and fear-mongering by the media and political parties is in overdrive.

I live in Blacksburg – home to Virginia Tech – the state’s largest four-year public university. They announced today that they would be closing the campus for another week (it’s spring break) and having online classes for the rest of the semester. Students will be allowed back onto campus (dorms and dining halls will reopen), but all events having more than 100 people will be canceled.

Here’s a few thoughts on how the coronavirus could reshape the university system:

  1. Students and parents should be asking tough questions about whether they should ask for partial refunds. A lot of what attracts a student to a university is the place and the student body. Watching classes on a video monitor removes the “special,” and so consumers have a right to a partial refund.
  2. Online classes help us think differently about education across the board. Suddenly, the idea of one excellent college algebra video curriculum has more plausibility. Why pay 1000s of college algebra teachers across the nation? Why not just produce “The Best College Algebra Course Ever” and charge a fee for it as Netflix might charge.
  3. Not having classes on campus for an extended time causes people to think differently about the entire university system. Are sports as attractive when you can’t attend a game? Will fans remain as loyal watching on TV? What if someone can’t access a game on their cable or streaming service?
  4. Many universities require freshmen to live on campus. But upperclassmen live in town in apartments. In some university’s attempts to stave off the coronavirus, it will not prevent college students from returning to their college towns (after all, most of them signed leases) and with no classes to go to… what will be the result? Will towns become quieter as collegians studiously park themselves in front of their laptops, viewing lectures? 😉
  5. Online classes require more self-discipline than many millennials have. This will be a great test and dynamic challenge for this generation of students (even if only for a semester).
  6. What if parents and students discover they “like” this new approach? It certainly doesn’t bode well for universities spending millions upgrading their physical campuses, building buildings, and hiring more faculty and support staff.
  7. Many universities have communicated that they are continuing their sports programs, albeit without spectators. What does this communicate about the value of sports versus the value of a classroom education?
  8. In a day when student-loan debt is a political football and a crippling reality, online classes and education may become a wise and strategic solution. This may level the competitive playing field among the educational community as parents and students choose the teachers and courses that are best instead of the institution, and wind up saving thousands, and earning even a better education.

A call to reform

In the rush to respond to this latest virus outbreak, universities may wish they’d thought more deeply about their response. And then again, the coronavirus may be the catalyst for university educational reform that we’ve needed for so long.

On this day...

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