Wrong-way on a one-way track?
The COVID 19 outbreak has been Disruptor, Destructor and Designer all-in-one for its impact on the higher education sector and remote learning. In blind fashion, this scourge indiscriminately wafted through campus life and academic research networks, with little regard for how prestigious institutions or their more precariously-situated neighbours would see the new light of day.
The COVID 19 impact has been profoundly felt by faculty, college students and institutions alike in all but a few countries across the globe. The list of unaffected countries makes for a good travel bucket list, given how remote and sparsely populated most are. However, those same factors contribute to them not exactly being premier centres of higher learning.
Suffice to say, the critical mass of global tertiary educational institutions stood right in the middle of the tracks of this runaway train, with campus closures and the impatience of ‘invincible’ adolescents being central to the story of the COVID 19 outbreak spread and mitigation.
Women in academia, already struggling to find the academic work-life balance, in particular, bore the brunt as lockdowns bundled all family and work activity under one roof, just as the availability of support systems were fading.
As academic thought leaders stubbornly try adapting and picking up the pieces, with the rest of us nostalgically reminiscing about what life on campus used to be, it is worth pausing to ask whether higher education is just the frog in the boiling water blissfully bubbling towards extinction a-la-cuisses de grenouille? Or is there reason to concur with James Fallows as he writes in The Atlantic, that it is all a myth: The frog in the boiling water will scramble to get out once it gets uncomfortable?
What then are the positive outcomes of this COVID 19 pandemic that higher education institutions can build upon to leapfrog into a brighter future?
A Complete Re-Imagining: Snakes & Fruitflies
One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is the unwillingness to see any problem with the present. The COVID 19 pandemic had no tolerance for that kind of bias or blind spot. As emerging evidence quickly began to show how problematic it was to keep functioning with a business-as-usual mentality at higher education institutions, out came the pragmatists’ thinking caps.
In developing ways to manage remote learning, online classes and distance education, the structures created to deal with crisis management in these areas have become progressively institutionalised ‘problem-solving hubs’ that will strengthen the future capability of universities to improve and adapt. Two years ago, a higher education institution was typically in snakeskin mode, shedding seasonally by habit. Today, they are fruit flies, where the lifespan of ineffective ideas lasts less than 24 hours.
Consider the emergence of Integrated Nerve Centres. These structures popped up all over campuses as one of the best ways to act rapidly in as informed a manner as possible. The basic process by which they operate and become legitimised could replace staid university structures based on archaic hierarchies. They are nimble, representative of all stakeholders, work fast to discover information, create options, make decisions, and deliver results. If that description were part of a recruitment ad in a pre-COVID world, prospective students and faculty would have jumped at any university that described itself in such a way, not?
Indeed online education and the University of the Future will be a more adaptable and innovative place than where we were pre-COVID 19.
The Boom of Blended Learning
Consider how much you have learned about educational technology and online learning since this virus arrived. Multiply that learning by every person (faculty, student and administrator alike) involved in higher education. Add the current cohort of high school learners, too, as they will be knocking on your doors pretty soon. This scale of new skills acquired in such a short period is possibly unmatched in human history, perhaps only allowing for mobilisation of industrial production as part of war-time efforts.
With that kind of expansion, inventors and investors also pulled all plugs as the market opportunity for blended learning technologies presents massive returns. Over $2.2 billion was raised for new educational technology ventures in the US alone in 2020.
Culturally, despite initial resistance and many funny memes, society has grown to see the enormous potential of using edutech as the most efficient way to put people and ideas to work in the same space – virtual or physical. As put succinctly by a highly bespoke online provider of online schooling programmes: It is The New Mainstream.
The online migration also brought the digital divide into focus, within and across different nations. Governments and ICT service providers are addressing this inequality as a matter of urgency in many parts of the world. It would never have happened at this rate if it was not for the effect of Covid.
The University of the Future will offer increased faculty flexibility and student mobility, giving people a choice to work co-located or virtual, not based on personal preference, but based on what may be most effective and efficient in each context.
What the COVID 19 crisis took in terms of familiar local structures, gave back exponentially in the growth of new digital research and academic networks. As one would predict, the body of work in every academic institution and research field saw new questions coming to the fore due to the pandemic. In some areas, the urgency of finding answers and sharing preliminary data and results created interesting new partnerships and collaborations. It also forced the academic community to re-evaluate its position on the Open Access and peer review debate.
Within a very short period, many industries have adapted to this growth and change in networks, practice and culture. In academic publishing, we find some great examples.
The University of the Future will be less insular, less town/gown and more nodal in a global research and teaching network.
There is no escape from the truth that the COVID 19 pandemic has and will continue to ravish the world. This will be the once-in-a-lifetime experience your grandchildren may ask about many years into the future. But, the resilient species that we are, and working in an industry blessed with smart, curious, forward-looking and often romantically utopian colleagues, the higher education sector can only be the better for it in the long-run.
Systemic and institutional traditions that have become deadwood are being trimmed, allowing scarcer resources to go where they will have the most impact.
And even if you do not feel the same optimism, at least acknowledge that faculty meetings via Zoom have become much shorter and less adversarial. There is value in that…
© Pixabay 2021 / image: yogendras31