The fall semester of 2020 is like nothing we have seen before in higher education. Most colleges and universities in the United States are conducting classes either partly or fully online. Many students have chosen to defer or to forego their education completely. Many colleges and universities will suffer extreme financial stress; some–up to 345 colleges, according to one recent estimate–could be forced to close. Faculty are likely to face layoffs unprecedented in the history of U.S. higher education.
These seismic changes are both a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a long-delayed response to demographic and economic shifts. But they are also–subtly, and critically–the result of technological change. In fact, if we pull back from the immediate horrors of this moment, the move to online learning has actually been underway since around 2010, when universities and private entrepreneurs first began to experiment with Massive Open Online Courses, or