Flattening the online education curve

3 min read

It struck me last night that what is happening at many institutions right now in response to COVID-19 is our own version of “the curve”.

You are likely well aware of the curve in COVID-19 terms. It is what we are all working on flattening with physical distancing, cancellation of mass gatherings, and moving much instruction to virtual environments.

There are many reasons why we are flattening the COVID-19 curve, but high among them is to protect our health care systems from being overwhelmed with an influx of COVID cases at all once, making it impossible to keep up and leading to their potential collapse. The idea is, if we can work on reducing this sudden influx of patients requiring urgent care in our hospitals and spread the cases out over time, it buys time for our health care systems to keep up and manage the cases.

Chart showing illustration of flattening the curve
Flattening the curve gif CC-BY-SA credits on gif. Retrieved from The Spinnoff

One of the effects of flattening the health care system curve, however, has been the sudden stress it has put on other systems, like the systems at our educational institutions that support instructors and students with online learning. Overnight there was a spike in demand at institutions for help and support to transition instruction online. In effect, measures taken to flatten the COVID curve created other curves; massive spikes in systems that were not designed to support such a massive scaling up overnight.

This spike at our educational institutions has put a great deal of pressure, stress and focus on the systems at institutions designed to support online and distance learning, and the people who are feeling this acutely right now are the people; IT staff that need to keep the systems up, instructional designers, faculty support, educational technologists, people who have experience working at the nexus of education and technology, specifically online education. These are our institutional front line workers who are struggling to cope with a spike in supporting online teaching & learning.

Hopefully a bit of immediate pressure will be let off soon as the end of the academic term is approaching for many on a traditional semester system (others in trades training or who are on a quarter system may not be in this position). This academic term was the scramble term with the closure of face-to-face classes happening right in the middle of the term. The chaos term is coming to a close.

This is not to imply that things will get easier. Indeed, a second spike is coming, albeit at a traditionally slower part of the academic year with the start of spring terms and a summer term on the way. But hopefully as the end of term arrives for many institutions, this will provide a bit of reprieve from our own front line workers, and give administrators some time to prepare for the tsunami that is likely coming our way in September as many are predicting we will continue to see some kind of physical distancing restrictions in place.

By prepare, I hope that one of the measures institutions will seriously consider is shoring up the people who support faculty and students. Increasing the people capacity in their teaching and learning centres, faculty development, instructional design, IT support areas with people who have experience in online teaching & learning and educational technology. As the initial emergency response settles over the coming weeks, now would be a good time for administrators to consider hiring reinforcements to help prevent a collapse of the people who are currently working to flatten our own curve.


Chris Lott (@fncll) April 7, 2020

Great piece, Clint. I’ve also been using the same analogy for this time of remediation in teaching and learning as well! Somewhere I saw a chart that had, all in one, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th waves of the COVID pandemic and, if I can find it again, I’d really like to map that out in terms of teaching and learning. Of course, now I can’t find the chart again 🙂

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