Would Higher Ed go back 'offline' again?

Online Replaces College
The pandemic made the universities scramble into online education. What happens next is the question.

One line of thought is that this is just a temporary disruption. Life will return to normal, perhaps in 6 to 12 months time, and the classes will resume. Online will disappear to the margins, where it was.

The other is that this is an irreversible loss of innocence. The rubicon has been crossed and a new normal has emerged. Even when this pandemic is behind us, we will never go back again to education-as-usual.

Temporary disruption

Indeed, it is perfectly logical to see the pandemic-induced online surge as temporary. As we live through imposed constraints, it's hard to imagine anything to be long term. The changes have happened overnight and we have had little time to adjust to it. We are hoping this will pass - soon - alongwith all its relics and practices.

It is also true that online education has failed to live up to the hype. Universities and colleges went into poorly prepared, assuming, as technology companies wanted them to do, that moving classes online is a simple matter of Zooming the lectures. That online learning is a different thing and needs careful consideration of students' surrounding and their experiences has not been fully appreciated.

The poor experience that this created has made students demand refund of their fees. The shortcomings of this enforced online experience were too apparent and stood out to be a poor alternative of the real thing. Besides, the universities and the professors themselves treated this as a temporary solution too - hoping and promising both the students and itself that normalcy would be restored as soon as possible.

But the trouble is that the virus may never go away. Genie is out of the bottle, perhaps! It may take a long time - if ever - to get back to education-as-usual. And, in the meantime, while the 'normal' remains in a limbo, online may improve and new, more thoughtful, solutions may emerge.

A New Normal

This is the basis of thinking that this pandemic could be a pivot in Higher Education. This period of constraints will allow new solutions to emerge. That the usual things are not possible will create space for the emerging ideas to stand out and gain traction. The attention to the online offerings will eventually sweep away the hastily cobbled online classes that we do today; a new generation of tutors, who do not apologise for their lack of familiarity with Skype, will come about; frameworks and content will be adjusted to online delivery - and soon, sooner than we found a way out of the pandemic, there will be viable online alternatives on offer.

This could also be a more profound change than just more sophisticated platforms and online-ready course delivery. The profound changes in family life and work will also matter. Suddenly, everyone understands what work for home means, for starters. That strange possibility of the whole family in a single room working together is realised. Headphones and webcams are now household items; personal laptops are a necessity. For a long time, the evangelists of online learning focused on the supply side of the equation - better courses, cleverer platforms - and ignored the demand side of it. The pandemic has created the demand stimulus and at the least, enabled the material environment for better online learning. This should, in turn, stimulate a further round of supply-side innovations.

But whether this leads to an irreversible change of habit and creates new institutional forms at least as legitimate as the universities as we know it will depend on whether this emergent form addresses the value question appropriately. If limited to being the technology-enabled alternative of the classes that could not be held as usual, the online options will always be seen as deficient. However, if this becomes an entrepreneurial moment and unaddressed needs could be found and resolved, this will reshape the landscape.

New needs

Education needed a reset for more reasons than one. The work was changing. The society was becoming more unequal and with time, education became a factory of privilege rather than a guarantee of social mobility. The institutional form of education - schools, colleges, universities - creates value through scarcity and that artificial scarcity, in its turn, drives up costs of education without the corresponding productivity gains. Despite higher education's implicit promise of democratic inclusivity, its mechanism of exclusion has generated the opposite result - a democratic decline and rise to power of silver-tongued demagogues. Meritocracy exceeded its brief and encroached on civil rights, becoming the new excuse for deprievation. The mind-numbing failure to contain the Virus and protect our ways of life have highlighted these shortcomings - and as we slide in and out of the abyss, some fundamental education questions need to be asked. Not just about things universities did, but also about the things they did not, could not and would not do.

These are the real reasons the education may not go back 'offline' education. Not everything was alright and this opportunity now lets us see that. As we ask questions about all aspects of modern lives, we need to ask them about education too.

This loss of innocence may not be the original sin but rather the Promethean moment of lighting a fire.

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