Adaptive e-learning is a new and innovative type of e-learning, which makes it possible to adapt and redesign learning materials for each individual learner. Taking a number of parameters such as student performance, goals, abilities, skills, and characteristics into consideration, adaptive e-learning tools allow education to become more individualized and student-centered than ever before.
The COVID-19 pandemic quickly led to the closure of universities and colleges around the world, in hopes that public health officials’ advice of social distancing could help to flatten the infection curve and reduce total fatalities from the disease.
Across the globe, the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19 has led to profound changes in social interaction and organization, and the education sector has not been immune. While the primary student population (of both K-12 and postsecondary education) appears to be at a lower mortality risk category compared to older adults, pandemic precautions called “social distancing” or “physical distancing” have attempted to reduce interpersonal contact and thereby minimize the kind of community transmission that could develop quickly in dense social networks.
Emergency eLearning and the securitization of face-to-face schooling
The COVID-19 response is not the first time that emergency eLearning programs have been considered as appropriate crisis-response measures. A similar strategy was observed in Fall 2009, where 67% of H1N1 contingency plans involved substitution of online classes for face-to-face classes (Allen & Seaman, 2010, p. 9). The comparators for COVID-19 also extend to other forms of natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in August 2005 physically damaged 27 colleges in the Gulf region and more in Texas, causing damage that made it impossible for on-campus courses (Meyer & Wilson, 2011). What followed was a rapid-deployment of online learning called the “Sloan Semester,” named for the sponsoring Alfred Sloan Foundation; a consortium of 153 colleges and universities reacted quickly to create an online course catalogue of over 1300 courses (Lorenzo, 2008). Then—as now—there was ample justification for alternative arrangements.
Assembling a sample pool of university declarations for the purposes of establishing regularities was the first step of in the examination of emergency eLearning protocols. The sample was drawn from the top-25 universities in the United States, as ranked by Times Higher Education/Wall Street Journal (2019). Every university declared emergency eLearning policies (100%). While these changes were most commonly announced by the university President (72%), announcements were also made by the Chancellor (8%) or provost/interim provost (20%). Announcements typically referenced protecting the community (84%) but also referred to managing uncertainty (32%) and—less often—threat response (8%). All announcements took place between March 6 and 13, with the majority (60%) happening on March 10/11.
With the outlying case of Stanford—whose earlier response was likely influenced by two students living in on-campus residence going into self-isolation (Drell, 2020)—the announcement pattern indicates a fairly normal distribution over the week. While there was some variability in the rhetorical framing and precise timing, the announcements all tended toward the same result—in light of COVID-19, face-to-face schooling could not continue.
The announcements at Harvard and Yale are typical of the selection, and given their role as example-setting universities for higher education world-wide, it is worth to provide closer analysis. Their declarations highlight how the enactment of emergency eLearning protocols represents a move to securitize face-to-face schooling at those institutions. In the case of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow (2020) begins by presenting COVID-19 as a force that could have been expected to change lives: “Like all of you, I have been intently following reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and considering the many ways in which its future course might alter my life and the lives of those closest to me.” This establishes the existential nature of this general threat—COVID-19—vis-à-vis the relevant audience (the Harvard community). After noting that “a group of extremely dedicated people has been working literally around the clock to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19,” he introduces “major near-term changes” that are designed to “limit exposure to the disease among members of the community.” These changes are major, and fundamentally change the ordinary way that classes take place by invoking extraordinary measures.
The first change that Bacow (2020) introduces is that “we will begin transitioning to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes.” While the general threat is the impact of COVID-19 on the Harvard community (and the world writ large), it is specifically the class experience that is taken out of the ordinary face-to-face realm and displaced into a “secure” format of eLearning. This presentation fits the key elements of securitization theory as the securitizing actor has identified a threat to the community, and is declaring the suspension of normal life, replaced swiftly with emergency contingency measures. That the statement addresses a relevant audience is clarified through Bacow’s insistence that the measures are necessary “to protect the health of the community.” Face-to-face classes are framed by the threat rhetoric of community transmission and the threat of COVID-19, demanding a shift from the normal state of affairs to extraordinary action. Bacow’s (2020) statement represents a clear securitizing move from the outset, and the acceptance of emergency eLearning by the Harvard community suggests that the securitization was ultimately successful.
The original announcement at Yale (Salovey, 2020a) framed the issue in a somewhat lighter tone, referencing “the challenges posed by COVID-19” rather than Harvard’s life-altering framing of the pandemic. Peter Salovey (2020a) similarly invokes “scientific and medical evidence” as well as “expert advice of dedicated faculty and medical professionals” in justifying the decision-making process leading to emergency eLearning. But four days later, after a Yale student had received a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, the tone changed. In Salovey’s (2020b) subsequent statement, the rhetoric of securitization is clearly present—and in a particular way the Schmittian logic of the exception that Williams (2003) argues is always inherent in the securitizing move:
I write to inform you of important decisions regarding the remainder of the spring semester and remind you of measures we must take in the interest of the health and safety of our community …
The increasing intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic has required that we revisit decisions that seemed proactive when first announced just days before. On March 10, I let you know that through at least April 5 … we would hold classes online using Zoom, Canvas, and other digital tools. It was my hope that we might see a return to normalcy before the end of the semester.
