The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic is being talked of in higher education as a big experiment in teaching online but my observation is that two perspectives are emerging.
- Technology enthusiasts who have for many years evangelised that all of higher education should embrace technology are getting more exposure and informing bigger audiences of approaches and research which are well established and now getting more attention.
- ‘Online’ is second best, but has been ok in an emergency, and we’ll be back to normal as soon as all of this is over returning technology to ‘support’ learning on the fringes.
Of course there is a lot of nuance here and if we are going to talk of 2020 being a huge experimental lab for adoption of digital communication technology in higher education then we need to acknowledge that students on campus were not expecting campuses to be closed and universities had little notice to ‘pivot’ online.
Lots of good work was done before the pandemic in terms of advice and support from learning technologists and instructional designers and this fringe are now the conference headliners which produces the first discourse. The second discourse emerges from the ‘product’ and ‘experience’ of higher education which looks much more at the political and social move from tuition fees to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and more broadly referred to the marketisation and neoliberalisation of higher education.
Both of the discourses above treat technology, higher education and humans as separate entities. Terming technology and education as ‘virtual’ learning ignores the embodied nature of any learning and virtual feels like it’s not really learning in line with discourse 2. There is some more critical and connected views where these elements are pulled together as relational rather than substantial (treating technology and higher education as two seperate entities). This approach looks to assemblages and networks of interconnection between humans and non-humans.
Robots v humans
Here are two images that I think sum up the two divided discourses.
Playing out these two discourses for the post-pandemic university I see as problematic if digital technologies are going to be fully embedded into the infrastructure of higher education.
Bridging the gap between humans, technology and higher education in a more balanced manner will make a change in the post pandemic university. If they don’t discourse 1 will move back to the fringes and digital and remote aspects of learning will be seen as the mass produced ‘second best’ to further stratify the elite picture of higher education. Those of the discourse 1 stance need to acknowledge the social and political of the past and present as to how there work in the past can be moulded into something suitable for a brand new context.
If discourse 1 ignores these news stories which have dominated since the pandemic, any good work and advances made will be lost as students and parents see online as second best. Universities and politicians aren’t coming up with a response to these views of students and the public. Yes, this is an opportunity but the context is different to what has gone before and trying to create the Open University in a Russell Group university just won’t work.
Pre-pandemic, part-time undergraduate degrees were in steep decline and characterised as not the opposite of the elite on campus residential product in higher education. This may well have contributed to the reaction to remote and digital. It feels like as we emerge from enforced remote and digital approaches that there are several directions of travel. If both discourses can come together in a more relational way with infrastructures of technology, ways of working and promoting the benefits to the wider public then ALL students and staff will benefit. A continued argument and divide has the potential to reduce the digital and the remote to the second choice and further stratification.