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The Wicked Public Policy Problem of Education in the Time of COVID-19

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
April 10, 2020

For the last few weeks, I have been busy helping move in-person training at the United States Patent and Trademark to an online environment. The two universities I teach at have also been busy moving all classes online. Because I use a flipped classroom model, it was easy for me to go virtual. However, some of my colleagues had difficulty in making the transition. I do not know if this will be the “new normal,” but the ability to teach online will be a valuable skill for educators and training professionals from now on.

A recent Harvard Business Review article argues that the, “Ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced a global experiment that could highlight the differences between, and cost-benefit trade off of, the suite of services offered by a residential university and the ultra low-cost education of an online education provider like Coursera.” The authors pose questions such as if undergraduate students need the four-year residential experience, the commoditization of standard introductory courses and how universities can improve their IT infrastructures to deliver online education better. With several of the 2020 presidential candidates pushing for free college, the prospect of providing a college education at a lower cost and the convenience of the learner will soon make this a priority public policy issue.

Add to this a young generation of K to 12 students suddenly thrown into online classes, and you may have future college students who demand that college classes come to them rather than they having to live in a dorm for the convenience of the universities.

Why Education is a Wicked Problem

Ashok Goel is a professor of computer science and cognitive science at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a pioneer in learning engineering. He is best known for building an artificial intelligence virtual teaching assistant, “Jill Watson,” to help him manage his large, online classes. Dr. Goel argues that education is a wicked problem because of multiple, conflicting goals:

  1. Education must be accessible.
  2. Education must be affordable.
  3. Education must be achievable.
  4. Education must be efficient.
  5. Education must be effective.

The most efficient and effective method of education is one-to-one tutoring, argues Dr. Goel. However, “One teacher for every student for every subject,” opposes the goals of accessibility and affordability. Dr. Goel observes “[s]o, the question really becomes, is there some way in which we engineer learning in such a way that we can achieve these multiple goals simultaneously? And no one has quite figured it out yet.”

Other public policy issues that Dr. Goel sees is the increasing use of data analytics and artificial intelligence in the classroom. Now that educators can mine student learning data in-depth to predict student behavior better, what are the ethical duties that educators owe to the students? What about student privacy and equal access to education? What should educators do to help students better collaborate with artificial intelligence tools? The COVID-19 Pandemic and the rush to bring education and training online have made the answers to these questions more urgent.

The Crisis of the Academic Job Market

According to a March 5, 2020 article in the New York Times, for the last two decades, the number of people obtaining Ph.D.’s has increased while the number of tenured professor jobs has steadily declined since the 1970s. Meanwhile, undergraduate enrollment has grown from the 1990s to a peak of 18.1 million students in 2011. Instead of universities increasing the number of tenured positions, the colleges doubled the hiring of adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty are cheaper as, “[m]any adjuncts earn only a few thousand dollars per course, with no health insurance or retirement benefits. Twenty-five percent of part-time faculty receive some form of public assistance. Some adjunct postings don’t require doctorates.

The rush to move online will have profound impacts on the higher-education academic job market, which remains to be understood. Will the shift to online teaching increase job opportunities for adjuncts or, will the rise of virtual teaching assistants take even more jobs away from adjuncts? Will the call for free college fully employ the current supply of Ph.D.’s? Or will the federal, state and local governments come up with new models for education (like my proposal for Community Learning Coaches)?

The National Council for Online Education Launches

On April 1, 2020, the Online Learning Consortium, Quality Matters, University Professional and Continuing Education Association, and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies partnered together to form the National Council for Online Education. The Council advocates for high-quality online learning and developing new pedagogical practices for online education. “The council aims to help distinguish ‘this quick pivot to put your stuff up on Zoom’ from what carefully designed distance courses can achieve.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic has and will continue to have a profound effect on many public policy and administration issues. Education is just one example of how rapidly policymakers can meet the new challenges.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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