Movie Theaters and Universities During COVID-19

How online learning saved higher ed.

Anyone interested in how higher education is navigating the pandemic should watch the CNBC video “Can Movie Theaters Survive Coronavirus?”

Things may be challenging for colleges and universities, as evidenced by the growing number of budget cuts and layoffs (particularly among staff). Still, in comparison to the movie theater industry, higher education is navigating COVID-19 extraordinarily well.

By Joshua Kim

AMC, the largest theater chain in North America, has seen a 99 percent drop in revenues from Q2 in 2019 ($1.5 billion) to Q2 of 2020 ($18.9 million). As revenue has fallen off for AMC during COVID, the company went from profitable in Q2 2019 to losing over $561 million in the second quarter of 2020. Cinemark, the second-largest movie theater chain, went from earning over $100 million in Q2 of last year to losing over $170 million in the same quarter during the pandemic.

How many theater chains and individual movie locations will survive COVID-19 is anyone’s guess. How the loss of theatrical release revenues during and after COVID-19 will impact the movie business, and to what extent substitutes such as streaming will replace these ticket sales, is also unknown.

Contrast the theater business with the business of higher education. While every movie theater was forced to close during the pandemic, and many remain shuttered or mostly empty, every college and university remained open for business. Sure, we did see the closure or merger of some schools, but the overall numbers (and proportions) remain relatively tiny.

COVID-19 may batter higher ed, but the pandemic has revealed just how resilient the sector is.

Why is the higher education industry faring so much better than the movie theater industry during the pandemic? Two words: online learning.

While we are very clear at our colleges and universities to distinguish between “remote” and “online” education during the pandemic, the reality is that the academic continuity (remote learning) would not have been possible without years of experience in online education. Colleges and universities could pivot to remote teaching, as we’ve had almost two decades of online learning.

This experience in online learning has taught us a great many things about educating students at a distance. The underlying technologies of online learning mostly become universal (the LMS and the synchronous online classroom). Most schools have faculty and staff who have some experience in creating and running online courses.

Pre-COVID, those faculty and staff were perhaps segregated in online learning units and concentrated in schools of continuing education or professional studies. But they did exist on campus. What COVID-19 has done is take the work of campus online units from the margins to the center of campus activities. Where pre-COVID-19 only faculty teaching online courses received training and support in online course development and teaching, during the pandemic, this training and support have been greatly expanded.

Not every school will have the resources to pair instructional designers and educational developers with professors. But most every school has invested significantly, in accordance with their resources, in making online learning training and support available to professors.

Might have the movie theater companies realized that they are in the movie-watching industry and not in the theater industry? Would this realization have caused theater companies to diversify their businesses to enable streaming under their own brands instead of ceding that market to Netflix and Amazon and the other streaming providers?

Higher education is in the learning and credentialing (and knowledge-creation) business, not in the physical campus business. Having physical campuses does and will contribute to the core missions of colleges and universities. Offering online courses and programs does not diminish an institution’s commitment to its core missions but instead expands abilities and options.

During COVID-19, it has been the ability to offer online courses (academic continuity through remote learning) that has ensured the higher education industry’s resiliency.

When we look back on COVID-19 (whenever that will be), one of the themes that will become apparent is just how supple, strong and tough the higher education industry is in general (and colleges and universities in particular) compared to most other sectors.