With regret, and in consultation with Yale’s medical and public-health experts and other university leaders, I have concluded that an early return to the classroom is not possible. The clearest relevant lesson we have drawn from our best-informed, wisest sources is this: pandemics are defeated by bold measures that blunt the curve of the rate of infection through dramatic reduction of intense human contact.
I have therefore decided that the measures we announced on March 10—keeping students off campus and moving teaching online—will apply through the full spring semester …
The general threat is clearly identified—COVID-19—and the justification of the actions to be taken—expert advice—is repeated throughout the statement. The introductory framing here again references “measures we must take” to defend against an existential threat against “the health and safety of our community.” Salovey (2020b) draws attention to the extraordinary nature of the necessary actions by stating that “pandemics are defeated by bold measures [emphasis added],” but in the same paragraph draws the link between a “return to the classroom” and the kind of “intense human contact” that the community must be made secure from.
In addition to the secure-versus-ordinary interaction binary, the Schmittian logic of norm and exception (2005) is reified through this passage in two ways. First, because the resumption of face-to-face classes marks an impossible “return to normalcy” due to worsening pandemic conditions, Salovey (2020b) must extend the emergency—that is, the exceptional—eLearning provisions announced earlier. Necessity demands exceptional measures, and normalcy becomes simply impossible. But it is also important to notice the more authoritative voice taken in the second letter—not only is the first person “I” used thirteen times, as opposed to six in the first instance, but the language constructs a stronger image for the office of Yale’s President. Beyond pleasantries, 5 the difference in usage of the first-person is that there is a gravity in the presentation of emergency measures in the second statement (“I have concluded,” “I have therefore decided”) that does not exist in the first (“I describe actions”). Rather than presenting the emergency measures as a messenger, the second statement also reaffirms the President’s position as a securitizing actor.
Face-to-face schooling is constructed as a specific threat from which the communities must be protected, and emergency eLearning is the security measure proposed to protect the community. The securitizing moves invoke not only the authority of public health officials who warn about the dangers of community transmission, but also reify the right of the university official to enact exceptional measures. The current consensus among infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, and public health officials would seem to indicate that the decision of these universities to limit face-to-face classes as a means of reducing close-proximity interactions is justifiable. But the lesson of securitization theory is that the particular construction of these classes as security threats is a social process, not a deterministic response to objective conditions. The prevalence of references to protecting the community among declarations of emergency eLearning, and the clear mobilization of emergency and security rhetoric in the declarations from Harvard and Yale offer further evidence that face-to-face schooling has been securitized in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
The identification of the social construction of face-to-face classes as a security threat is important not only to understand the way that we reach the state of emergency eLearning, but also grants insights into how a transition out from emergency eLearning might occur. The reification of the authority of the President’s office in both the Harvard and Yale examples seems to suggest that it will be the prerogative of that office holder to lift the suspension. Surely such an announcement will invoke rhetorical frames of confidence, public health and safety, and assure preparedness against a possible second wave, but the authority has clearly been (rein)vested in the office of the President. The decision to move beyond emergency eLearning will not be announced by local public health officials or voted on by university communities. Therefore, even if we accept the decision to transition to emergency eLearning as the proper response, securitization theory teaches us that the mechanism by which it was enacted curtails the possibility for any kind of democratic deliberation on how we might return from emergency eLearning—much less how we might seek out an improved and more emancipatory educational system.
While the tendency for emergency measures to be normalized has been a conclusion of theoretical interventions in critical International Relations scholarship (e.g., Salter, 2008b), the need for the future desecuritization of face-to-face schooling is already empirically evident. To be precise, the normalization of emergency eLearning does not refer to the decision to extend limitations placed upon face-to-face schooling through the fall should a second wave of COVID-19 threaten the Northern hemisphere—in which case improving quality of online options may be a necessary step (Lederman, 2020). Rather, the normalization of emergency eLearning refers to strategies that frame the widespread adoption of online learning under COVID-19 as a pathway to a new normal rather than an emergency response.
In a reflection on the spread of asynchronous eLearning titled “Why Online Education Will Attain Full Scale,” Sener (2010, pp. 9–10) highlights natural and manmade disasters as important opportunities for the spread of eLearning through the “Wildcard Effect,” and eLearning advocates in search of public sector austerity and private sector profit have already started promoting the success of emergency eLearning as justification for normalization of these crisis-management protocols. When interviewed by Chronicle of Higher Education columnist Goldie Blumenstyk (2020) about the emergency eLearning transition, the owner of Noodle (a transition-to-eLearning company) suggested that “these events could prompt colleges to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.” With that distinction gone, the administrative choice between logistical and physical limitations of face-to-face hurdles and increased tuition revenues through massive online courses could change the equation. And it is not only higher education’s future that universities choices are shaping.
In the province of Ontario, Canada, the recently-elected conservative government led by Doug Ford introduced mandatory eLearning in secondary schools, in an effort to cut expenses in the publicly-funded education sector. In light of recent developments, political commentators supporting the Ford government’s austerity measures have seized on the example of Harvard instituting emergency eLearning as justification for mandatory eLearning at a larger scale (Lilley, 2020). With increased pressures from both for-profit educational technology corporations and governments seeking to implement eLearning as a means of slashing education budgets, there is a sense of inevitability of efforts to normalize emergency eLearning. It would be more surprising if these efforts weren’t made.