The Covid19 pandemic has initiated a seismic shift in higher education that is part of a radical re-shaping of systems across the globe. While many within and around academia seem to be under the impression that this is a temporary change and a return to ‘normal’ will shortly ensue, there are good reasons to expect and prepare for an entirely new normal.
The sudden large-scale move to remote instruction is forcing the question of value of educational entailments. Online education is sufficient, or at least this is the position that education institutions have to assert at this moment. Otherwise, they may have to be prepared to refund tuition for the last half the recent semester. In this assertion, however, is a tacit admission that much of what comes in an institution’s program ‘package’ is extraneous to the education itself. In the midst of what looks like a cascade of crises, in which the shackles of student debt are deeply entrenched, higher ed has some explaining to do. Regardless, at least for the moment, a great deal of elements deemed essential to higher education (such as physical classrooms and office buildings, for example) have been rendered superfluous. To be clear, the objective here is not to adjudicate which elements of higher education are superfluous and which are not. The simple objective is to point out that this adjudication process is undoubtedly underway as administrators face severe budget cuts and/or recognize the cost-saving benefits of eliminating legacy educational infrastructure.
Of course, settling for a sufficient education is underwhelming, and most will no doubt strive to be the best. Institutional brand and culture have been the primary tools of recruitment, and they have been built upon the material artifacts of geography, physical structures, and, yes, in-person real-life human beings. Students tour universities to get a ‘feel’ for the place, sizing up the football stadium, dormitories, and study halls while keeping an eye out for that superstar professor in their proverbial Gryffindor robes. Online learning has been around a while now, but, arguably, it has been primarily supplementary to the brick a mortar reality. The already crowded market for online learning is now super-saturated, at least momentarily, and should the elimination of legacy infrastructure take root, how will educational institutions create a viable and sustainable model in the new education order?
The way forward is a bit of an open question, but the current crisis has brought into full relief a couple of problems with some traditional education practices in the contemporary world. First, higher education seems to be increasingly fixed on information transfer as its primary mission, as diminished interest and investment in the more subjective areas such as the humanities attests. Professional development programs for faculty and emerging learning technologies seem to focus extensively on the best ways to engage students so that they encounter the ‘right’ information, store it effectively, and retain and retrieve it appropriately. That’s how one gets an A. If they can transfer this information from one context to another, they might even get an A+. Great emphasis has recently been put into active learning (gamification, for example) and high impact practices (research, internships, service learning, for example), but the utility of these seems to remain focused on finding the best approach to efficiently and effectively get the ‘right’ information into the student.
Information transfer is a questionable primary objective now because a student will likely encounter more information with their smartphone on the first page of a Google search than what they will retain from a full four-year degree. The assumption of this paradigm is that someone (aka the professor) knows what the ‘right’ information is that needs to be transferred, and that person polices successful/unsuccessful transmission/retrieval (read: learning) outcomes. This is a curator/gatekeeper approach to knowledge, and in an age of rapidly increasing and easily accessible information, a conduit can quickly become a bottleneck. In-person settings at least facilitate ancillary developmental components of interpersonal communication and relationship building, among other valuable things.
Another related problem is that if the information-transfer paradigm of education remains the primary focus there is a good chance that traditional institutions will find themselves awash in the saturated marketplace of online learning. The current crisis has prompted the need for educators to hastily convert traditional pedagogy into a remote world, and despite the best efforts of the undoubtedly well-intentioned, many have been thrown into an unfamiliar domain outside of their skill sets and comfort zones. Odds are that this situation will not produce the most competitive educational product. At least not fast enough. Traditional institutions suddenly have to compete in a domain already dominated by information giants, and without the accoutrements of the legacy infrastructure there is nothing for those giants to choke on. Why should one pay high tuition fees for a Zoom lecture if Lynda.com does a more effective job for a fraction of the cost? Should the present situation persist the result will be an ideal environment for the emergence of an Amazon of education, and while many may work towards that end and hope to be the ones on that trajectory, the stats of the matter are that they likely will not be. Like in any longtail enterprise, there will be only one Beyoncé. Only a few will make it big, and only the big will survive. Most will not.
One may point out that critical thinking is an important part of higher education, and this is surely a learning outcome cited in virtually all syllabi. However, one might argue that, given the fact that a student encounters this outcome in almost every course they take throughout their academic tenure, graduates should be downright experts in the practice. Either this expertise is not valued or not present as university graduates increasingly find themselves unemployed or underemployed upon completion of their program. While a worthy education objective, critical thinking is not likely the learning outcome that will save higher ed as digital education producers will no doubt find a way to tack this on to their course outcomes as well. This is not to dismiss this important function of higher education. This is only to suggest that it has not been effectively prioritized and/or made sufficiently visible so as to mark its value and become a bulwark against the ferocious appetite of the digital marketplace. Maybe this has simply been the result of poor marketing.
The goal here is not to paint a bleak picture just for the sake of it, and this analysis should in no way be interpreted as rooting for failure. Exactly the opposite is true. But, battening down the hatch of the old could very well be the seal of demise. In many ways the current crisis has been an opportunity to reflect on the aims of higher ed and chart the best way forward.
Traditionally, the role of higher education has been to cultivate engaged citizens, meet the needs of society and the economy, and try to explore questions of the world. All of these are still laudable and worthy of continued and even increased social and financial investments. The increasing complexity of the current era means that how these things are done needs to change, however.
To answer questions about the world there is a need for people with a diverse skill set capable of traversing multiple large knowledge domains. Covid19 is not simply a medical issue. It is a social-economic-biological-environmental-psychological (ad nauseam) issue. It is interdisciplinary. Information transfer alone will not suffice as answering questions about this issue requires one to be an effective information interface not merely an information repository in a single academic domain.
To address the needs of society and the economy there is a need for great agility as these are in constant and erratic flux. An army of contact tracers is needed at the moment, but a whole program or discipline is not necessary for that. Rather, there is a need to educate for adaptability and creativity, because who knows what jobs will be in demand next year or what innovative solutions will be required. The problems themselves are not yet apparent.
To encourage civic engagement is an objective needed now more than ever as the cascade of crises engulfs the globe, but peacemaking and worldview bridging are the current requisite skill sets. The big conflicts are no longer primarily between nation states. They are now rooted in local and virtual communities, and experts in creating common ground will surely be in high demand. This is perhaps one area where higher education can continue to shine and even increase its impact.
Humanity has spent eons mining the resources of the earth, but what if the new frontier was in fostering the knowledge, intelligence, and beauty of the human collective? What if the primary goal of higher education was to prioritize people over profits, cultivate the science of deep authentic relationships, to teach sophisticated tools of inclusion, collaboration and generative discourse? The power and ingenuity of the human spirit has already demonstrated its genius manifold, but it is jeopardized in a world reduced to mere information.
The one thing the information giants have not figured out yet is the art of human connection, and this era of social distancing has made this abundantly clear. People still need people. Meaning-making, narrative, care, ethics, love and similar ambiguous artifacts of the human condition are not yet subsumed in binary code, and so if higher education prioritizes these in its learning outcomes perhaps it has a really good shot at not only surviving, but thriving. Learn to build relationships, create and share stories, make meaning, work together, embrace difference and encourage diversity. If these exercises happen to involve learning to solve differential equations, so be it.