A Call for Higher Education to Critically Reflect on the Coronavirus Disorientation

Economist Milton Friedman’s statement in an introduction to a reprint of his book, Capitalism and Freedom (originally published in 1962), has been often quoted:

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

The quote can clearly connect to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the crises it is producing. But one wonders whether “the ideas that are lying around” include the kind of thinking that produces generative change as an outcome of these crises.

As faculty and students adapt to the pandemic’s forced at-distance modalities of teaching and learning, many in higher education are asking whether real change in how colleges and universities operate will result from the pandemic. In the short-term, real change was forced when institutions scrambled to convert face-to-face classes to at-distance delivery and dealt with implications such as the sudden loss of students’ ability to interact with each other on campus, among many other disruptions.

graphic of covid-19 viroid particle with question-mark overlaying

In the long-term, the pandemic will cause financial and operational disruptions. At-distance teaching may be the only kind of teaching possible even into the 2020-2021 academic year.

In Transformative Learning (TL) terms, higher education has been suddenly and dramatically forced to confront a disorienting dilemma.

TL’s foundational theorist, Jack Mezirow, counted disorienting dilemmas as one of the key experiences leading to transformation. Such a dilemma forces the learner (in this case, higher education writ large) to reflect on how and why the new situation does not fit into the learner’s existing worldview. Then, a perspective shift or expansion must occur to accommodate the new reality, thereby launching a revised worldview.

For higher education, the existing worldview — even in the face of increasing pressures in recent decades — has stubbornly remained the residential learning experience on a college campus where students attend classes and accumulate 3-credit-hour chunks of learning based on seat time and successful exam performance until they complete a prescribed program that qualifies them for graduation. Then the pandemic barreled into higher education like a tsunami, and almost overnight the prevailing worldview became extremely fragile.

But TL also offers a solution, exactly as described above: disorienting dilemma (i.e., disruption), followed by reflection, followed by the adoption of a new worldview and subsequent action taken based on the new perspective. Applying this process to higher education can be refined by addressing the challenge as a learning organization.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990), counts mental models (“worldviews” in our discussion) among the disciplines of a learning organization (pp. 6-10):

  • Systems Thinking
  • Personal Mastery
  • Mental Models
  • Building Shared Vision
  • Team Learning

From Senge’s list, “mental models” includes necessary reflection to determine what the mismatch is between the reality and organizational worldview. For higher education administrators, trustees, and others, the pandemic has forced reflection about the definition of a university. Because the old definition (the existing worldview) is no longer possible, then reconciling that perspective with what is possible requires adjusting the current definition in order to expand the perspective.

For higher education administrators, trustees, and others, the pandemic has forced reflection about the definition of a university.

Those wedded to the existing definition of a university are frozen in hope-space — that tenuous existence without agency and totally dependent on the old reality somehow returning. But those whose reflection yields a new definition for “university” are far better equipped to take action.

Assuming those of us at our own university have adopted a new definition for what we are right now, then building a shared vision around that new reality is the next important step. Senge (p.9) says it’s necessary to unearth “shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment” to succeed in this process.

As we work at distance through coming weeks and possibly months, personal reflection about our own worldview of higher education can be a productive activity by prompting an expanded definition of a university. Our resulting new worldview can accommodate the current reality while at the same time motivating us if we tap into the reasons we came to higher education in the first place.



Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.


  1. Great ideas, Jeff! One of the things about a crisis is that it often brings existing dilemmas to light–the dilemmas that were already there suddenly become disorienting! Your mention of the mental-models/worldviews that need to be examined suggests a great project for those who have time on their hands: identify the existing mental models that are creating dilemmas and suggest alternatives. I’ll start with a few:

    The mental model that learning needs to be confined and defined by a semester course. Alternatives: modular courses, that break down the component learning into more manageable units; interconnected courses that share assessments across terms so as to extend the life of the learning; mastery learning programs, in which students move at the pace of the learning rather than the pace of the calendar.

    The mental model that faster learning is better learning, assuming that the student who learns the material first will remember it longest, which is certainly not true. Alternatives: the above flexible formats; additional time for assessments, like given to “learning disabled” students (acknowledging that every student who doesn’t know all the answers is, in fact, disabled in his/her learning); Instead of giving timed assessments as a stand-alone, let students revise their assessments on their own time; let students set their own time limits.

    Ok, that’s a start.

    • Thanks for these thoughts, John! There truly is an opportunity fomented by COVID-19 adaptations to see beyond the limitations that current circumstances are showing to be outdated and outmoded.

      The old seat-time model for chunking education sorely needs an update. It exists for the convenience of the education provider, not for the needs of the learner. Scaling the individuation can be challenging, but in outcomes-based mastery learning, for instance, demonstration of one’s ability to meet the learning outcomes could be accomplished at any time, whether sooner or longer than a prescribed length of time.

      Apprenticeship is a good example. The master will know when the apprentice has met the outcomes. Some apprentices will move quickly to that point, some more slowly.

      The apprenticeship model went out the window with mass production techniques, however. Concurrently, the industrial model of education took hold, too. It was a perfect storm that was only helped along by the new science of statistics that enabled Ebbinghaus to declare he’d discovered how to count learning (using himself as the research subject, no less). Being able to count whether a student had learned X across Y time period then slotted in perfectly to the production line technique of batch processing students in grades compartmentalized in time chunks dependent on having those students at home for helping to gather the harvest. (With thanks to Frank Smith’s _The Book of Learning and Forgetting_.)

      Solutions? The nimble institutions that think creatively will find them.

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