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Author Phil HillBlog

US Higher Ed Set to Go Fully Online in Just Four Weeks Due to COVID-19

By 2020-03-22March 26th, 20206 Comments

At this point it is clear that traditional face-to-face (f2f) instruction for higher education in the US has ended for the rest of the spring academic term. It appears that almost all institutions will be fully online by the week of April 6th, 1The vast majority of virtual class delivery will occur over the Internet, and I am using “online” as synonymous with “virtual” for the purposes of this data analysis. which is just four weeks after the first announcements of emergency closures and moves online announced March 6th as described at the time by EdSurge.

The University of Washington on Friday became the first university in the U.S. to announce that it would halt in-person classes and exams, in hopes that that will slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Hours later, Seattle University made a similar decision.

Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control issued interim guidance on Friday for higher education institutions to plan, prepare and respond for coronavirus cases.

I previously described how the move online is entering a second phase and will likely lead to a new normal. The first two weeks quite often focused on Zoom replication of f2f methods, while recent efforts are more focused on integration with the LMS for basic organization as well as trying to figure out equitable access. I expect further changes in a new phase, likely coinciding with the transition from spring to summer terms. It is important to note that a large portion of faculty are going through a very steep learning curve on how to teach online – particularly for the many who never intended to teach online. We are not going back to the old normal, so it is important to understand the nature of this transition.

Initial Data Analysis

Bryan Alexander started ‘the little spreadsheet that could’, with significant help by Ithaka S+R, Entangled Solutions, and others. We appreciated the opportunity we had to participate in this group effort behind the scenes before deciding that we needed to take a different, parallel approach. With our partners at LISTedTECH, we wanted to collect and tie in the COVID-19 information into the same data set we have that includes major EdTech system usage (from our LMS market analysis as well as OPM, SIS, and other systems), and we also wanted to take this data beyond the US.

With thanks for the initial efforts started by Bryan, we currently have data on almost 1,000 institutions in the US – including closure, virtual start, and Spring Break data -and as expected almost every school is going online. There are a handful of exceptions that prove the rule, such as two community colleges offering auto mechanic courses that remain in face-to-face delivery.

We will build out this data set over time to get full coverage in North America and to expand to additional global regions, but we wanted to share our initial analysis below. The data shown is for the US only, and it extrapolates from the sample of roughly 1,000 institutions. We are not including schools that already are 100% online – this data just shows schools forced to move fully online by COVID-19. We will share updates as we increase coverage, including a post on Canadian institutions by next week.

Data View Over Time

Some institutions closed for academic courses, often by extending Spring Break, before moving fully online. The data view below shows the status of US higher education institutions in Regular Delivery, Spring Break, School Closed, and Fully Online.

Percentage of US Higher Ed Institutions Moving to Fully Online Delivery of Traditional Face-to-face Courses During COVID-19 Crisis

With the first announcements of institutions shutting down f2f courses on March 6th, it appears that almost all moves to fully online delivery will have occurred by the week of April 6th (and just a handful of additional migrations over the following week). This four-week period shows remarkable adaptability by higher education institutions. What we are not seeing are mass closures through the spring academic term – schools are choosing to go online rather than to shut down operations beyond a transition period. While not shown fully in the graphic above, it appears that roughly half of schools chose some period of closure beyond Spring Break to help with the transition online.

We also can see that we have two spikes in the number of schools starting fully-online delivery – one on March 23rd and a second one on March 30th. This coming week will be a stress test of online platforms such as Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard Collaborate or the campus Learning Management System (LMS) are able to handle the massive increase in usage. It will also be a stress test on how ready institutions and faculty and students are for the new reality of online education as an emergency delivery method.

These are interesting times, to say the least. Stay tuned for more analysis of the data and commentary on the trends.


  • Pat James says:

    Hi Phil
    It’s so great that you are doing this, thank you!
    I would like to encourage colleges to consider what they want to learn from this experience and get some models going for collecting information about what worked and what didn’t —before disaggregation is a problem later.

    Also, I wish we would call conversion efforts “remote teaching” or “remote courses” rather than fully-online. I just have to say it because what we have been practicing as online education is so different than what is being shifted right now. We are working hard at reminding people not to judge the quality of online education by this remote work. “Fully-online” works here because you are speaking about data. I just felt the need to mention the difference. Forgive me!
    Thanks! Pat

    • Phil Hill says:

      heh – I’m getting lectured about that ‘remote’ vs. ‘online’ language by Kevin on a call right now.

      • Pat James says:

        We are a touchy bunch! Always a bit on the defensive and for good reason! However, the data collection models part is a real concern I have after our inability in the early days of the OEI Ecosystem being able to figure out what was working the best. Even though we had separate groups testing different components, they also had access to the course design rubric and were converting to Canvas (hence, revising courses by necessity). We couldn’t disaggregate the data and it would be hard now to find out what the result was in all of our system-wide online classes doing some refresh when they went to Canvas.
        Keep doing your great work!

  • Steve Addison says:

    Any trends that you are seeing with regard to experiential courses such as engineering lab courses?

    • Phil Hill says:

      Steve, I don’t have data on experiential course trends, unfortunately. I have seen discussions around schools scrambling to consider tools like Labster but without the type of consensus as seen around Zoom for synchronous video sessions.